Transfigured? Frightened!

“Transfigured? Frightened!”

Mark 9:6 (9:6-7) – February 11, 2018

Jesus Transfiguration Georgian relief Luke 9

Transformations can be quite a surprise. For example, when a run-down house gets a top-to-bottom rehab job over weeks or months, the house can be really transformed. Or, when someone is diligent over time with diet and exercise, and loses a lot of weight, they can be really transformed, as well. People can be surprised and impressed when they see the stunning changes that happen, gradually. These kinds of transformative changes can take a while.

The type of stunning change that happened in our Gospel reading today did not take weeks or months. Instead, our Gospel writer Mark talks about the transformation happening suddenly. Or, to use one of Mark’s favorite words: immediately.

We need to set the scene. Just previous to this reading, in Mark chapter 8 Jesus asks His disciples who others say that He is, followed by who the disciples think He is. Peter makes the great statement “You are the Messiah.” It is then that Jesus predicts His death. He starts to tell His disciples that He will have to suffer, be rejected and die, and then rise after three days. All of which must have been difficult to understand for the disciples.

I can relate to the followers of Jesus. Jesus was a charismatic leader, and many people listened to Him, and even followed Him. However, some of the things Jesus said were clear out of their experience. Even with all of the biblical revelation, evidence and commentary that we have nowadays, some of the statements of Jesus are still a challenge for us to understand, today. I can relate to the disciples’ confusion and puzzlement!  

A few days after the confession of Peter and all this big stuff happening, Jesus decides to go for a day trip, up on the top of a mountain. He asks only three of His disciples to come with him: Peter, James and John. After they reach the mountaintop, Jesus suddenly is changed. Transformed. Or, as the Gospels tell us, Jesus is transfigured. This is a state of God’s heavenly glory, suddenly appearing all around Jesus, making His clothing whiter than anyone has ever seen. If that is not enough, the glorified Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah.

Can you see the picture? Imagine a huge, bright spotlight shining on Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Plus, there are more small spotlights all around, and the background surrounding them is all backlit. Except—the people of Jesus’s time have never even heard of electricity. All of this super-white light and super-white clothing is supernatural. Of heavenly origin.

I am reminded of the heavenly glory that surrounded Moses on top of Mount Sinai. Moses was no stranger to heavenly whiteness and brightness. He was in the presence of the Lord God Almighty for many days. And, Elijah—going up to heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses? That must have been a heavenly experience of light and glory, too. Much less being in heaven, in God’s presence for centuries at that point.

Moses and Elijah were the premier representatives of the Jewish people, of the Jewish law code and the voice of the prophets. Revered by millions of Jews since their time. And, on top of that, they were in the presence of the suddenly-glorified Lord Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that mere humans Peter, James and John were all shaking in their shoes?

I discovered a fictionalized conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah, from that mountaintop that Mark tells us about. This conversation comes from Pastor Joyce, written in 2003, from a commentary website I visit on occasion. Listen to this conversation:

Elijah: Look at these stubborn and fearful people. How do you get these children to honor God?

“Moses: And how do you teach them to love each other? God knows I tried. I brought God’s law down from the mountain top. It is very clear. The simple commandments tell them how to love and honor God and how to live together in mutual love and respect.

But right after I told them how to live, they began complaining about God and began to worship false idols. The law told them not to betray or disrespect others. Yet, the powerful continued to grasp for more wealth and power. Foolish people they thought that would give them security. But for these things they have to oppress the weak. Then the fighting starts. It can lead to killing.

“Elijah: Well, I warned them. I told King Ahab and the people not to worship false idols. I challenged 450 prophets of Baal and they died on the mountain top. But today, people still worship the idols they create: power, material possessions, and the comfort they bring. But they do not receive satisfaction from them. NO! How do we teach people to find the real thing — joy in relationships with God and with each other?

“Jesus: God sent you, Moses, to give the law.  God sent you, Elijah, and other prophets to warn the people of how they are harming themselves. Now God has sent ME… I will live among these rebellious people for a while. I will love them and I will die for them. These men you see before you, and those who follow them, will carry on my work of reconciliation to God and humankind.

“Moses: These men? Look, they are dumbstruck. They are frail. They are confused.

“Elijah: Good joke, Jesus. Now… tell us your real plan.

“Jesus: I have no other plan.

“Elijah: But how will they find the wisdom and the strength?

“Jesus: Ahhh… I will be with them.” [1]

Did everyone hear? Jesus promised to be with the disciples, a number of times. Not only with the disciples, but with all of His friends and followers.

It’s true that Peter—good, old foot-in-mouth Peter—made some sort of confused and excited offer to build three little booths or mini-altars there, on top of the mountain. Yes, with our 20/20 retrospect, we can laugh at Peter’s fumbling and falling all over himself. But, wouldn’t we be in the same boat? What if there were a heavenly visitation right here, right now? Boom! Cue the bright lights! The glorified Jesus, here in our midst, here at St. Luke’s Church!

The thing is, Jesus could have stayed there, on that mountaintop, with Peter, James and John. Relatively safe, and the mountaintop could have become a pilgrimage site, renowned throughout the world. But, no. Jesus knew He had to walk the way of the Cross. He knew we, His followers and friends, had to come down from that mountaintop, too.

The disciples did not just slink away and hide. No, they went out after the Resurrection and Ascension and after Pentecost, and they turned the world upside down with the Good News of the risen Lord Jesus. It was not all sweetness and light for the disciples, or for the other followers of Jesus. No, many of them had a very difficult time. Yet, Jesus was with them.

Today, we don’t permanently live on the mountaintop, either. Yes, we often walk through the dark valleys. Yes, there is sorrow and pain in our lives. As David Lose says, the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Religious and political quarrels of the day. Jealousies and rivalries both petty and gigantic. Into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of all of our lives. [2] Yet—Jesus is right by our sides, too. Yes, in the good times, and yes, in the not-so-good, even sorrowful times, too.

Do you hear? Jesus will be with us, in good times and bad. We can take comfort in that. We can celebrate. Praise God. We are not left alone and friendless. What a friend we have in Jesus, indeed. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1563

“He Came Down,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

@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!)

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We See Your Salvation

“We See Your Salvation”

Luke 2-30 Simeon words

Luke 2:22-40 (2:30) – December 31, 2017

Many of us had a marvelous celebration last week for the Christmas holidays. Gatherings with extended family and friends, special parties and programs, holiday concerts and pageants, often ending with the caroling around the fireplace. And the stockings hung with care, and mounds of gaily wrapped presents around the Christmas tree.

But, too soon after the grand holiday, the main event, and the wonderful days of celebrations, everything is ended. The crumpled wrapping paper is in the trash, the many leftovers packed in the refrigerator. The unexpected visitors have gone home, and we have returned back to the plain old mundane, ordinary routine. What happens now? What next?

Mary and Joseph might have been wondering a similar thing. After the marvelous birth announcement given to the shepherds by the chorus of the heavenly hosts, and after the impromptu visit by the shepherds and others to the newborn Baby in Bethlehem, what happens now? What next? Great question! What does happen?

Reading from the second chapter of Luke: “22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took the child to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

We are told that Mary recuperates and takes the time prescribed for mothers of a first-born son from Leviticus chapter 12. Then, she and Joseph bring Jesus up to the Temple for the Child’s dedication. The Mosaic Law Code is very specific about what needs to be done for a first-born son: forty days after the birth, the parents of the newborn son take their Child to present Him before the Lord.

Now that the grand celebration of the birth is over, Mary and Joseph get down to the ordinary, everyday matter of living. The main way they do that is to follow the laws and rules prescribed for them in the Mosaic Law Code. The laws and rituals of the Jewish people were ancestral traditions. It’s pointed out that these “are a reminder to [the parents] that Jesus is born in the context of the covenant established between God and the people Israel.” [1]

The Jewish people were supposed to be sensitive to the Holy God, and this rite of purification in the Temple is a reminder of that relationship to God. “One way a woman encounters the holy is through the miracle of giving birth. It is a holiness which belongs to and describes the natural rhythm of life.” [2]

Our Gospel writer Luke breaks in right here with a new figure in his narrative. A cameo appearance by a guest star, if you think of things in terms of television or movies, in the birth narrative of Luke chapter 2. We meet the older man Simeon, and we find out about his backstory.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took Him in his arms and praised God.”

It is similar to what we covered in the weeks of Advent this year. In the midweek bible study during December, we studied the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew chapter 1. Pretty dry stuff, all of those names, and all of those “begats.” So-and-so the son of the other guy, the grandson of such-and-such. Genealogies were extremely important to the Jewish people, because keeping an orderly and exact account of who was related to whom helped cement the lines of ancestry and inheritance.

Except—the genealogy of Jesus had some surprises. Four women were mentioned in Matthew’s account. We studied the backstory of each of those four women, and found out exactly why each one was included in the genealogy of Jesus. In Luke’s birth narrative, he tells us some backstory, so we can find out exactly what the godly man Simeon is doing here.

Luke tells us that Simeon is called “just and devout,” and was waiting for the dawning of the kingdom of God – “the consolation of Israel”. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. He now sees the fulfillment of this promise. In the power of the Spirit, he sings a song of praise and utters a prophecy concerning Jesus. [3]

What a marvelous expression of faith and trust in God comes from Simeon. He sings to God: “29 “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You may now dismiss Your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 which You have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about Him.”

Sizeable words spoken about someone so small. Here we have the baby Jesus, and His mother and adoptive father did marvel at such weighty words!

However, Simeon is not finished yet. He prophecies after this wonderful expression of song. “34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, His mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Serious, solemn words, indeed. Simeon has waited for his whole life for this very moment. After years and decades of expectation and longing, the Messiah has finally arrived. What is more, Simeon spontaneously blesses Mary and Joseph, too, along with Jesus.

Simeon was right there, at the beginning, with Jesus as a baby. He gave witness that Jesus was as foretold, by many prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus had the greatest future, here at the beginning of the Greatest Story Ever Told. “We are left in anticipation to watch as the Child grows strong, filled with wisdom and blessed with the favor of God.” [4]

Where are each of us in our understanding of Emmanuel, God being with us? Is this narrative from Luke just a fairy story, suitable only to be shared with children every December at the holidays? Or, is it more than that? Have we heard the Good News from the angels and are waiting for more assurance, more evidence that the Messiah has come to earth?

The faithful servant of God, Simeon, was waiting at the Temple for years.  He was waiting and hoping for the Messiah, the chosen One of Israel. When we come to church today, do we expect to have an encounter with the Messiah? We fall on our knees with those who came to worship. Jesus has his arms open wide to welcome all who would come to Him. Come to Jesus, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207

Commentary, Luke 2:22-40, Holly Hearon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/christmas1bg.html

“Jesus Grew in Wisdom and Stature,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207

Commentary, Luke 2:22-40, Holly Hearon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008

Keep Awake!

“Keep Awake!”

mark 13-26-artistic-christian-clouds-

Mark 13:24-27 (13:27) – December 3, 2017

How difficult it is to keep watch! Imagine how hard it is when you know the estimated time of arrival. There is even an acronym for this—ETA. We know about the estimated time of arrival of planes and trains and buses. People give relatives and friends their estimated time of arrival if they are traveling a long way. It is the polite thing to do, even courteous and helpful thing to do. Just so that the people on the receiving end know when visitors or relatives will be arriving.

We know when the Baby in Bethlehem arrived. Two thousand years ago, that’s when! God the Son, the baby Jesus, God made flesh, was born into this world as a helpless Baby a little more than two thousand years ago, as foretold in Bethlehem. He was born into an oppressed people group, in a land that was under occupation, under a conquering power; born to a young woman and her fiancé with very little money, power, or other prestige.

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the weeks the Church sets aside to wait quietly, expectantly, for the Baby in Bethlehem to be born. Yet, these first two weeks of Advent also give us a look at the future: predictions and promises for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Here in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning, Jesus is asked about the timing of the second coming. When will this mysterious time come about?

Jesus—as is so often the case—does not give a direct answer. Instead, listen to His first example: “24 “In the days after that time of trouble the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, 25 the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses. 28 “Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin.”

Sure, the people of Jesus’s time were wondering when Messiah would return. When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when! How similar is that to our own time. Many, many people are dissecting both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings. They, too, ask when Messiah is going to return the second time? When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when!

Next, Jesus gives His listeners a parable about a householder and his servants. As the Rabbi Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, “34 It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.”

We know that Jesus often tells His listeners stories about everyday things, with a twist. Somehow, Jesus uses these common, ordinary things to communicate powerful truths. In this parable, we see a bunch of servants working for a boss with a large household, a large piece of property. The boss goes away on a long journey, and his employees do not know when he will be back.

What would people at your workplace do in a situation like that, with the big boss gone for a really long time? Would your fellow employees continue working hard? Or, would some of them start fooling around? Maybe stop working altogether? How might you react, if this happened to you, or to someone you knew? Again, what would you do?

 Jesus totally skips over that part about exactly when the Messiah is coming back.

Instead, Jesus commands His listeners to “Keep watch!” Let’s look more closely at this story. We are not only supposed to wait expectantly, but we need to be alert. Not just to stand around and twiddle our thumbs like a bunch of do-nothings and know-nothings. Each servant—or employee has their own job to do. Each servant—or employee has an assigned task. The door-keeper has just about the most important job of all of them, which is to stay alert and to keep watch, no matter what. Keep an eye on things, and when the big boss unexpectedly returns, we are warned not to cut back or sleep or lie down on the job.

Let us consider today, in modern-day United States. When we think of Advent, what comes to our minds? Advent wreaths? Advent get-togethers after work or on the weekends? Maybe school holiday productions incorporating Advent?

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, said “Each and all of it can be wonderful, and each and all of it can become rather overwhelming. So perhaps we might invite folks to make a short list – whether in their heads or on paper – of a few of the things that will occupy their Advent.[1]

What are you going to do for Advent? How are you going to get ready? How are you going to watch and keep awake?

I am not sure about anyone else here, but my December activities are threatening to become overwhelming. Can anyone else relate? Does anyone else have any idea about vulnerability and connecting with others?

The Church around the world is told to keep watch diligently. And then, “to think about how in each of those events and activities they might be more attentive to the vulnerability and need of those around them and more honest and open about their own need that they might receive the care of others.” [2]

Now, wait a minute, Jesus! I thought Advent was a time for us to wait and watch? A time for Advent calendars and Advent wreaths? I wanted to sit quietly in my corner and watch from the comfort of my easy chair. I did not want to step out of my comfort zone!

Guess what? The landlord—the big boss—has given all of us our jobs to do. In last week’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we are to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit the people in hospitals and in prison. Yes, this may be a lot for us to take in. However, the commands of Jesus are pretty important! Don’t you think we ought to sit up and pay attention to His commands?

Jesus and His commands can lead us in new directions. Pastor Janet Hunt makes the following suggestion: “knowing that it will all one day end can also set us free, can’t it?

  • Free to speak words of truth and hope and love.
  • Free to reach out in generosity and kindness.
  • Free to forgive what before seemed unforgivable.
  • Free to let go of what we thought we would always need.” [3]

What an exciting opportunity to truly be what Jesus—the householder—the big boss—is calling each of us to be. “How do we “keep awake” in this kingdom time of already-not-yet? Simply by being faithful to the tasks God has given us to do – the tasks of kindness, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and love.” [4] When we are faithful in these things, we will become more and more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/  “Preaching a Participatory Advent,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/raking-in-the-dark/  “Raking in the Dark,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

[4] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week One. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

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

Compassion for an Invalid

John 5:1-9 (5:6) – August 13, 2017

John 5-6 Jesus, Bethesda icon

“Compassion for an Invalid”

Have you ever heard of a really whacky, old-time law that is still on the books? There are some doozies, still on the legal codes of certain municipalities, all across our country today.

To mention a few whacky laws from the past: “It is illegal to mispronounce the name of the city of Joliet, Illinois.” “In Utah, the law requires that daylight be seen between two dancing partners.”  “Michigan law once required taking a census of bees every winter.”  “In Muncie, Indiana, you cannot bring fishing tackle into a cemetery.” And, “A Minnesota law requires that men’s and women’s underwear not be hung on the same clothesline at the same time.” [1]

We can look at these laws today and laugh. However, the folks from years ago who put these laws into place felt strongly about them. They thought these laws were great ideas, and were genuinely concerned about their communities, families, and the well-being of their society.

Let’s take another look at our Scripture passage from John chapter 5, and see what it has to do with rules and rule-following. I’ll read from a modern translation for young people, from Illustrated Children’s Ministries.

“At a festival the Jewish people were observing, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In that city, by the Sheep Gate, there is a pool—its Hebrew name is Beth-zatha—which has five entry spaces. People who are blind, or very sick, or cannot move gather in these spaces.”

Here, the Apostle John sets the stage for us. He gives us the time of year—during one of the great festivals, and the location—Jerusalem. What’s more, John then specifically mentions the place where this healing situation occurs, and gives some description.

To continue: “One man was there who had been ill for almost forty years. Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time. Jesus said to the man, “Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus’s question—“Do you want to be made well?” A really serious question, not to be taken lightly or taken for granted. I think Jesus knew the older man had given up hope, and Jesus had compassion on him: serious compassion. His heart went out to the poor guy. Let’s hear what the invalid’s answer is:

“The man explained, “Sir, I’m alone. There is no one who will put me into the pool when the healing water is stirred up. When I try to get there on my own, I’m too slow—someone else steps down ahead of me.”

This poor guy has been hanging out by the pool of Bethesda for almost forty years! He’s all alone. He’s too slow. He never can make it into the water. I suspect he continued to come to the pool where miracles happen simply because that was where he had gone for so long, that he was in the long-time habit of coming there. Plopping down in “his spot.” What is more, this invalid was at the end of his hope, in terms of hope for a cure ever coming to him.

When, wonder of wonders! What happened?

Jesus said to the invalid, “Stand up. Grab your mat. Walk.” The man did what Jesus said; he could! He was healed! This happened on a Sabbath day.”

Just think of how it feels to be healthy again after you’ve been sick for a couple days. I wonder how amazing it felt for this man Jesus healed who had been sick for 38 years! How would you have responded to Jesus’ healing?

I am absolutely certain that everyone who lived or worked near the pool of Bethesda knew this invalid. He was such a sad, sorry guy with a negative, down-in-the-mouth attitude. However, the Rabbi Jesus knew just where he was hurting, and just where he needed to be healed. Healed in body, yes! Healed also in mind and spirit? Yes, too!

I am not sure whether Jesus touched the muscles and brought them back to wholeness, or whether Jesus healed the joins and tendons and brought the middle-aged invalid back to a full range of motion. (Somehow, I cannot imagine Jesus doing anything less.) This is a miracle story. Jesus did, indeed work a mighty miracle! And, Jesus showed great compassion to this invalid who had been lying next to the pool for almost forty years.

It’s the short sentence at the very end of our Scripture reading today that I would like to highlight. “This happened on a Sabbath day.” Remember how we started this sermon? Talking about some wacky rules and laws? The Jewish religious leaders had some really picky, wacky rules and laws of their own. Just as an example, the Jewish Law said it was illegal for anyone to do any work on a Sabbath day, and for the former invalid to do a simple thing like carry his mat, that was considered work!

Some of the Jewish religious leaders saw the former invalid doing just that: carrying his mat, on his way home. (On his own two healthy feet, by the way.) The religious leaders said this man was breaking the law. They were totally serious about this law code, too!

Remember when I played “Simon Says” with the young people, before the sermon today? You all know the rules in “Simon Says,” how everyone does what the leader says as long as the leader says “Simon Says.” Sometimes, a lot of life can feel like a lot of rules to follow, too. And, sometimes certain rules and laws feel whacky, even ridiculous. Our Lord Jesus knew all of these religious rules, the various Laws of Moses. But Jesus did not always follow them. Like, in this case, where Jesus told the man who used to be an invalid to carry his mat—on the Sabbath day, too!

And, what about Jesus healing on the Sabbath day? The Jewish leaders considered that work, too! There is something the matter with religious people getting outraged about someone being healed—made whole—able to work and walk and be a full member of society again—just because the healing took place on the Sabbath day, the Jewish holy day. (We might examine the priorities of these “super-holy” Jewish religious leaders, for sure.)

Time and time again in the Gospels, Jesus confused and frustrated these same religious leaders. The defense of the Sabbath day laws and rules was “the defense of an entire system of ordering life and religious practice. It is the defense of a particular religious community—” [2]the Jewish community, Jewish society. Jesus questioned these Laws and religious rules in order to help others. [3]

Rosa Parks broke the law by sitting in the front of a bus in Birmingham. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the law by marching for civil rights and to overcome racism and Jim Crow laws. Our own Pastor Gordon broke the law by traveling to the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960’s and marching with the likes of Mrs. Parks, the Rev. Dr. King, and so many others.

Considering our Gospel reading today, “Jesus brings God into human experience in ways that transcend and transform human definitions and categories.” [4]

What about you? Are you on the side of Jesus? Bringing God into human experience? Can we bring the clarion call of peace and justice into the world, into our neighborhoods and communities, and into the lives of those we love?

And remember, have compassion on everyone around you. Just like Jesus. Love one another, with our actions. Have compassion, just like Jesus.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/12-jesus-heals-man-pool-bethesda-john-51-18

“Jesus Heals the Man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] O’Day, Gail, The Gospel of John, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 581.

[3] https://store.illustratedchildrensministry.com/products/an-illustrated-compassion-learning-to-love-like-god

[4] O’Day, Gail, The Gospel of John, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 581.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

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

Compassion for People in Need

Matthew 9:35-38 (9:36) – July 9, 2017

Matt 9-36 compassion, words

“Compassion for People in Need”

Who do we know today who comes to help people in need? Our Lord Jesus talked about sheep and shepherds in our Gospel message today. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Let’s hold that thought in our minds and hear what Jesus said again. Jesus traveled all around the wider area, teaching in all of the local places of worship, the synagogues. As He went from place to place proclaiming the Good News, Jesus had compassion for the crowds, who were milling around aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd.

Taking a closer look at these bible verses, I think I know what “compassion” is, but I wanted to see what a proper, in-depth word study on the word “compassion” had to say. According to one word study, “Com-passio literally means to “suffer with.”  In Latin, com means “with” and passio means “to suffer.”  “Passion” is suffering, which is why we talk about “the Passion of Christ” during Holy Week.” [1]

In other words, Jesus was suffering with His fellow Israelites while He was traveling around the country. Jesus saw them hurting, and His heart went out to them. “True love … involves suffering.  Suffering is an inevitable consequence of the deep joy that comes with binding oneself to the heart and soul of another.” [2]

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew said Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We are going to take a tour through the Bible, tracing these words and these terms. This description using the word “compassion” and the term “sheep without a shepherd” is awfully similar to a description from the Hebrew Scriptures in Ezekiel 34. Picture this: the prophet said the nation of Israel is seen as sheep scattered over the mountains without a shepherd, lost, in danger. Sound familiar?

I understand that sheep are dumb animals. This word image is used over and over in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Herding and keeping the sheep together is a big concern with sheep. Without someone to guide them, they move about aimlessly. They get lost. They wander off and often pay little attention to what is going on around them, especially dangers and difficulty. “This is the spiritual state of the people in today’s passage, and we see that in Jesus’s actions to teach the people. “ [3]

I would like to return to the word “compassion.” We looked at the Latin roots of that word, but the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. If we take a closer look at what the Greek word “compassion” means, we see the word splagchna, which appears in the letter to the Philippians. The Apostle Paul’s words in the King James Version say: “I long after you all with the bowels of Jesus Christ.”  The word splagchna means “bowels” – literally, the innards in your belly.  It’s an earthy image that might offend some.

“The people of the ancient world believed that all of the most intense feelings originated in the belly.  For them, “guts” did not mean “courage,” but depth of feeling.  It’s easy for us to understand why they would believe that, because when we feel anxious or afraid, our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  Splagchna oiktirmou means something like “’the bowels of deep feeling.’” [4]

We are talking about Jesus feeling deep feelings right down to His guts. Literally.

We have some vivid images here. Lost, defenseless sheep. Jesus feeling deep feelings for those sheep, right down to the bowels of deep feeling. Right down to His guts.

But, Jesus does not leave those lost sheep defenseless, afraid and isolated. No! He has recruited helpers. Shepherds sometimes have assistants or guard dogs that help them with their job. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Think of an accident or a fire. Or, someone getting lost, especially a child. Who shows up? Who are the first people on the spot in an emergency situation? I was thinking of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders. What about people like social workers, trauma workers, and the medical team from a hospital’s emergency department or intensive care unit? They protect, guide and care for people in trouble, today.

That is the depth, the enormity of what our Lord Jesus was thinking of, in this reading today. In observing his fellow people of Israel, He was moved with compassion down to His guts, His “innards.”

And, what was Jesus’s compassionate response? Jesus did what He could to meet their spiritual needs—with salvation!

If we were to see a child running ahead of their parents or caregiver down the sidewalk, and that child went toward a busy street, what would any sensible person do? They would run to save the child, and stop him or her from running out in traffic. That’s what Jesus wants to do here, in our Scripture passage.

Let’s think about us, today. We are described as sheep. I own that. I realize that I am sometimes stubborn as a sheep. I sometimes wander off, blithely going in my own direction, away from the way that I know God wants me to go. And, sometimes I get lonely and lost. I get turned around and don’t know the way back to my home, to that safe place where people love me, care for me, and are concerned for my welfare. Does anyone else relate to these deep, anxious, lonely feelings? Are there some other sheep out there, in this congregation?

Jesus offers us salvation. He offers us the opportunity to become a sheep in His flock, a lamb in His tender care. Jesus is doing this out of the compassion of His heart, just as He did for His fellow countrymen, the fellow Jews in the country of Israel. Remember, Jesus saw the people as lost, alone, without direction.

How has Jesus been a shepherd for you, in your life? Either today, recently, or at a time when you really needed it? Has Jesus cared for someone close to you, for a loved one or a dear friend? Jesus is doing this out of the compassion, the deep feeling of His “innards.”

What is more, Jesus offers us the opportunity to show compassion to each other. We can show our friends, our loved ones, even absolute strangers the same compassion. We all know that feeling when we feel anxious or afraid, when our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  That is how deeply we are to feel with compassion! We are urged to go out of our way and care for others.

Can you think of ways in which you can show compassion this week? Nothing would make our God happier than to have us walk in our Lord Jesus’s steps and show compassion to others, today, and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/sheep-without-shepherd/  Ligonier Ministries – The Teaching Fellowship of R.C. Sproul

[4] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

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

He Was Taken Up

Acts 1:9, Luke 24:51 – May 28, 2017

Acts 1-9 Ascension ENLUMINURES HILDERSHEIM

“He Was Taken Up”

Mentors often teach and assist their followers through conversations. Whether it’s a one-on-one relationship or a small group mentorship, many respected, learned teachers often are in a position where their followers are hanging on every word that comes out of their mouths. Imagine how much more closely our risen Lord Jesus’s followers listened to His words in the weeks following His resurrection!

This whole situation after Easter was totally unprecedented. The Rabbi Jesus, God’s Anointed, the Messiah, come back from the dead? Being resurrected, and brought back to life?  How can such a thing be? It was a blessed miracle of God, that’s how!

Jesus walked and talked for forty days with His disciples. We do not know for sure, but I suspect He gave them further information about why He had come down from heaven, setting aside His divinity, being born of the Virgin Mary as a human baby. From our Gospel passage this morning: “44 Jesus said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”

Wouldn’t that be absolutely fantastic, to have Jesus, the Word made flesh, interpreting Scripture so that we could more fully understand it? Talk about an in-depth bible study! Those would be some awesome conversations. I know I would be sitting at Jesus’s feet, like Mary of Bethany, hanging on His every word.

I also suspect our Lord Jesus significantly affected and touched His followers while He realized His time was becoming shorter and shorter. Don’t you think Jesus must have told them He would be going away—soon? We know how upset the disciples became when Jesus told them such things before His crucifixion. In John 16, at that Last Supper the night Jesus was betrayed, He spoke plainly about His departure. But, that was the last thing His followers wanted to hear about, or think about, either!

If we reflect more deeply on that thought—the thought of Jesus going away—it’s similar to the idea of our loved ones dying and going away. Many people become deeply distressed at even the thought of it, much less the actuality. Even if we know our loved ones have died and gone to heaven, and we will eventually be reunited with them, it still can be distressing, even traumatizing for us to contemplate their departure.

This common feeling may well be similar to the feeling of the disciples as the time of Jesus’ departure got closer and closer. One of the commentators on the passage, Bob Deffinbaugh, wrote, “While we know that God’s will has been done and that those who have died in Christ are with the Lord…We do not find great comfort or joy in reminiscing over the departure of our loved ones. So, too, I believe the gospel writers did not have any predisposition to write of our Lord’s departure to return to His Father.” [1] That may be part of the reason why there was not much mention of the Ascension in the biblical record.

Taking a look at our companion reading from Acts 1, we can see that the disciples still do not quite understand. Even though Jesus opened their minds to the Scriptures that they might have fuller comprehension of the purpose and coming of the Messiah, as foretold by the biblical writers, they still had some misconceptions.

Reading from Acts 1: “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

We can tell that the followers of Jesus are still thinking “of the day when the nation of Israel will be reestablished as it was in the days of Solomon. They dream of themselves as the chief executives in the new kingdom.” [2] They are having a glorified view of a powerful earthly kingdom.  I cannot imagine our Lord Jesus being unclear about this, so I think the problem is on the disciples’ end. They have faulty presuppositions that just do not match up with the clear things Jesus is telling them. The followers of Jesus need to have their vision clarified. The kingdom Jesus is preparing is not of this world, but instead of the spiritual world.  

How often are we like the disciples? So often, we focus on unimportant issues. Things like denominational differences, whether to baptize by sprinkling or by immersion, how often to offer the Lord’s Supper, social justice, church growth, choice of church music: all of these pale in comparison with the foundational purpose of Jesus and His coming to earth.

As we can see, the followers of Jesus were narrowly focused on the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. They were completely missing the larger picture of our Lord Jesus reconciling the entire world to God, His heavenly Father.

For Jesus, His followers have one overarching assignment—a far greater purpose than these unimportant things. “For Jesus, that purpose is witnessing. His disciples are witnesses of His life, death, resurrection, and now, His ascension.” [3]

We all are familiar with the words of the Apostles Creed. I quote a portion: Jesus Christ, “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” These words are the very words I am preaching about here, today. They are not just the dusty old words found in some theological tome or some stilted book of creeds of the church. No! These words of the Creed are faithful, true, and powerful.

While the disciples were being distracted by their pie-in-the-sky view of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel to home rule, Jesus had the cosmic view in mind. In other words, it is like Jesus is telling His followers, “Forget that other stuff. Look, I am going now. I will send you all a Helper, an Advocate, to help you in the important work of being My witnesses. So, BE my witnesses!”

Acts 1:8 tells us where the followers are to be witnesses: “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, in verse 9, Jesus rises and is taken up into heaven.

Do we understand yet? The ascension of Jesus was glorious! He rose up into a cloud, most probably the Shekinah glory that surrounded Him at the Transfiguration, earlier in the Gospels. He ascended into heaven, just as we confess in the Apostles Creed. And, in Acts 1:11, we are reminded that the return of our Lord Jesus will be like His ascension.

“The ascension was a display of the splendor and glory of the coming Kingdom. As such it was a reassurance to the disciples that this Kingdom was the same as they had previously been instructed.” [4] A glorious, heavenly reassurance!

Remember, the followers of Jesus were not left to undertake this purpose, this task in their own power. Jesus tells us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” And then, “you will be my witnesses.”

The followers of Jesus did not know what to expect. But, we know.  This ascension may be the end of Jesus’s time on earth. He may be going away for a time, but no fear!

We are going to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week, on Pentecost Sunday. Talk about coming attractions! Praise God, today we have the power and help of the Holy Spirit assisting us as we share the Good News of Jesus, reconciling us to God. Jesus assured us of the help of the Holy Spirit, whenever we witness to Him. What a promise! Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/41-ascension-luke-2431-acts-11-11  “The Ascension,” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/ascensionot.html  “The Ascension,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/41-ascension-luke-2431-acts-11-11  “The Ascension,” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

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

 

Jesus Knows Our Needs

John 14:18 – May 21, 2017

John 14-18 not leave you, coin

“Jesus Knows Our Needs”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@chaplaineliza

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

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

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

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

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

@chaplaineliza

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