Have Hope in God

“Have Hope in God”

1 John 3-2 like Him, stars

1 John 3:1-3 – November 3, 2019

Some days are everyday days. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill days, days where nothing particularly special happens. Some days are like that. We all are familiar with those kinds of days. But, today is a special day in the life of the Church. Not only in the life of this church on this corner, but in the lives of all churches that observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday.

The day for the commemoration of All Saints started only a few hundred years after the beginning of the Church on Pentecost, to remember all the saints who were persecuted as well as the martyrs who had died for their faith. “All Saints Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.[1]

But, what does that have to do with you and me, right here and right now? What about people who are still mourning, and grieving the loss of loved ones who have died? What can this day of remembering and commemoration possibly do for those who mourn and love and long for their loved one who has died?

I lost a dear brother last December, my brother Mike. His photo is on the table with the others, near the altar. Yes, this All Saints Day remembrance is personal for me, today. I think there might be some others here who have a very personal connection, and might even be struggling with their memories. That is the whole reason why we have gathered her today—to remember together, and to lift up these loved ones, along with all of the other friends in Christ who have died. Not only recently, but all throughout the years, throughout the centuries.

Instead of going with one of the primary Bible readings for All Saints Sunday, I felt drawn to an alternate reading, the second reading that Eileen read today. It is just a little, short reading, but it means a great deal to me. I will zero in on one particular verse, 1 John 3:2, where the elderly apostle John says Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

The elderly John has been traveling around for years—as best as he could—and preaching the Good News of his Master, Jesus Christ. He knows life has been tough for these scattered believers in Christ. So, he encourages them again and again in this letter.

How many people here have gotten discouraged? Perhaps you have been all alone, working at some thankless task. Or, perhaps no one is noticing you, and you feel left out, out in the cold? Or maybe even someone has been bugging you, pestering you for your faith, for standing up for what you believe in? Whatever sad or awkward situation you find yourself in, believe me, the apostles were familiar with a similar situation.

The apostle John was writing to some friends who had been dealing with some very difficult things, including the loss of some of their own congregation, their loved ones and friends. John specifically wants to lighten the hearts of his friends with these words.

Have you ever been down, and had someone blithely give you a super-sweet saying and just walk away without even seeing how you reacted to it? Perhaps even a verse of Scripture? I have. I had someone—thirty years ago, now—just breeze up to me and blurt out a verse of Scripture, and toddle away, oblivious that I was really hurting. I was devastated, and he did not notice me at all. He did not notice the true me, standing right there in front of him.

But, the apostle John is not that way at all. John hears the emotions of his friends, and he encourages them. John is honest and up front. He freely admits what he does not know. John does not know how Jesus will appear or what Jesus will be like when He returns. However, what John does know is that when Jesus does return, “we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I don’t know about you, but this verse gives me comfort. All of it. From John’s honesty in his not knowing, to his assurance that we shall see Jesus in that day, when Jesus returns. I do not know whether God will give us special insight, or whether our eyes will be changed to brand-new heavenly eyes. Regardless, John’s words reach down deep inside of me. John’s words comfort me in my mourning and grieving, and penetrate through my suffering and pain. John’s words encourage my heart, and give me heavenly assurance and hope.

As we remember all the saints, we might think of the “big” saints, like Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John, St. Luke or St. Paul, the apostles. However, I want to remind everyone that Paul in several of his letters refers to all believers as saints. We all are saints, every one of us. Young, old, big, small, believers of every race and kind and way of being.

For the closing hymn today, we will sing a lovely hymn. “A children’s hymn, popular in Great Britain, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” suggests that ordinary people, going about their business, can be saints, that is, revealers of God’s grace whose faithfulness changes the world.” [2]  I suspect that the apostle John would wholeheartedly agree with these words.

I love the letters of John, written in the New Testament. Simple words, simply written, but oh, such profound thoughts! Listen again to verse 2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I close with some gentle words from the Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She writes for this special day:

May the promise and hope of this All Saints Sunday lift you.

May the music carry you.

May the familiar words hold you, filling you with comfort and confidence.

May the flickering candles remind you of the light Christ is and ever shall be: a light which we, in turn, hold and carry and pass along.

Oh, may the mystery of promise and hope and grace surround you and fill you.

And may you have at least a moment when you can simply stand still and receive all that God has for you. [3]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/christianyear/all-saints-day/

[2] https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/10/remembering-all-saints

Remembering All Saints, Bruce Epperly, Patheos, 2010.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-sunday-standing-still-in-the-mystery/ 

@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!

Keeping the Faith

“Keeping the Faith”

2 Tim 4-7 kept faith, purple

2 Timothy 4:6-9 – October 27, 2019

Happy Reformation Sunday! Yes, we celebrate and commemorate the beginning of the Reformation on the last Sunday of October each year. It is that time of year when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, or complaints, against the Catholic Church. He put them up on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology, on All Hallows Eve, 1517—or, Halloween, October 31st.

Among other things, Martin Luther wanted the Catholic Church to be faithful to God in many practices. Being faithful was really important to Martin Luther! You know who else being faithful was important to? The Apostle Paul. Eileen read the end of the second letter Paul wrote to Timothy, and Paul strongly stressed being faithful to God. Just like him. Just like Martin Luther. Just like countless saints throughout the centuries. Keeping the faith, through thick or thin, through good times or bad, no matter what.

I always get sad when I read the second letter to Timothy, and especially the fourth chapter. That is the part where Paul is being up front with Timothy. He realizes he does not have very much time left here in this world. Paul was in prison in Rome for the second time, and this time, Paul did not have much hope of being freed. This is one of the last letters he expects to write to his good friend and protégé Timothy. What kinds of important things does Paul say in these last few paragraphs?

When other people know they are going to die soon—because of illness or other tragedy, somehow time becomes much more precious. Their internal and external focus becomes more acute. I think this was happening with the Apostle Paul, right here, where he told Timothy what was most on his heart.

What did he want to communicate to Timothy? Looking at this last chapter, we find so much on Paul’s mind. I would like to focus on two verses in chapter 4: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul had been through the wringer, as we read when Paul wrote about many of his experiences in the second letter to the church at Corinth. He lists that he has been put in prison repeatedly, been whipped, beaten with rods, given thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecked, then adrift on the sea for a day and a night, not to mention being cold, starved and thirsty repeatedly, in danger and on the run from all manner of people, for years at a time. What is more, Paul said he would do it all again for the sake of preaching the Good News, and knowing Jesus Christ crucified.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Paul describe everything he has been through, I am in awe. And yes, I feel so insignificant, so unworthy even to be in Paul’s presence. Paul’s whole life is one huge example of keeping the faith.

As we come forward through the centuries, and learn more about Martin Luther, we can see that for years Martin was on the run from a bunch of different groups and from people sent by the Catholic Church. These wily guys wanted to prosecute Luther before a church court, and he argued his case again and again. Martin Luther was put through the wringer repeatedly.

True story: 1521, Martin was put on trial yet again, and finally offered the “opportunity” to say he recanted what he said and had written. Luther knew his response would get him in even deeper trouble, but that did not stop him. He boldly told the emperor, his officers and some leaders of the Catholic Church that he would not move. Martin said he was captive to the Bible, the Word of God, and he could not go against God. Many people remember Martin’s famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin kept the faith and stayed true to God.

Have you—have I—ever felt put through the wringer for the sake of Jesus Christ? Just thinking about what the Apostle Paul and what Martin Luther went through, being put through the wringer is definitely not fun. Standing up for what is right and Godly and the God-honoring thing to do, or a certain way to pray, or even a specific way to worship God? All over the world, for centuries, any of these things could get you imprisoned or perhaps even executed. I am serious. This is not a joke.

According to Professor Dirk Lange, “Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.” [1] God-given and God-planted faith helped Paul and Martin to keep on going, and to keep the faith. Can that God-given faith help us to continue on, as well?

Professor Michael Jackson had such an intriguing idea about this verse. Let me share it with you: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… all three verbs are in the perfect [tense]. Even though Paul is still alive and writing these words, he views his life lived for Christ as complete… and as my Greek teacher, Roger Hahn always loved to point out for the perfect tense – completed action that has continuing and ongoing repercussions… I like that idea – our finished lives continue to speak, to influence, to make a difference in the lives of those we have served. That’s how we leave a legacy!” [2]

Whether we have been on this earth only a few years or are in the later decades of life, how have our lives been used for God? What kind of legacy are you and I leaving? Have we—as Paul commanded Timothy—fought the good fight? Finished the race? Kept the faith in Christ Jesus? These are not simple questions. They are reflection questions, questions to ponder, and questions that I hope and pray we all bring to God.

I would like to close with some words of reflection from Joseph, Cardinal Bernadin, Cardinal of this Chicago archdiocese for a number of years. He was diagnosed with a rapidly moving cancer, which took his life. In the months before he died, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a final, short book: The Gift of Peace. I’ve read it, and it is so poignant.

I would like to read from the last chapter. “As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that is very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace…. I will soon experience life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve Him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, He is now calling me home.” [3]

So similar to what Cardinal Bernadin wrote, Paul tells us God is leading him home, in these verses we are considering today. Just like Martin Luther, Paul tells us to keep the faith, just as he did. Just as Martin Luther kept the faith, just as Cardinal Bernadin did, too.

What is Paul’s charge to all of us, on this Reformation Sunday? Keep the faith. Know the faith, preserve the faith and see that faith in God gets passed on.

God willing, I will follow Paul’s charge. Will you, too?

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Pentecost 22C, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=740

[2] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Michael Jackson | Associate Professor of Homiletics, TNU | A Plain Account, 2016, http://www.aplainaccount.org/copy-of-proper-25c-psalm

[3] Bernadin, Cardinal Joseph, The Gift of Peace, (Image Book: New York NY, 1998) 151-52.

@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, Holy, Holy!

“Holy, Holy, Holy!”

Isa 6-3 sanctus-holy-holy-holy

Isaiah 6:1-8 (6:3) – May 27, 2018

Today is Trinity Sunday. In the children’s message, we talked about a straightforward way of understanding the Trinity. The theological concept of the Trinity is an idea that has been and still is misunderstood—for centuries. Christians and non-Christians alike just plain do not understand it. Even knowledgeable ministers and bible scholars have problems talking about it clearly. That is one reason the children’s message about the concept of the Trinity was stated the way it was.

The simple idea behind the children’s message is an idea that can work for us adults, too.

Jesus said to approach Him as little children. He was talking to adults at that particular time. He meant that piece of advice to go for His disciples, His followers, and anyone else who was thinking about following Him. This can work in terms of the theological idea of the Trinity, as well. What’s a good way to talk or think about the Trinity?

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, observes Trinity Sunday as one of her favorite Sundays of the year. She says: “It is God Sunday. The call is not to explain God but to celebrate God’s mysterious, more-than-we-can-ever-explain presence.  What could be better!” [1]

As we consider God’s unsearchable mystery and God’s awe-inspiring power and might, we all can look at God from a child’s point of view. We might even think about “the unanswerable questions people of all ages ask about God, such as but definitely not limited to:

  • What was God doing before God created the world?
  • How can there never be a time before or after God?
  • How can God pay attention to each person in the world all the time?” [2]
  • Why did God create rattlesnakes and mosquitoes? Along with spiders, sharks, viruses, earthquakes, and volcanos?

 

Let’s look at the Hebrew Scriptures. There have been hints of the Trinity from the very beginning. Think of the first chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And, the beginning of the Gospel of John that starts “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”

Imagine a universe still and dark. Imagine a solar system just before it was going to spring into being, with nothing hung in space—yet. Imagine a place where the earth will orbit, but nothing there, yet. Except—the spirit of God—the Holy Spirit hovering, ready to hold the newly-born earth in loving embrace. Imagine the Word, the Logos, the creative force of God, speaking forth the whole of creation with astronomical power and might. Not only the earth, but also our solar system. Not only our solar system, but all other solar systems. And stars. And meteor showers. And quasars, and black holes, and everything else that is in the universe.

Traditionally speaking, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit had differently described roles in different expressions of the creation of the universe.   

As we look more closely at both of these passages, Genesis 1 and John 1, we see God created the universe in the beginning. Genesis tells us that God spoke, and the world came into being. The Word, the Logos, the pre-Incarnate Son was the powerful Word spoken at the beginning of all things. And then, the Holy Spirit—or the spirit of God—described as moving over the surface of the waters, holding the earth secure. Can you begin to understand what a mind-blowing image that was?

We continue to get glimpses of this Triune God in our sermon passage for this morning, where the prophet Isaiah has a sweeping, magnificent vision of the heavenly Temple of God.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

                    As Isaiah describes it with vivid word pictures, I think his vision sounds fearsome, and glorious, and terrifying. But, that’s not all! “And the angels were calling to one another:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

This passage from Isaiah 6 contains important liturgical language:. Did you recognize that language? “Holy, Holy, Holy!” This is called “the Sanctus. The song is an acclamation from the congregation honoring the presence of the Lord. The minister celebrating communion has just said, “The Lord be with you… lift up your hearts… let us give thanks…” and then prayed a prayer of acknowledgment (the Preface) for what God has done in language that calls up the time of the church year.”

We find out more—in another way—about how great and mighty and powerful this God is, by looking at the Psalm passage from today’s lectionary.

Psalm 29 deals with the mighty powers of God in nature and in the crashing sounds, stunning displays and fearsome descriptions Eileen read to us.  “For the psalmist, the storm is a symbol not of the power of nature, but rather of the power and sovereignty of Israel’s God. Seven, the number of completeness, is significant [in this psalm]. Israel’s God is completely powerful and ultimately sovereign. There can be no competing claims.” [3] Just in case anyone was wondering, that is. God is the ultimate in power, majesty and glory.

In the New Testament, God the Word, God the Logos becomes incarnate; He is born and grows to adulthood as the son of Mary, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Anointed One, the Lamb of God chosen before the foundations of the earth, the Prince of Peace revealed to us in the Gospels of the New Testament.

Remember last week, when we celebrated Pentecost, the birthday of the Church? That was the expected coming of the Holy Spirit in each believer’s life, in great power and might. The Holy Spirit blew powerfully into the lives of the assembled persons praying. The Holy Spirit ignited their hearts and minds to go forth and tell others about the might and power of God, in raising Jesus from the dead with resurrection power, and saving us from our sins.   

Is there any wonder that we are likely to fall on our knees as we sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy?” As we consider the word holy the most special and important, set-apart, and awesome aspect of God. We reflect on the Trinity as we sing this hymn:

First, we praise God. Second, everyone in heaven praises God. Third, even though we do not fully understand God, we praise God anyway!.And last, everyone and everything on earth praises God. [4]

There are not enough superlatives to even begin to describe God. We do not have enough glorious, magnificent words fit to praise God. Our vocabulary falls far short.

Why don’t we consider the words of the heavenly beings in Isaiah 6, and close today with the words of the angels from Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”

Amen. Alleluia. Praise be to the Trinity, Eternal One in Three, Three in One.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/04/year-b-trinity-sunday-may-31-2015.html

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

[2] Ibid, Worshiping with Children.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2453   Commentary, Psalm 29, J. Clinton McCann, Trinity Sunday, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[4] Ibid, Worshiping with Children.

 

@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!)

All Who Call on God’s Name

All Who Call on God’s Name

Acts 2-3 pentecost

Acts 2:1-21 (2:21) – May 20, 2018

Reporting to you live, down the street from Temple Square, scattered reports are streaming in to our news desk. The reports are all about the huge commotion affecting almost everyone: the local people in downtown Jerusalem as well as the yearly visitors in town for the Passover festival.

What facts we have been able to piece together give an incomplete picture. But, most reports agree that something significant happened today, involving several violent gusts of wind, some flames that appeared out of nowhere, and just as quickly disappeared, and a veritable Babel of tongues from the gathering crowd, as a result. We will keep you updated on this developing story as more information comes in.

What would the modern-day media have to say about the happenings on that first day of Pentecost? Might their stories have sounded a bit like this?

Of course, you and I have heard about this account from the first day of Pentecost over and over again. But—what if this news from the streets of Jerusalem was indeed new to us?

If reported by today’s news outlets, these accounts of strong wind, tongues of fire, and unfamiliar languages sound out of control. Wild, raging, unsettling, untamed. What kind of occurrence is happening in Jerusalem—and beyond? Something definitely out of control. Out of human control, at least.

Let’s go to the end of today’s scripture reading, and listen to what Peter preached: “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That is surely beyond human control, too.  Plus, this reading can have a great deal to say to us on this Mental Health Awareness Sunday, too.

 

“Let’s begin with the last part – all who call on the Lord are saved. Did you hear this? It says “all.” There’s no comment on who has “right” theology, “right” behavior, “right” thinking, or the “right way” of living. It also doesn’t say that those who struggle with physical or mental illness have no place in the Body of Christ. This strange story of the first Pentecost says clearly that salvation, the Love of God shown in Christ, is for all people.” [1]

Do you hear? Salvation is not only for some people, or even for most people. What about  salvation only for people with sight or with hearing? Or, only for those who are left-handed, or for those who are right-handed. What of those people who only can speak one language, instead of those who can speak several? Or, is salvation only for those who grow up on “the right side of the tracks?” What about the rest of the people who grew up elsewhere?

I have spoken from the pulpit and from the front of the church about God’s ideas of equality, any number of times. The kind of equality that the apostle Paul talks about in Galatians chapter 3: “28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, what about people with mental health challenges? Is salvation also for these people? Are those with mental health challenges—and their families and loved ones—beloved children of God, too? The account of Pentecost in Acts indicates a whole different kind of truth.

“Imagine what we would say if somebody told us this story today. If someone came into our worship and said that they saw flames of fire above our heads, we might dismiss it as a hallucination. If they told us that they heard a sound of mighty and rushing wind, we might say the same thing. Then if they added that they heard us speaking in languages not our own, we would just shake our heads and turn away, if not back away in fear. How wrong we would be!

 

Maybe we can consider the Pentecost narrative as invitation to welcome, include, support, and engage persons who live with mental illness, and their loved ones. Let’s face it, those disciples don’t sound particularly well in this story. Yet, God did not abandon them. God didn’t turn them away. God included them in the building of the early church. They might have had some unusual experiences and some unique ways of being in the world, but God used them to create the Body of Christ that we are all a part of.

What if this story isn’t only a story about the mysteries of the Holy Spirit, but also a story of extravagant welcome? And if we add to this Paul’s account from Romans of the Holy Spirit’s care, concern and love for each of us, we get such a powerful promise of inclusion and new life.

No brokenness, no illness is beyond the reach of our loving God. The breath of the Holy Spirit gives all of us life. God transforms our bony, broken, despairing lives by knitting us all together into the Body of Christ. We can all find wholeness and hope when we come together in the name of the One who Loves us all…” [2]

Alleluia, amen.

 

@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!)

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways  Mental Health Sunday, Pentecost, May 20, 2018

[2] I have borrowed freely for my sermon today from the Sermon Starters in the Worship Ways of the United Church of Christ. Yes, today is Mental Health Awareness Sunday as well as Pentecost Sunday. May we all help to become more aware, more caring, and more welcoming of all people, including those with mental health challenges and their loved ones. #EraseTheStigma

http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways  Mental Health Sunday, Pentecost, May 20, 2018

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!)

On the Lookout

“On the Lookout”

Matt 2-11 Adoration_magi_Pio_Christiano_4th cent. sarcophagus, Vatican museum

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 7, 2018

Christmas Day has been over for two weeks. To modern-day Americans, this was a long time ago! But the full holiday isn’t really over on December 25th. There are the twelve days of Christmas (remember the song about the twelve days?), during which many would have parties and feasting and especially Twelfth Night celebrations.

As we think of Nativity scenes or paintings, how often do we see them with shepherds and sheep, as well as the three wise men? All of them at the same time visiting the baby Jesus in the manger?  That is not quite the way it was, as presented in the Gospels. We are all familiar with the Nativity narrative from Luke chapter 2, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered.”

For the visit of the wise men, we need to turn to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [or, wise men] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the One who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

Here we have some wise men—probably noblemen who know a great deal about stars and constellations. They have been studying the heavens for years and years, as well as studying religious books and writings. Just as it says in the gospel record, a great sign (or star) rose in the sky, so these wise astrologers knew that something momentous was going to happen.

These wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish wise men, but instead were Gentiles. Non-Jews. “Could an unusual phenomenon in the night skies have caught the attention of some of them—interest in the stars was legendary in the region—and led them to set out to Jerusalem? That people of other lands and religions are drawn to Jesus, even as a child, is also significant: in Christ, God is speaking to the hearts and minds of all people.” [1] It is important to point out that they were on the lookout and knew which way to go—towards Jerusalem. And, eventually, they turned up at the palace, on King Herod’s doorstep.

What was King Herod’s response to the question of these noble Gentile wise men? “When Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” “Why was Herod so frightened? Of a baby? What did he have to lose and how did he see this baby as a threat?” [2]

For the how and the what, we need to look at Herod’s psychological profile, which is not nice at all. He was bloodthirsty, cruel, narcissistic, and always on the lookout for trouble brewing that might affect him. Herod was installed as a puppet king of Israel by the Roman overlords. I suspect he did not feel very secure to begin with. When he heard about a newborn King of Israel, you can imagine how his anxiety level rose. Herod did not want any rival claim to the throne.

Herod is sneaky, and sly, and ruthless. Listen to his response to these wise men: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

That leads me to ask some uncomfortable questions. We know Herod was threatened by the thought of a newborn King. Are we threatened by the thought of Jesus? Does the newborn King make us anxious? We know that cruel King Herod had horrible plans ahead for the boy babies and toddlers in the area of Bethlehem. But, are our motives clear when we think of our fear and anxiety concerning strangers and visitors coming into our hometown?

A telling observation comes from Dr. David Lose: “Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.” [3]

What about any self-interest we might have? We know King Herod was a prime hypocrite. But, is there any hypocrisy in our words and actions, when we think of how we treat strangers, visitors from far away? Serious questions, requiring serious thought.

We follow the wise men as they leave Jerusalem and go to Bethlehem. Remember what brought them on this journey in the first place? They had seen a star in the heavens, and by consulting their books of ancient wisdom, they knew that a King had been born. They followed that star, that Light.

We don’t know, and we cannot tell for sure, but perhaps one of the books the wise men consulted was the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Chapter 60 begins: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and His glory appears over you.” Maybe this was one of the ancient writings they poured over.

On Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, we sing about the wise men from the East. “We three kings, of Orient, are.” What is the chorus of that Christmas—actually, Epiphany—carol? “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Although they were Gentiles, they still recognized that the one who was born the king of the Jews was worthy of worship. And, they came to the house where the Holy Family was staying, and offered Him gifts fit for a King.

Here in the United States in many Protestant denominations, Epiphany is not that big of a deal. Yes, the coming of the wise men is incorporated into many Christmas pageants, and is found in nativity scenes and Christmas cards. Except—I want to let everyone here know that this is a totally separate event. The coming of Light into the world—so beautifully mentioned at the beginning of the gospel of John—is the whole meaning behind our celebration of Epiphany.

One of the grand symbols of God is that of Light. Mentioned repeated throughout the Bible, when we picture Light we can think of a star, the sun, a candle, a lamp. We have the Advent wreath lit today, with the Christ candle in the middle letting us know that Jesus is with us right now. We lit those candles on the Advent wreath one by one, and on Christmas Eve lit the Christ candle to remind ourselves that God our Light is always with us. And, at the end of our service today the light from the candles behind the communion table will travel down the central aisle and out the back door to call worshipers to follow the Light of God out into the world. [4]

As the wise men followed the star—the Light—to worship the Child in Bethlehem, so we can follow Him, the True Light. The shining Star of our hearts is the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know He is with us today? He opens His arms wide to all who would come. Come worship the True Light, the Child born in Bethlehem, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2012-01-01

“Jesus, Herod, the Magi and Us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2012.

[2] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/gold-frankincense-myrrh-alyce-mckenzie-01-03-2013.html

“Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh,” Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509  “An ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story,” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2013.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-epiphany-monday-january-6-2014-or.html

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

@chaplaineliza

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