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 a Widow

Luke 7:11-17 (7:13) – July 30, 2017

Luke 7-10 widow's son Ottheinrich_Folio081v_Lc7B

“Compassion for a Widow”

I do not often make generalizations, but I suspect everyone will agree with this one. Pretty much everyone knows the grief, pain and anguish of having a close relative or loved one die. I’ve dealt with anxiety and fear, grief, anger and mourning plenty in the hospital when I worked as a chaplain, and afterwards, as pastor of this church.

This Gospel reading features a funeral procession, mourning and grieving, on the way to bury a dead loved one. This Gospel reading also features the widow of Nain (the town). One of the Gospel of Luke’s guest stars in a cameo appearance, the widow is in deep grief.

Naturally in dismay and trauma, I suspect all the widow wants is to be able to see her son again, alive.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s concentrate on Jesus.

Hear, again, today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, plus some commentary. “Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd came with Him.”  The Rabbi Jesus and close friends are traveling around Israel. (Remember, Jesus was an itinerant Rabbi, like a circuit-riding teacher and preacher.) The Rabbi Jesus did not live in one, stationary place, and His followers took on the same, nomadic lifestyle.

“As Jesus came to the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out.”  

I would like everyone to put your imagining cap on. You might be familiar with what I mentioned several weeks ago, introduced by St. Ignatius. Among other matters, Ignatius was a spiritual director. He wanted all people to get closer to God. What is more, there are things we can see, touch and feel about this reading—in our minds. This vivid use of imagination is one amazing way for that experience to happen.

So, Jesus was on the way, traveling all up and down the country. Right in the middle of things, as usual. What should Jesus and His friends run into but a funeral procession?

Imagine the traffic jam, right at the gates of the city of Nain. All the hustle and bustle of people coming and going. Animals, wagons and carts, shopkeepers, drivers making deliveries, people in close quarters, shuffling, passing through the city gates. Perhaps it’s a dry, dusty day. Add the dust, dirt and grit to the scene.

Can you see the people gawking at the funeral procession? One thing about this funeral procession: it’s for a younger person. We don’t know how much younger he was, but I know today that when a young person dies, they have lots of people at the funeral service. Can you hear the crying and wailing of the people who are mourning. Perhaps they are also squeezing through the busy city gate with everyone else. Luke says, “A large crowd came alongside his mother; she was a widow, and he was her only son.”

Her only son. Can you hear the sorrow and anguish packed into that small statement? Can you see the shock at the death of a young person, the loss of years not lived, of length of life not experienced?

When, suddenly, the Rabbi Jesus approaches the procession. He not only views that procession from among the many people grieving that day, but Jesus also goes beyond. He enters into the procession itself. Jesus interrupts, in a very large way. Listen to Luke’s words: “When Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her. He told her, “Do not weep.”

I would like to remind people about a quick word study I did a few weeks ago. I wanted to see what a proper, in-depth 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.” [1]

            As we consider what St. Ignatius wants us to do with our imagination as we think more deeply about this Scripture passage, we can add to it the intense emotions of grief, sorrow, longing, worry, anger, and suffering. On top of all of these deep, intense emotions, we can now add compassion. That’s not only compassion on a human level, but Jesus’s compassion. Godly compassion and caring. Wow! Can you say, “Wow!” with me?

In our children’s message today, I spoke about our scripture reading. I said Jesus recognized that a woman he met was extremely sad. This widow was left all alone, with no relatives at all! And, Jesus had empathy for her. the word “empathy” means to recognize another person’s emotion and then feel what that person feels; if someone feels sad, we recognize she feels sad and we feel sad with her, for example.

What the Gospel writer Luke does not say (because everyone in his time would understand it very well), is “Luke’s inclusion of the detail that this was her only son highlights her difficult situation. Without a husband and now without any son to support her, it is very likely that the widow is now or will soon be financially destitute.[2]

Do you see now why it is such a big deal that Jesus felt for this widow? He showed empathy for her and her extreme distress. Emotional, psychological and financial distress, as well as the spiritual upset, grief and trauma.

Jesus not only feels empathy and compassion for this widow, He goes that important step further. Continuing with Luke chapter 7: “Jesus told her, “Do not weep.” Then He came forward and touched the coffin. The people carrying it stopped moving. And Jesus said, “Young man, listen: get up!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him  to his mother.

            Our Lord Jesus does a miracle! Not only a healing, but raising the dead.

Jesus not only felt empathy, He did a miracle. He gave this woman back her much beloved son, and He stabilized her financial position, too. Jesus did a significant healing on several different levels.

That miracle is wonderful. In bible times, that is. I can just hear people stating that we couldn’t do anything even remotely resembling that marvelous miracle. Not today. Not us little, insignificant folks. That’s for big, important people, like Jesus, or the Apostles.

Our Lord Jesus is so awesome, and a wonder-worker, too. He showed empathy, yes, and also the incredibly personal touch: he cared deeply for that widow. It is so important to know Jesus first felt compassion and empathy for the widow before He healed her son.

Empathy is an important way for us to begin caring for others, which we learn through Jesus in this week’s example of compassion. It’s easiest for us to show empathy and compassion to people who are a lot like us, and harder to show this toward people who are very different from us. Who is different from you, and how can you be loving and caring to them?

This presents an opportunity to all of us. Find someone who is different from you and reach out to them, today. Be kind and compassionate.

How can you—we—practice empathy and caring, today? We can become more aware of how we can be loving, kind and helpful to those around us, like Jesus was with the mother in our Scripture passage today. A loving challenge from our Lord Jesus, today. Go, and do likewise.

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] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1679 Commentary, Luke 7:11-17, Jeannine K. Brown, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013

 

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!)

 

He Is Not Here!

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

Matt 28-6 He is not here, cursive

“He Is Not Here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! He is risen! Alleluia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

@chaplaineliza

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

But Now I See

John 9:1-41 (9:25) – March 26, 2017

John 9 word cloud

“But Now I See”

In the first century, when Jesus walked the earth, people commonly believed a number of things that have since been proven mistaken, including something mentioned here in our Gospel passage today. When babies were born with a handicap or impediment—like born with a club foot, born with a cleft palate, or born blind—many, many people thought this was a punishment from God.

The parents were at fault. Sin was the reason the child was born that way!

In the encounter we have today in our Gospel lesson from John, Jesus deals with that kind of thinking. Let’s set the scene. “9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been born blind. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents’ sin?”

In certain parts of the world today, people still think like that. Sad state of events, but that is the way it is. Some people mistakenly assign the “blame” for a “disability” or “illness.” Let’s see how Jesus responds.

Jesus answered, “His blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents’ sins. He is blind so that God’s power might be seen at work in him. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light for the world.”

Jesus rejects this blaming kind of talk! He “suggests that this man’s blindness offers the opportunity for God’s power to be revealed…. There is, in this case, physical blindness, but it’s not the only kind of blindness.  There are those who can see just fine, but live in spiritual darkness.” [1] More on that, later.

Plus, Jesus goes from talking about blindness, to God’s power, to Jesus being the light for the world. Can you follow Him in the progression of His thought? Actual, physical blindness, leading to God’s power made manifest by our Lord Jesus, who is God’s Light for the world, enlightening everyone. Back to the story.

After he said this, Jesus spat on the ground and made some mud with the spittle; he rubbed the mud on the man’s eyes and told him, “Go and wash your face in the Pool of Siloam.” (This name means “Sent.”) So the man went, washed his face, and came back seeing.

A man, born blind, made to see? This is a miracle, by anyone’s estimation! But, this is not quite a happily-ever-after story. By no means the end of our story.

13 Then they took to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 The day that Jesus made the mud and cured him of his blindness was a Sabbath. 15 The Pharisees, then, asked the man again how he had received his sight. He told them, “He put some mud on my eyes; I washed my face, and now I can see.” Here is a clear statement of facts, as reported by the man who formerly was born blind.

We can tell the Pharisees believed the commonly held theological position of the day: illness and disability were God’s punishment for sin. What is more, people disagreed about whose sin was responsible for this former baby’s (now grown man’s) blindness. Most thought it was the parents. However, some thought that the newborn baby had somehow sinned! (Hard to believe, but true.)

On top of that, the Pharisees had some unkind words for this upstart Rabbi Jesus. Imagine, healing on a Sabbath! Who does He think He is?

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “The man who did this cannot be from God, for he does not obey the Sabbath law.” Others, however, said, “How could a man who is a sinner perform such miracles as these?” And there was a division among them. 17 So the Pharisees asked the man once more, “You say he cured you of your blindness—well, what do you say about him?” “He is a prophet,” the man answered. 18 The Jewish authorities, however, were not willing to believe that he had been blind and could now see, until they called his parents 19 and asked them, “Is this your son? You say that he was born blind; how is it, then, that he can now see?”

The Pharisees could not see past the noses on their faces. All they could see was healing, or work being done on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in their strict interpretation of the Law of Moses. That was huge, in their eyes. Hugely wrong!

Looking for additional people to cast blame on, the Pharisees just did not believe this guy who was formerly blind—so they called his parents!

20 His parents answered, “We know that he is our son, and we know that he was born blind. 21 But we do not know how it is that he is now able to see, nor do we know who cured him of his blindness. Ask him; he is old enough, and he can answer for himself!” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, who had already agreed that anyone who said he believed that Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That is why his parents said, “He is old enough; ask him!”

24 A second time they called back the man who had been born blind, and said to him, “Promise before God that you will tell the truth! We know that this man who cured you is a sinner.” 25 “I do not know if he is a sinner or not,” the man replied. “One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.”

One of the most familiar and beloved traditional hymns is “Amazing Grace.” This hymn talks about several important things, including salvation. The hymn also talks about blindness, and the change that comes into a person’s life when they receive sight—spiritual sight. “Was blind, but now I see.” What a theological truth. What a profound insight. Jesus wasn’t blinded at all to seeing this man born blind.

It is the Pharisees who have been blind—spiritually blind—and they don’t even know it. “The religious leaders remain spiritually blind, still contending that the work of Jesus is demonic.  In their resistance to [Jesus,] their blindness – their sin – is revealed.” [2]

Is this just some nice bible story, or could it apply to us, today? Similar to the Pharisees, are we so preoccupied with our own holiness and righteousness that we are blinded? I mean, spiritually blinded to seeing signs of God’s work right here in our midst? [3]

“How does Jesus open our eyes to the things of God?  How does he reveal our blind spots so that we can let go of them and give glory to God? The good news is that there is amazing grace available to us.” [4] We can testify, along with this formerly blind man, “One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.”

This is something to celebrate! Jesus can open our eyes to those around us. We can be healed of our spiritual blindness and come into the light of God’s presence, and be able to testify to others of God’s light-giving and grace-giving. Praise God! Amen.

[1] http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/03/who-is-really-blind-lectionary.html

[2] http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/03/who-is-really-blind-lectionary.html

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fourth-sunday-in-lent-one-great-hour-of-sharing#preaching

[4] http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/03/who-is-really-blind-lectionary.html

@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!)

His Name: Emmanuel

“His Name: Emmanuel”

emmanuel-plainsong

Isaiah 7:10-14  – December 18, 2016

So many people love babies. Look at just about any gathering of people. Church congregation, senior center, exercise group, book club. When anyone mentions that someone has just had a baby, what happens? Lots of comments like, “What did she have? Boy or girl?” How big is the baby?” And, especially, “Oh, I hope mom and baby are happy and healthy!”

Common, everyday occurrences, like young women getting pregnant and babies being born. That is exactly what the prophet spoke of in our passage today. The prophet gave a lot of background, but he finished this passage by talking about the clear promise from God. Let’s go back to the beginning of the passage from the prophet: “Again the Lord spoke to King Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” It sounds like the Lord God wants to give King Ahaz a really big message. But, wait. Why is this stuff happening?

A little backstory. The kings of Syria and Israel (Northern Kingdom) join together to go to war with the Assyrians. They ask King Ahaz of Judah (Southern Kingdom) to join with them, but Ahaz refuses. Both countries send armies to march on Jerusalem to dethrone Ahaz and put a puppet king on the throne.

We have big political intrigue going on in Jerusalem at this time! Remember, it’s about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz a second time, this time offering to give Ahaz a sign so that he will believe God. From Isaiah 7: “12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” and once again Ahaz refuses.

One of the commentators I consulted said, “King Ahaz received an oracle from Yahweh, directing him to ask for a sign as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. This may refer to a sign announced by an earthquake or in lightning. With seeming piety, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign lest it put Yahweh to a test. Isaiah, however, treats his answer as a refusal to trust God and announces that God will give him a sign anyway.” [1]

What is this sign? A common, everyday sign. There may have likely been just a young woman who was at Ahaz’s court, to whom Isaiah could literally point a finger and say, “Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a sign that God is in the common, everyday things, the simple, ordinary passages of life.

Do the simple, small things that come into our lives change our course? These verses give us an interesting image. God would save the people of Israel through the sign of something so common and ordinary as a pregnant woman. Isaiah began by offering the opportunity for a great big, splashy sign, but instead gave the king a common image of everyday, ordinary happenings.

The sign was certainly not for the mighty and powerful. Rejected by those in power, God would work wonders among the humble and lowly. In other words, the simple common folk. The original reference for Isaiah was to a child born in his time, and in the near future. For the prophet, the message is that in a few years, both the kingdoms threatening Judah will be no longer a problem. This indeed is historically what happened.

Some centuries pass. The Book of Isaiah was originally written in Hebrew, which was the common language of Israel during the 700’s BCE. By the time we arrive at 300 BCE, there has been a huge turnover in the world. Now, the Greeks under Alexander the Great have conquered most of the known world, and they have spread the Greek language far and wide. Plus, the Jewish people had been scattered all over the Middle East and into Asia Minor.

Many of the scattered Jewish people could hardly read and understand their own Scriptures any more! So, a large group of Jewish scholars translated the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. It is that translation that Matthew uses when he says, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Believers from the time of Matthew’s gospel have pointed to these verses as Messianic prophecies. Yes, there is a technical difference between “young woman” and “virgin.” This tension is evident if we closely examine the difference between the Hebrew words and the Greek translation. Yet—what is the same? It is a message of God’s caring and love that sees pregnancy and birth—simple, everyday happenings—as signs of God’s care and concern for God’s people.

Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in Isaiah’s day, with the Assyrian armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course! Isaiah gave the king a special oracle to let him know so. Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in the time of Jesus’s birth, with the occupying Roman armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course it was!

God has always had concern and love for God’s people, no matter where and no matter when. No matter if the persecuted Christians were running from the Romans, or being chased and persecuted by any one of the occupying forces in the centuries in between.

Jesus came from humble origins. Yet, He changed the world. Likewise, the birth of this child, was a sign that even in the midst of the chaos and destruction surrounding Jerusalem in the uncertain time of Isaiah and the uncertain time of the baby Jesus, God was still with them. Life still did go on. In a very real sense, that was (and is!) a miracle.

What is the simple message we receive from these words of the prophet? God will be with us, no matter what. That is the message to King Ahaz and the people of Israel, that is the message to occupied Israel in the newborn Jesus’s day. And, it’s the message we can take home with us this day.

“Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a joyful sign that God is in the common, everyday things, like the simple, ordinary passages of life. Like a baby being born, displayed to all of us as a wonderful sign from the Lord God. Praise God! God is concerned about the smallest and every day and ordinary, like babies and new moms and children, like you and like me.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/adventa.htm#Advent4, Studies on Old Testament texts from Series A, Ralph W. Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

God’s Abundance

“God’s Abundance”

John 2-8 Miracle Wedding at Cana Coptic icon

John 2:8 – January 17, 2016

Weddings are so often a joyful time! Busy, yes. Stressful, yes. But joy-filled, too!

Have you ever known a wedding where something unexpected happened? I mean, a mistake happened, or something just went plain wrong? These are just a few things that actually happened to a real-life pastor, the Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie.

  • The groom and best man got to the church on time, but they forgot to bring the suit for the 6-year-old ring bearer.
  • The matron of honor had surgery a little too recently to be standing for a long time and collapsed during the vows.
  • The pastor got the time wrong and showed up an hour late for the wedding.
  • People on the guest list didn’t bother to rsvp for the reception, but showed up anyway, assuming there would be enough food and drink for them. And there wasn’t. [1]

This last one happened at the commentator’s daughter’s wedding a few years ago. Can you imagine what kinds of consternation this might cause at a wedding? Surprise? Frustration? Embarrassment?

Imagine that wedding in the town of Cana, at the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus. It doesn’t so much matter when the wedding was celebrated, then or now. An awful problem, no matter where or when. Except, even more so in the Middle East, where hospitality is such an important, foundational part of life.

Today, we know how important it is to offer guests something to eat or drink when they come to our homes for a visit. Think of that, and then multiply it. Times ten, and even more. I suspect not only many of the local townspeople were there, but also friends and relatives from near-by towns. We read in the Gospel record that the Rabbi Jesus was also there, with His disciples. And, His mother was invited, too. Large crowd of people!

Reminding everyone, in the first century, Jewish custom held that most any wedding would be an event of celebration for several days. Our Scripture passage today shows a wealthy Jewish family—with a number of servants and a household steward.

Imagine the huge amount of time and the money that went into a celebration of that size. Plus, the logistics! We read that the family provided extravagant feasting for days. In the case of today’s Scripture, if there were any miscalculation or lack in provisions in food or drink, not only the bride and groom but also their families would most likely suffer great humiliation. And what if—God forbid—something should go very wrong? What then? The surprise, the frustration, the embarrassment that potentially could happen at that wedding celebration in Cana.

John begins his narrative in the middle of things. He opens the scene on the third day of the wedding feast. The party is in full swing! And it is a party. Huge celebration.

The miracles in John’s gospel are called signs; they show everyone Jesus the Son of God, and His Godly power, might and glory. As commentator Nancy Rockwell said, John’s signs deal with ordinary human things, set in the course of human events. Like, a wedding feast. [2] And the Son of God, the Divine Word made flesh, is human, too! He enjoys Himself at a big party, with His friends and family.

We aren’t sure, since the Gospel writer does not say. Perhaps Jesus’s mother Mary is related to the family, or is good friends with one or more family members. Regardless, she is concerned about the situation. “Weddings epitomize the fact that even the best planned and most auspicious of human scenarios are imperfect, flawed, and lacking. Something always goes wrong. Something is always askew. It is the role of the mother of Jesus to express that reality and to look expectantly (I imagine) in the direction of her Son.” [3]

His mother Mary comes to her Son—I suspect quietly. “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’” What’s to be done? This is a huge problem, and a terrible embarrassment to both families! Talk about public humiliation! Mary knows very well what is going on. So, she goes to Jesus for assistance.

When we have problems, or embarrassment, or difficulty today, how do we handle it? Do we keep it to ourselves? How about sweeping awkward problems under the rug? Or do we do what Mary did? Do we go to Jesus?

Our commentator Nancy Rockwell says, “Consistent with the other signs in John’s gospel, and in keeping with John’s exact words, would be this: Mary cannot stand by and watch an injustice, will not watch the groom and his bride be disgraced;  she does not want their marriage celebration to have a lasting shame as its memory. And in response to her compassion for them Jesus does what Mary, in her famous song in Luke’s gospel proclaimed:  he fills the hungry with a good thing.  He replenishes the wine.” [4]

Yes, I could tell you about the expression Jesus uses to address His mother—“Woman,” which can be a term of respect. I could talk about the way Mary sidles up to the servants and tells them “Do whatever he tells you.” But, instead, I want to focus on the large stone jars that Jesus used. These were six large containers of water with anywhere from twenty to thirty gallons apiece. There was a large crowd gathered at the party—or, banquet. Jewish ceremonial tradition demanded that there be a large amount of water nearby for observant Jews to wash ceremonially before they ate.

Jesus knew all about this custom, and He told the servants to fill the jars. Let’s say there were twenty gallons in each one. That was one hundred twenty gallons of water, just waiting!

As Nancy Rockwell said so well, Jesus responded to His mother’s compassion for her friends. Jesus replenished the wine! Notice He did not shake His finger at the crowd for enjoying some wine. Neither did Jesus sneak out the back door, not wanting to have anything to do with such a “shameful happening.” Imagine, not having enough wine for a big, multi-day celebration like this!

Instead, Jesus replenished the wine. Over one hundred gallons of it! He allowed the party, the feasting, the celebration to continue. He stepped into potential humiliation and family embarrassment at a significant event in the town of Cana. Jesus transformed it into something abundant.

Jesus worked a miracle! Another way of looking at it is that God abundantly provided for this situation at the wedding party. God reached out and touched this event, transforming it into something miraculous. Jesus transformed the potential injustice and embarrassment of these families into something wonderful.

I remember another situation, another place, another time, where injustice, frustration and embarrassment were gradually transformed into something amazing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his words, and his actions? Transformed our country through the miracles of what was accomplished through the civil rights marches, through Dr. King’s earthshaking speeches and sermons. What a transformation, taking something hurtful and potentially embarrassing, and transcending the flawed and faulty world.

Thank God! God’s Son saw fit to provide for this family situation at the wedding. Jesus can provide for us when we get into embarrassing situations, or difficult situations. Let’s thank Jesus for His love and care for each one of us. For reaching out and giving abundantly from God’s overflowing resources.

Amen, alleluia!

 

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Wedding-Mishaps-Alyce-McKenzie-01-14-2013

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/cana-an-unexpected-time/ Nancy Rockwell

[3] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Wedding-Mishaps-Alyce-McKenzie-01-14-2013

[4] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/cana-an-unexpected-time/ Nancy Rockwell

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!