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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:1-4a, 22-32, Psalm 16:1-11, I Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

This week’s Gospel lesson gives us the intriguing story of Thomas, who wants to touch the wounds in Jesus’ body before he believes he has risen. First of all, let me tell you that I think Thomas has gotten a bum rap. Through all these centuries he has borne the adjective “doubting,” when he only asked for what the other disciples had already received. When Jesus “came and stood among them,” it says “he showed them his hands and his side.” (John 20:19-20) Notice also that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas. He simply shows him. (vs. 25)

If Thomas is to be chided for anything, it might be that he didn’t trust the words of his friends. One could find a sermon or two—even a theological point or two—in that fact alone. So much of how we learn and grow in our faith depends on words spoken to us by those we trust, those who have gone before us, those who have seen and want us to see also. The resurrection is a community event. We witness to one another daily about it, even today, when we share the ways in which we continue to experience his living presence. Without that shared witness, believing would be even more difficult than it sometimes is. The reading from the book of Acts, contains portions of a sermon preached by Peter. The verse chosen for the lectionary reading end in Acts2:32 with these words: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

We could read the Thomas story and get into what is mostly a futile debate about science and religion. Thomas demands proof, but in the end Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29) We are among “those who have not seen,” at least in a literal sense. The writer of the Gospel of John was addressing a situation (perhaps even in another country), some hundred years or so after Jesus’ death, in which new generations had arisen who were not first-hand witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.

That writer was interested in helping his readers see beyond the physical events of Jesus’ life to the deeper meanings. Events (miracles) are presented as “signs” followed by a discussion of the meaning of the signs. Jesus even at one points seems to despair, saying, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48)

So what are we looking for? Are we satisfied with the things we can touch and feel? Are they what belief is about? Or, do we dig deeper, enter into dialogue with one another about deeper meanings? I just read an article about John Crossan who participated in a debate with N.T. Wright. Up front Crossan acknowledged that Wright “takes the resurrection of Jesus literally, and I take it metaphorically” suggesting that their conversation should focus on “what his understanding means for him and what mine means for me.”

The search for deeper meanings means moving beyond that which we can touch and feel, beyond being eyewitnesses, to the discovery of what gives us life in the here and now. The Gospel of John ends with these two sentences: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31) The writer implies it is not a matter of piling up an endless list of “signs.” It is a matter of taking the stories (“signs”) we have and finding in them the stuff that gives us life. Many of the signs in John’s Gospel include a statement about who Jesus is. It’s interesting how many of them include the word “life.” Five thousand are fed and Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35) Before he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) When Jesus announces that he will be leaving the disciples, he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. (John 14:4-6)

What are we looking for? The “life” that is there if we move beyond the outward signs. Science, what we can touch and feel, is important. We live surrounded by science. This blog can be posted on the internet and read by someone half way around the world because of science. It’s meaning, though, is more than science. It’s meaning is more even than words which appear on a computer screen. It’s meaning takes shape in the realm of the spirit as it touches your inner being. One hopes that at least some of you find “life” as I attempt to bear witness.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We could talk about a different way of “seeing” things, seeing with the eyes of faith. No one of us was an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection in a literal sense, but that does not prevent us from “seeing.” I believe that we should, like Thomas, continue to ask questions, to express our “doubts,” to look for “answers.” More importantly, though, we are called to find and pay attention to the deeper meanings. No matter how many “facts” we uncover, they, in themselves, will not give us life.

The epistle, I Peter, written “to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (I Peter 1:1), sees “life” as a relationship of love. “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (I Peter 1:8-9) I might not express all of it exactly that way, and that phrase, “the salvation of your souls,” begs for a lot of unpacking, but what I’m looking for is a universe filled with loving relationships. I continue to believe in that possibility because, even though I glimpse it only through a glass darkly, I have been touched and am sustained by a loving consciousness which seems to be in the very air we breathe. I cannot prove it or place my hands or yours literally on its pulsing heart, but with each beat I too am a witness to the resurrection.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4 OR Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18 OR Matthew 28:1-10

The lectionary gives us two Gospel lessons to choose from. Each tells the story in a different way. In John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who comes, alone, “while it was still dark.” She finds “that the stone has been removed from the tomb” and runs to get Peter. He and “the other disciple” (John?) ran to check things out for themselves. (John 20:1-3) The details are explicit (vss. 5-7) describing “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” (The Shroud of Turin?)

It’s clear that the two disciples do not yet understand this as a “resurrection.” (vs. 9) They just turn and go back home (vs. 10), while Mary hangs around for the surprise of her life. A flash of angels and someone she thinks is the gardener interrupt her weeping. (vss. 11-15) She recognizes that it is Jesus when he calls her by name. (vs. 16) What affirmation comes from realizing that someone knows and calls us by name—the stuff of many sermons. We could also examine her response which is simply, “Teacher.”

Leaving John’s Gospel for the moment, Matthew’s Gospel tells of two Marys who arrive as the day “was dawning.” They experience an earthquake and an angel rolling back the stone and sitting upon it. (Matthew 28:1-2) That would certainly get my attention! No wondering about an empty tomb here. More like sheer terror. “For fear of him the guards shook.” (vs. 4) The women are told not to be afraid. Jesus “is not here; for he had been raised.” They don’t just stumble upon an empty tomb and walk in. They are invited to “Come, see the place where he lay.” (vs. 6) The women rush off to tell the disciples. While they are on their way, “suddenly Jesus meets them and says, ‘Greetings!’” Jesus shocks me out of my skin and all he can say is, “Hi”? It almost strikes my funny bone, like Jesus thinks it is a big joke to sneak up on the women and say, “Boo! It’s me! I’m here! Bet you didn’t expect this when you got up this morning.”

Two accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, and there are others. It’s no surprise that we sometimes get into asking, “I wonder what really happened.” The common element in both these accounts, though, is the instruction to get out of the cemetery. Don’t hang around here wondering. This isn’t where you will find him. This isn’t an ending; it’s a beginning.

In John 20:17 Jesus gives the puzzling instruction to Mary that she is not to hold on to him. Is our staying in the cemetery sometimes an attempt to hold on to what cannot be contained? In Luke’s Gospel the women are asked (this time by two angels), “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) Mary is go to back to the disciples with her life-giving message. (John 20:17)

I’ve always particularly liked what it says in Matthew’s account of the resurrection. Jesus is out there somewhere ahead of us. The angel says, “ . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (Matthew 28:7) Jesus instructs Mary to tell the disciples to “go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (vs. 10)

The resurrection is not something in the past. It is still out there ahead of us, to be lived into. Some have suggested that the church, God’s Love embodied in his people, is the resurrection that matters. If Jesus’ Love does not live in our ministry and mission and fellowship and caring compassion for one another and our world, what happened two thousand years ago doesn’t much matter. Sometimes listening to attempts to describe and define what happened in that cemetery all those years ago is our way of staying right there—in the cemetery—when Jesus is saying, “I’m way ahead of you, out beyond the walls of the church and cemetery. I’m walking along the roads of life on my way to places like Emmaus. Come join me if you want to know what resurrected life is about.”

While reflecting on this week’s readings, I kept thinking about a song made famous by the Carpenters. First written, by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams as a commercial for Crocker Bank, it rose to No. 2 on the charts and is frequently used as a wedding song. Although some may consider it a bit trite, it can perhaps also be sung as a resurrection song, reminding us that resurrection is something which begins anew each morning.

We've only just begun to live.
White lace and promises,
A kiss for luck and we're on our way.

Before the rising sun we fly.
So many roads to choose,
We start out walking and learn to run.
And yes, we've just begun.

Sharing horizons that are new to us,
Watching the signs along the way.
Talking it over just the two of us,
Working together day to day,

And when the evening comes we smile.
So much of life ahead,
We'll find a place where there's room to grow,
And yes, we've just begun.

Sharing horizons that are new to us,
Watching the signs along the way.
Talking it over just the two of us,
Working together day to day,
Together, together.

We've only just begun to live.
White lace and promises,
A kiss for luck and we're on our way.
And yes, we've just begun.

We try to be rational in our response to resurrection power sometimes forgetting at least two other dimensions of response—service (going “about doing good,” as Jesus is described in Acts 10:38) and worship. What do the women do in Matthew 28:9? They “came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” On Easter Sunday, one can read the verses from Psalm 118 as a hymn of worshipful praise in celebration of resurrection love that endures forever. (Psalm 118:2) “I shall not die, but I shall live.” (vs. 17) In Jeremiah, the people finding themselves in what seems to them a bit like a cemetery, living in exile, are reassured by the Lord’s appearance saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

Even in Jeremiah that is not the end of things. It is a beginning. Rebuilding will get under way. Vineyards will be planted. (vss. 4-5) The people will participate in the work of resurrection, perhaps singing, “We’ve only just begun.”

So, as we celebrate Easter, we remember that “this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24, as we move on down the road where Love is leading us. We’ve only just begun!
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:
Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11
Passion Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-14, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66

The lectionary offers two sets of readings because Sunday, April 17, may be used to emphasize either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Passion Sunday used to be celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Lent, a week before Palm Sunday. In more recent years it has become collapsed into Palm Sunday. I’m not sure of all the reasons, although some felt that Passion Sunday had taken on a strong anti-Semitic tone.

I see a theme running through much of both sets of scriptures. I’m not sure the title “Victims?” quite catches it. Are we victims? Was Jesus a victim? Overlapping that theme is “humility,” a way of refusing to let others define one as a “victim.”

The readings from both Isaiah 50 and Psalm 31 are the cries of those who feel they are being “victimized.” It probably takes their cries too lightly to associate them with a song by The Bloodhound Gang, “Why is everybody pickin’ on me?” The lyrics get pretty gross so I won’t offer them here, but the sentiment is one probably felt by most kids at some point during their developmental years. “I’m different and everybody is picking on me.”

The Psalmist speaks of being “the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances . . . they plot to take my life.” (Psalm 31:11-13) Through it all, however, he trusts in God. (vs. 14) “My times are in your hand . . . Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” (vss. 15-16) The trust is even more evident in the reading from Isaiah. He submits to the hand that strikes him and does not hide his face from “insult and spitting,” declaring “I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” (Isaiah 50:6-8)

What do we do about bullies? They’re a menace in the schools, pressing so hard that every now and then someone breaks and strikes back so provocatively that the carnage makes national headlines. Some of the bullies go on into the business world, into sports and politics, etc., pushing, pushing, pushing, to intimidate those who stand in opposition to their efforts to force conformity. Children cry out; teens cry out; women cry out; the poor cry out. Isaiah and the Psalmist speak for all of us. I’m sick and tired and I’m not going to take it any more. How long, O Lord?

If only we could find the level of trust they express. Or does that get us into letting ourselves be defined as victims? “I’m just going to endure whatever is thrown at me.” In a sense that’s what we see in Jesus in Philippians, chapter 2. It’s true that Jesus in the Garden “threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me . . .” (Matthew 26:39) He also cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) In general, though, his demeanor in the face of the threat of death was one of humility. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2:8, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Likewise, in Matthew 21, one of the Palm Sunday readings, he is described as “humble, mounted on a donkey . . .” (vs. 5)

The reading from Matthew 21 is the story of what is sometimes called the “Triumphal Entry.” Some have suggested that it was more “street theater” than regal procession, that there was a mocking tone in what seemed to be cheers. The Gospel writer presents the story as fulfilment of Old Testament prophesy. “The Messiah is here,” but it is obvious this Messiah is not like the conquering hero they were expecting. He is coming in humility.

In Philippians, it is the humility of the divine “being found in human form.” Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philippians 2:6-7) Lots of food for thought in that, especially when the instruction of the opening verse is to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 5) Do we face taunts and danger? Are we in danger of being victims? Enter into the situation humbly. It doesn’t, in my book, mean rolling over and accepting whatever comes our way, failing to speak of word against injustice. It means having the dignity that comes from knowing that nothing can define who we are other than the Cosmic Love of which we are an expression, the Love which values us beyond measure and will preserve our selfhood no matter who is picking on us. The Gospel message is that Love is stronger than any oppressive force of this world.

The power of those who would destroy Love comes to focus most clearly in the stories leading up to and including Jesus’ crucifixion. The lectionary for Passion Sunday includes most of two chapters of Matthew, starting with Judas receiving thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus. It takes us through Peter’s denial that he knows Jesus, into the Garden where the disciples cannot stay awake while Jesus is praying. We read of his arrest and trials before the Jewish council and Pilate, the Roman authority. He is crucified between two bandits, dies, and is buried. The story is abundant with details that show us his humanity and that of those around him.

The lectionary allows the use of a shorter portion which goes from the trial before Pilate to the burial. My comments will be limited to that reading—Matthew 27:11-54—and even then not in its entirety.

Jesus becomes a case study in the process of designating victims, and in the process of facing one’s accusers. Each character in the story is worth examining. There is Pilate, the governor, who just wants to wash his hands of the matter, to find a compromise everyone can live with. (vs. 24) Is he a little like President Obama, a man of high vision and ideals but seemingly hesitant when faced with hard decisions? How about us? Do we prefer to avoid unpleasant situations where we might have to take a stand?

There is Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross for Jesus. (vs. 32) Thieves are crucified with Jesus. (vs. 38 & 44) Priests and military personnel are participants in the story. (vss. 20, 27, 41, & 54) It would be helpful to hear each speak of his place in the unfolding drama. Why did they do what they did? How did they feel? What was their response to Jesus?

Throughout, Jesus is mocked. (vss. 29-31, 39-43) The soldiers at the foot of the cross play games of chance to see who gets his clothes. Yet Jesus refuses to play the game. He doesn’t get into a raging debate (as opposed to what happens in the halls of Congress). He stands in dignity and humility and trust.

It is a story of rage against innocence. Pilate’s wife sees it clearly and tells her husband, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man . . .” (vs. 19) Why do innocents so often have to pay the price?

When I think about people being picked upon, I see in this story a whole crowd who prefers Barabbas, “a notorious prisoner,” to Jesus. What is there that causes us so often to choose heroes who are less than stellar? Look at the scandalous headlines about entertainment figures. Observe the behavior and listen to the words of politicians who seem always to be seeking media attention. Are we still choosing Barabbas over Jesus? When such people rise to power it seems always to be the innocent who pay the price.

The death of innocence is not the last word. Life has a way of overcoming and bouncing back. I’d never really noticed how the Gospel writer slips a word of resurrection hope even into this dark scene. Darkness descends and the earth shakes (vss. 45 & 51), but at that very moment tombs open and “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (vss. 52-53) And those standing there in the middle of the earthquake say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It’s a mystery. It may be hard to see when we’re standing in the darkness, when everybody seems to be picking on us, but there is hope. The crowd may cry out for blood, may try to take away the benefits of the poor, may try to kill the purest of motives, may try to ignore the power of love, but Love continues to make itself felt in quiet dignity and humility. Love cannot be kept down, not can the actions of those who live in humble dignity be ever lost.
Thursday, April 07, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130:1-8, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Most of the readings for Sunday, April 10, touch upon finding life in the midst of dark places, even places of death. The power of life, they tell us, comes from the breath of God’s Spirit, from the presence of Jesus. The Hebrew word, “ruwach,” can be translated as spirit, wind, or breath.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we find ourselves in a valley “full of bones,” where the people of Israel are exiled in Babylon. “Our bones,” they say, “are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” (vs. 11) The answer to their predicament, it seems, is blowing in the wind, a breath of fresh and living air. “Thus says the Lord God: come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live . . . the breath came into them, and they lived.” (vss. 9-10) It is a message to the people that, even though their hope has died, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” (vs. 14) It’s not so much about literal bones as it is about spiritual death and life.

I sometimes leap from a scripture or theme to songs that have touched me at one time or another in my life, often in my early years. This time it was “Dem Bones.” When I was young we used to host quartets that visited our church representing different schools. One from what was then Multnomah School of the Bible regularly sang “Dem Bones” with vigor and drama, so that you could almost see the bones clicking into place as they were joined one to another. “The toe bone connected to the heel bone, the heel bone connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the knee bone, the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the back bone, the back bone connected to the neck bone, the neck bone connected to the head bone, Oh, hear the word of the Lord.” The text from Ezekiel doesn’t speak of the connections in quite that way, but it talks about sinews and skin which hold the bones together. It is a story, among other things, of connections, but it takes more than sinews and skin to give life. Ezekiel 37:8 notes that “there was no breath in them.” Looking at the song and the scripture I was reminded again of the power of breath, spirit, wind to bring life into the connections we have with one another. Without it we are as good as dead, without hope.

The Psalm also cries out from the dark places of life, “out of the depths.” (Psalm 130:1) Even in the depths, we need not give up hope. We are to wait for it because there is “hope in the Lord” and his “steadfast love.” The fulfillment of hope is as sure as the coming of the morning sunrise after the darkness of midnight. (vss. 5-7)

Romans contrasts death and the “Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) If “the Spirit of God dwells in “us,” we “are in the Spirit . . . If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (vss. 9 & 11)

The long reading from John’s Gospel involves Jesus and his disciples in a series of conversations and events intended to show that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25-26) Some suggest the story was prepared as a dramatic presentation to be used in worship. The plot revolves around the death of Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send word that Lazarus is ill, but Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death.” (vss. 3-4) So, we might ask, was Lazarus really dead, or is this another story about spiritual death and life? (The question is again addressed in verses 11-14 when Jesus speaks of Lazarus as “fallen asleep,” but finally says, plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”)

After a couple of days, Jesus decides to go see Lazarus, but none of his disciples want to go. It’s too dangerous. The threat of death is everywhere in Judea. “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus tells them that they need not fear the dark and dangerous places of life if they have the light with them, in effect reminding them that he’s already told them “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12 & 9:5) Thomas finally agrees that they should go to Lazarus, but he considers it a journey that will end up with all of them dying “with him.” (vs. 16)

Mary and Martha, separately, try to lay a guilt trip on Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (vss. 21 & 32) How often do we throw barbs of guilt? “You weren’t here when I really needed you.” It’s also possible, though, that part of the metaphor is that Jesus is like the wind of life blowing into town. It is only when we keep ourselves close to his presence, or open ourselves to its presence, that hope is restored.

There’s something in the situation that moves Jesus to tears. Whether it is the weeping of those around him, his frustration with their inability to see, his chagrin at not having been there when they needed him, or something about what his good friend Lazarus has had to go through, we find that “Jesus began to weep.” (vs. 35) It is a verse that contains almost all that needs to be said about Jesus’ revelation of the heart of God. It is God’s nature, the nature of the universe to join in our weeping and pain. When we hurt, the entire heart of the cosmos aches.

I’m trying to get you to see, people,” Jesus says, “that the resources of love are built into the very fabric of the universe, in its breathing and blowing." The cosmos is on our side. I’m reminded of the song by Bob Dylan—“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” It set me to thinking about solar winds, astrophysical winds, and cosmic winds, so I did a little cruising on the web.

The wind is all around us. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles that streams from the sun in all directions at speeds of about one million miles per hour. Black holes, I read, can drive extraordinarily powerful winds that push out and force star formation and shape the fate of a galaxy. “A galaxy is a huge vortex in space driven by ‘cosmic’ wind, like a huge hurricane.”

The point is that there’s a lot of wind out there. Some glibly say, “Jesus is the answer.” We may not go deep enough, however, in understanding that answer. He showed us the very nature of the loving wind blowing all around us. It’s there. We live and move and have our being in it. Pay attention to it. Feel it. It is life giving.

So meditate on the words of Bob Dylan. I hope its not too sacrilegious to suggest that we might even hear Jesus humming them to himself and offering them in concert to us.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before they call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they are forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind;
The answer is blowing in the wind.

How many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind;
The answer is blowing in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind;
The answer is blowing in the wind.

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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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