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Monday, March 17, 2008
We can rejoice in Easter’s news because of its first witness: Mary Magdalene. Resurrection was not that day’s prospect. The voice of the Risen Jesus calling her name surprises Mary into recognition, then prepares her for surprising witness. Christ is among us. So said Mary, so say those who follow her lead. Christ is risen. Alleluia! John 20:1–18 The Easter account in John differs somewhat from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mary goes alone to the tomb in John. In the others, she goes with one or more other women. John says Peter and the beloved disciple go to the tomb after Mary’s witness. In the other gospels none of the male disciples venture into the tomb. Mary Magdalene plays an extraordinary role in John’s Easter story. She alone goes to the tomb and returns to tell the disciples that Jesus is not there. Her later encounter with Jesus in the garden qualifies her as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Beyond that, Jesus sends Mary to the other disciples to announce that she has seen the Risen Jesus. As with the Samaritan woman in John, Mary not only sees and believes – she sees and witnesses. Her words are the first Easter sermon. Small details shape John’s message. In the first eleven verses, “tomb” occurs nine times. The scene is a place of death. From verse 12 on, tomb is not mentioned. An empty tomb is replaced with the Risen Jesus. The transition between verses 8 and 9 is awkward if “believed” is taken as Easter faith. The next two verses rule out that view. At best, Peter and John believe Mary’s earlier word that someone had taken Jesus. Unlike Mary, they do not linger outside the tomb; they return home. “They did not understand.” Belief in resurrection does not come from an empty tomb. Belief in resurrection comes in a restored relationship. Belief in resurrection comes in Mary’s gospel preaching: “I have seen the Lord!” A still unrecognized Jesus asks Mary, “Whom are you looking for?” (verse 15). Jesus asks a similar question of the first two followers in John 1:38. That was a call story. So is this. It is a call story for Mary Magdalene to be the first one to announce the news. It is a call story for John’s community and for us, to witness with Mary to what and whom we see and trust. The other readings also bear witness to the power of God’s love as a source of new life. Jeremiah 31:1–6 affirms God as one whose love enabled Israel to find “grace in the wilderness.” Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24 celebrates God’s steadfast love that empowers the hope of life. Equally clear in these texts is the importance of witness and revealing. Acts 10:34–43 narrates Peter’s witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, whose impartiality offers acceptance to all. The psalmist witnesses to God’s choice of the “stone” rejected by others. The twice-spoken “do not be afraid” of Matthew 28:1–10 reveals resurrection not to be a matter of fear, but of joyful faith. Colossians 3:1–4 links the revealing of Christ in God’s realm with our hope. The Easter story continues to be told in the words and deeds of the faithful. Mary started the procession. We are invited to continue it. What do you most identify with in Mary’s experience of Easter; why? When have you found yourself “named” and called by Christ? By whom might Easter’s gift and news be most needed – how might we bear that witness?
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Questions. Doubt. Belief. The readings for Holy Week hold these in tension, even as God holds us. God hears our voices and tends to our needs along this journey to the cross, as we shout “Hosanna” and cry out “Why?” Even when there are no words to express our wondering, God invites our trust. We are safe in God, whose hands hold all our times. Matthew 26:14—27:66 On this Sunday, some churches focus on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–11) in a celebration of Palm Sunday. However, it is the voice of lament that pervades this focus passage for what many churches observe as Passion Sunday. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days of earthly life include Jesus’ cry: “My God, my God, why…?” (27:46). These words are more than Jesus’ cry from the cross. These are our words as we encounter Judas’s betrayal, the disciples’ desertion, and the women’s faithful vigil at the cross and the tomb in this reading. It seems that Matthew portrays Jesus’ twelve disciples in a harshly revealing light. Though Jesus asks them to keep watch with him in prayer (26:36), they fall asleep repeatedly. When Jesus is arrested, they flee into the night (26:56). These disciples are not at the cross or the tomb as the women disciples keep vigil. Matthew treats the religious and civil authorities involved in these events in an equally frank manner. In Matthew’s account, the problem is not the religious beliefs of the leaders involved – the problem is leaders who are driven by fear and rush to judgment. The difficulties arise because of the choices made by certain leaders. Pilate chooses to “go along to get along.” In doing so, he reduces hand washing from the powerful symbol described in Deuteronomy 21:1–9 to an empty gesture. Matthew’s Jewish readers would have recognized this symbol and in it heard Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’ innocence. Matthew strives to show how Jesus’ words or life fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the tearing of the temple curtain in 27:51 heralds the end of the old temple system and the saints rising from the tombs in 27:52–53 hearken back to Ezekiel’s dry bones. Matthew uses several titles for Jesus. “Son of Man” is the title that Jesus uses most often. Jesus is declared to be the “one who comes in the name of God” in the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:1–11. The title “Son of God” is used in the High Priest’s questioning of Jesus (26:63–64). Jesus’ answer – which does not deny this identity – sparks the capital charge of blasphemy. “King” or “Messiah” (christos in Greek, meaning “anointed one”) takes precedence in the trial before Pilate (27:11), because a “king” represented a political threat to Roman authority. “Son of God” is the confession by the Roman guards and centurion (27:54). In spite of all that death can strip away, God’s people declare with the psalmist in Psalm 31:9–16 that “my times are in your hand.” The acclamation, “The Lord God helps me,” is spoken twice in Isaiah 50:4–9a, a statement of extraordinary trust when made in the midst of insults and physical abuse. Philippians 2:5–11 declares that Jesus’ death is not a loss of hope. Jesus chooses God’s way over all. Jesus’ life is lived in love and obedience to God. On Palm Sunday, we shout our praises before quieting our voices to enter into the passion of our God. This Holy Week, as we reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, God continues to hear our praise, our lament, and our wondering. God’s presence can be trusted along this way. What words of praise and lament do you long to release from the depths of your heart this week?
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Doubt and belief abound when death asserts that life and hope have boundaries. This sunday's readings assure individuals and the community of God’s people that the life, hope, and comfort we find in God’s care are boundless. Our song, even in the midst of tears, gives witness to such amazing grace and love. John 11:1–45 Martha and Mary are faced with the serious illness, and then the death, of their brother Lazarus. Even while the community supports them in this time of trial, they call to their beloved friend, Jesus, to come and save Lazarus. While most Bibles call this story “The Raising of Lazarus,” the focus of this account is on Jesus preparing the disciples for what is to come. Verses 24–27 form the heart of this story. Martha’s confession of faith proclaims Jesus’ identity with confidence. Jesus’ conversations with Martha, and then Mary, are gospel in both proclamation and consolation. The actual raising of Lazarus in verses 43–44 reads like a footnote at the end of the story. Lament is received. Hope is offered. Pain is shared. Faith is proclaimed. Prayer is raised. A dead man is summoned. Jesus’ compassion restores life to Lazarus’s “soul-less” body. (In Jewish thought at the time, it took three days after death for the soul to leave the body, so this is clearly a situation beyond resuscitation.) The community is told to unbind Lazarus from the grave cloths and “let him go” back into the life of the community. Jesus says that Lazarus’s illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4). How can illness and death work for the greater glory of God? The text itself does not answer this question. This gospel invites us to journey into the face of death and grief, and see for ourselves whether God can be trusted to make a way out of no way. The first half of John’s gospel is presented as a book of signs. Wine from water, a multitude fed from a handful of bread and fish – none of the signs reveal the whole truth of Jesus as God among us. The raising of Lazarus forms the last of these signs, and comes at a time when the relationship between “the Jews” (John’s term for Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus) and Jesus was nearing its breaking point. New life also seems impossible in Ezekiel 37:1–14. The Spirit of God leads the prophet to what reads like the site of a terrible battle. Bones lay scattered; death appears to have had the final victory here. To those in Ezekiel’s time who grieved the separation of exile in Babylon, did the images in this account serve as a metaphor for their own struggle to find renewed life as God’s people? When God’s people today feel weighed down by separation and death, what hope do we draw from this image? As in the story of Lazarus and in the story of Genesis 1, when God speaks, new life arises. The Spirit (in Hebrew, ruach means both “spirit” and “breath”) gives life to hope. Paul, in Romans 8:6–11, writes that to live in Christ is not to live in denial of death, but to live with hope in the face of death. We are safe in the hands of God, who breathes into us the same Spirit that breathed life into dry bones. Daily, we are raised to new life. In that hope is our life and peace. In Psalm 130, the psalmist cries out in despair, trusting in a love powerful enough to save. Such hope is also expressed by Martha, Mary, Ezekiel, and Paul. The psalmist’s cry for deliverance (life) is their cry, and ours. Though we will die, in Christ we will live. The witness of Scripture invites us to trust that there are no endings that stretch beyond God’s boundless care and power to redeem. When in your life have you found hope in the steadfast, saving love of God? How might our congregation offer such hope to those who grieve?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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