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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, I Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35


As early Christianity developed there were many discussions about who Jesus was or continued to be.  At breakfast this morning I tried to focus our discussion on who Jesus is to us.  I say, “tried,” because we’re the kind of group that some weeks just tends to spring from place to place.  Today was one of those days.  The corollary question was, “Why does it matter who Jesus is?”


For the early Christians, Jesus was the center that brought them together.  Some had experienced his physical presence while he walked the earth.  Others sensed a continuing presence in one way or another.  A long process of trying to make sense of that began---and continues to this day.  Much of the New Testament is devoted, in one way or another, to that discussion.  That is true of three of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  The answers took many forms.  There was not a single answer, although there were---and continue to be---forces that seek to fit everything into one mold, one size---one answer---fits all.


Today we are a considerable distance from those early experiences and discussions.  When one asks, “Why does it matter who Jesus is?” or “Why bother with Jesus?”, one is apt to get a variety of answers.  Some would say it has to do with getting into heaven.  Some who are part of the Christian Church might be interested because of the significance of Jesus in our history.  Those who are aware of Jesus' influence on western culture, including the arts, might feel it is necessary to ask and answer the question in order to understand that influence.  Some would say answering the question is a matter of sin and salvation.  Knowing and understanding Jesus is to find the way to being “saved.”  I’m sure you can come up with other reasons.  It has a lot to do with our personal history and experience.  For some, especially those who may have grown up in other religions or cultures, or outside the church, it may not seem to be particularly important.  If you are one of those, all I can do is invite you to consider a conversation, a moment of reflection, on who Jesus is.


For me, with my history, it starts rather simply---with a couple of Sunday School songs.  “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”  Very early I learned that Jesus represented unconditional and personal love.  I lived in a world where I was loved beyond measure.  I was worth being loved.  I had a place in the universe.


My early life was influenced by fundamentalist churches, but somehow or other I was lucky that the ones in which I participated did not major in judgment.  They reached out to be inclusive.  I could offer a number of stories about that inclusiveness.  Today I just want to note in passing that, despite some people’s rampant use of stereotypes, not all "fundamentalist" churches are alike.  More importantly, I want to underline the reason my question of the day is important to me.  I continue to explore who Jesus was and is because I want to know everything there is about this love that I have experienced and continue to experience.


Now, our readings for the week do not come at the question in that way, but there are things in each of them to consider and they bear on who Jesus was and is.  Two of them connect Jesus with the “Messiah,” a Hebrew word for one anointed by God to be some kind of king, “Christ” in Greek.  Peter, in Acts, talks about God having “made him both Lord and Messiah.”  (Acts 2:36)  The Gospel lesson from Luke has a stranger joining two disillusioned disciples on their way to Emmaus after Jesus was crucified.  This one (whom they don’t recognize as Jesus) engages them in a discussion of a Messiah who is to suffer such a death.  (Luke 24:25-27)  Such verses could lead us to continued participation in that discussion, with a focus upon what it means to be a Messiah and what kind of Messiah Jesus was.


Instead let me comment upon each of the texts, including some things that bear upon the experience of love.


The reading from Acts is still connected with the message of Peter’s preaching.  Peter’s words fit into the classic framework for understanding Jesus, which is summarized in the declaration that “Christ died for our sins.”  It’s a short declaration which is often used to invoke guilt and call for repentance.  Peter seems to be doing a little of that in this reading.  He speaks of Jesus as the one “whom you crucified,” going on to call them to repentance so that their "sins may be forgiven.”  (Acts 2:36-38)


It is verse 39 that draws my attention this week: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far way, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  It reminds me of words we find in the book of Ephesians:  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God . . .”  (Ephesians 2:17-19)  It’s more subtle in the reading from I Peter which begins with a reference to God as a Father “who judges all people impartially . . .”  (I Peter 1:17)


In the early church such references had to do with the inclusion of the Gentiles, the breaking down of barriers between Jew and Gentile.  However they are read, they are texts of inclusion.  In my book, that’s one way to tell if love is at work.  Do we include those who might otherwise be excluded?  In one of my childhood churches, it was the inclusion of Japanese farmers and German refugees in a postwar America where there was a lot of suspicion of such people.  It meant the inclusion of a boy from “the wrong side of the tracks” (myself), encouraging and enabling him (through love) to be a contributing member of the community, eventually supporting him along a path toward becoming a pastor.  During my lifetime we’ve seen the church continuing to deal with issues of inclusion related to African-Americans, women, homosexuals, and others.


Before leaving the reading from Acts, notice that whatever the nature of this early group of Jesus’ followers, it seemed to be attractive.  Three thousand new people joined the movement that day.  (Acts 2:41)  Would that our love were that attractive!


Also notice that I Peter is one of the few places in the New Testament that refers to new birth. “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  (I Peter 1:23)  Early Christians understood that at the center of Jesus’ identity and teaching were values which were deeper than outward appearances, values that would last---were “imperishable”---values like love.  In fact in the verse just before, we read:  “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  (vs. 22)


Which takes me back to the Gospel reading.  The story about the two men and the stranger is ultimately a story about the experience of Jesus as a communal event.  When we “love one another deeply from the heart”, community is created.  For the two men it happens when they invite the stranger to join them from dinner.  “When he was at the table with them,” we are told, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him . . .”  (Luke 24:30-31)


This story became part of the life of the early church as an explanation of the importance of the experience of communion.  Gathering for a “supper” is one of the times we experience and recognize Jesus for who he is.  The “physical” Jesus immediately “vanished from their sight”  (vs. 31), but the story ends with those two men rushing back to Jerusalem to tell “the eleven and their companions . . . how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (vss. 33-35)


It was the practice of the early Christians to gather in one another’s homes to eat and study and worship.  This story was a reminder to them that it was as they joined together as a caring community that the Spirit of Jesus was known.  The words I quoted from Ephesians earlier, about an inclusive community known as “the household of God,” goes on to speak of that household as “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”  (Ephesians 2:20-22)  I bother with Jesus because he has shown me, and included me in, a community of love which knows no boundaries.


One other comment on this reading from Ephesians.  I’ve always been moved by the intensity of the realization that came to the two men in verse 32.  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road . . .?”  The Jesus that matters is known when we have hearts filled with passion and love which reaches out to include and bring peace and justice to those who are far off and those who are near.


Finally, a quick comment on the Psalm.  In Acts, the people who hear Peter’s message ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37)  The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  (Psalm 116:12)  There was a great deal of emphasis upon “grace” in the household of my childhood---“grace,” another word for that unconditional love I experienced.


I still experience life as filled with grace.  I know that there are all kinds of bad experiences.  We can’t read the headlines without knowing that.  Some of those experiences found their way into our discussion this morning, but I continue to experience life as a gift.  In my childhood, “doing good” was not something done because we had to toe the line and follow the letter of the law.  It was---and continues for me to be---a response to the grace---what the Psalmist calls “bounty”---we have received and continue to receive.  Gratitude cannot help but spill over from such grace.  It’s at the very center of why I bother with Jesus.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16:1-11, I Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31


Those who grow up in deeply religious families sometimes go through a time of disillusionment, for a whole variety of reasons.  For me, it began when my scientific and logical bent was challenged enough to shake the foundations.  My last place of defense was an inward turn to feelings.  Proof of God became something I felt in my gut.  I believed---because I had “proof” that God was “in” me.


My early religious life relied much upon the notion of grace---that I was accepted and loved just as I was.  To speak of God was to speak of grace.  A turning point in the search for “proof” came while I was in seminary.  During those years, my denomination (then American Baptist) held an annual conference that brought together the seminary seniors from all of its seminaries.  It occurred during the time of the “Death of God” discussions.  I remember sitting outside on a humid, hot, Wisconsin summer evening at our national conference center with one of my favorite professors.


We were into a significant discussion of grace which I equated with a feeling in the pit of my stomach.  He gently asked, “Are you sure it isn’t indigestion?”  My last “proof” crumbled.  Thank God he didn’t leave it there.  He had another question.  “Isn’t this grace, just the two of us sitting here and sharing our lives with each other?”  It helped me turn my attention to seeing God in the things around me, particularly in the supportive community I experienced in the church.


Now I know this is no more a final argument than what was going on in my gut.  I know that some have had really bad experiences, hurtful and destructive experiences, in the church.  I also know that there are those who’ve never been part of church life who are among those who seem unable to find a way to know, understand, and believe in God.


So, in writing about the question, “How do we know?”,  I’m not offering a single answer.  I’m not writing about the different ways of human knowing and learning.  I’m suggesting that we read the Gospel lesson which includes a story about Thomas and realize it’s human to seek some tangible proof.


Thomas didn’t ask for anything more than had already been granted to the other disciples.  He was absent when Jesus first appeared to them.  (John 20:24)  He had already shown them the wounds in “his hands and sides.”  (vs. 20)  Thomas’ shortcoming was that he didn’t trust his friends, he didn’t believe the community.  There seemed to be a lot of that going on.  Did the disciples believe the testimony of those women who went first to the tomb?


In this case, Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in the side, I will not believe.”  (vs. 25)  These are the words that have led to Thomas being called “doubting.”  We could put a positive spin on them as well.  In the final analysis we cannot simply ride on the faith of our family or friends or ancestors or teachers.  We have to come to some experience or understanding that is personal, uniquely our own.


Today, though, I take at least two lessons from this story.  The first I’ve already mentioned.  The “proof” of God is not just in our individual experience---in the pit of the stomach or in the imagination of the mind or elsewhere.  It is in the life of the community of love which is somehow his living presence, his body.


The other comes with the words of Jesus at the end of the story.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asks Thomas.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (vs. 29)  Following that conversation on a summer evening in Wisconsin, I eventually moved to a place of realization that “evidences” for my faith could be explained away scientifically.  Belief is quite literally a “leap of faith.”  It doesn’t mean I don’t still have experiences, make observations, etc., that support my faith.  They are satisfying---most of the time under most circumstances---to me, but they may be given other explanations by other people.  They may not be convincing or satisfying to all.


So, what we have is our sharing of our stories---stories of what has happened to us, how we have interpreted and understood those happenings.  The community which put together the Gospel According to John concludes with these words, “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.”  (vss. 30-31)


The experiences, the stories, the interpretations, the understanding are made for sharing.  What we are looking for when we seek God is that which is life-giving.  Where life is thriving and growing, for all, there is God.  Again, it is called community, part of the way we know.


So, what about the other lectionary readings for the second Sunday of Easter?


The reading from Acts depicts Peter in the act of sharing his experience and understanding of God.  He ties it in with the heritage of the community of faith through the ages, going back to David (Acts 2:25-28 & 31).  His message is about resurrection, new life, ending with the declaration that “of that all of us are witnesses, i.e., one might say, storytellers.  The Psalm is the one from which Peter quotes, concluding with a strong declaration of experiencing life in all its fullness.  “You show me the path of life, in your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  (Psalm 16:11)


Although written later, the reading from the epistle of I Peter is probably included to connect with Peter’s sermon in Acts, but it also connects with the Gospel reading.  “Although you have not seen him,” we read, “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)


What is your story?  What have you seen and experienced?  What are the things you want to touch and feel?  What are the interpretations that you find to be life-giving?  Consider these things and you will, I believe, be close to God.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 10:34-43, Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18 OR Matthew 28:1-10

The seed for today’s reflection was planted at the beginning of Lent when someone connected it with the season when days begin to “lengthen.”  The word originally meant “spring.”  I thought of all the Easter associations we make with spring, images which highlight the presence of new birth in our midst.  It’s a season when one hardly needs to focus on Jesus to sense hope in the air.

The back of my mind registered a question:  What about the southern hemisphere when Lent comes when the days are getting shorter?  The question rolled around there until this week when it surfaced and demanded to be heard.  It took me all over the internet finding things that might give me a handle on the seasonal mysteries of Easter.  Here are some of the interesting things I found.  Take them for what they’re worth.  I can’t put them all into some kind of logical framework as part of an argument for some particular perspective.  If you want that, you’ll have to do it for yourself.

First, we know that, like other Christian festivals, influences beyond the biblical story have become part of the celebration.  The very name “Easter” comes from an ancient fertility goddess, derived from a word for “spring.”

I found many lively discussions about Easter in the southern hemisphere.  Some there just seem to ignore the seasonal discrepancy and uses all the same spring symbols we do.  Some argue that Christians should separate Easter from all seasonal associations.  It’s not about the budding of trees into new life.  It’s about the refreshing of spiritual breath in human life, hope based on something more than the rhythms of nature.  Still others try to adapt it to the arrival of autumn.

I read about one school in New Zealand that plants bulbs as part of their Easter celebration.  I like it!  Bulbs are placed in the ground in the fall and come to life the follow spring.  It is as if Easter becomes a symbol of anticipation.  The biblical story of the resurrection is a starting point, not the end.  Until the resurrection becomes complete in us, we’re still waiting.  It’s as if a bulb has been planted in us, but we have to wait a “season” for it to come to life.  Even the seed planted in my mind back at the beginning of Lent remained dormant in the ground until now.

One of our readings is from Jeremiah 31.  It is a word of hope to people in exile.  It looks ahead to a resurrection when things will be rebuilt, a time when “again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.”  (Jeremiah 31:4)  Jeremiah speaks of a time when “again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”  (vs. 5)  If we were to go on into the next chapter we would find the Lord telling Jeremiah to buy a field as a sign that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  (Jeremiah 32:6-15)  It reminds me a little of Jeremiah’s instruction to the exiles to buy homes and plant gardens.  (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Going back to bulbs for a minute, I found that they “function as food storage organs during dormancy”  They “contain food reserves to enable the plant to survive adverse conditions.”  Wow!  What if the resurrection is as much about surviving adverse conditions as it is about the springtime fertility of the bunnies or the flourish of color on the Japanese cherry trees?  What if living through the decline of nature in the fall is exactly the time we need Easter?  There’s often plenty of hope in the air in spring, but what if the hope we really need is when we are facing adverse conditions---hope which comes exactly at the right time?

My search related to Easter and the seasons also led me to Passover, the Jewish festival most closely linked to Easter.  The way we date Easter (the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox) was established by the Council of Nicaea in an effort to make Easter distinct from Passover.  At the time Constantine said, “We ought not to have anything in common with the Jews.”  Shame on him!  Jesus came to Jerusalem that week as an observant Jew to celebrate Passover.  No monkeying with the calendar can erase the connection between Easter and Passover.

Passover, however, along with celebrating God’s protection of his people during the time of plagues in Egypt, is a harvest celebration.  Much of Israel has a subtropical climate, farther south than most of the U.S.  Growing seasons are not the same as our stereotypes.  The barley harvest comes in the spring and is celebrated at Passover.  As a harvest celebration, it is more like something we would associate with late summer and fall. It is not a time when the seed is beginning to send its shoots tentatively through the soil.  It has reached its full growth and is ready to “die,” to be harvested.  Now there’s something to think about as we consider Easter and the imagery of the seasons.

Chasing up this alley and that, I wondered about the “imperialism” of the northern hemisphere when we speak of the “spring” equinox.  Too often the northern hemisphere has acted arrogantly, even oppressively, toward the southern hemisphere.  That first Easter came in the midst of oppression.  The leader of a new movement had just been crushed by Roman power.  The disciples, those who came to the cemetery that morning, were overwhelmed, crying in despair.  They found hope just when they needed it most.

I was asked recently why Christians venerate the cross, a symbol of torture.  In the particular branches of Christianity where I have found life I wouldn’t use the word “venerate,” but I do see the cross as a powerful reminder of a story at the heart of our faith.  It is a story, a story of resurrection, that says the crushing power of military might cannot destroy love.  You can try to stick love up there on a cross, but it won’t stay.  Psalm 118 begins with the declaration that God’s “steadfast love endures forever!”, going on to say, “I shall not die, but I shall live.”  (vss. 1 & 17)  In my tradition, the cross is empty, as is the tomb.  That’s what hope is ultimately about, not the colorful eggs and green fields.  It can come in the darkening days of fall as well as in the spring.  When we most need it, and perhaps least expect it, it surprises us!

So, what about those other texts?

At the core of Peter’s sermon in Acts ten is a summary of the Gospel story, a common element in most of those early sermons.  (See Acts 10:36-41)  I love the fact that he speaks of Jesus as going about “doing good.” (vs. 38)  Jesus as a “do-gooder.”  Whatever the details of the story, Peter begins with the observation that “God shows no partiality.”  (vs. 34)  Doing good, working for justice and equality---those too are part of the Easter message.

The reading from Colossians connects our resurrection with that of Jesus.  Our resurrection involves seeing things through new eyes, from “above,” setting “our minds on things that are above.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

Then there are the two Gospel readings, both with women being the first to see the risen Lord then having to convince the men.  Mary Magdalene is the key person in both.  The church has often confused her with a prostitute from a couple of other Gospel stories.  She was more likely a successful businesswomen who backed Jesus’ ministry.  Some have even suggested that she was Jesus’ wife.  Whatever her role, one can give thanks for such a powerful woman at this hope-filled moment in the movement of God’s Spirit.

One story (Matthew’s) seems much more dramatic.  In John, Mary seems to have a matter-of-fact conversation with the angels, and she doesn’t initially recognize Jesus.  It is from the latter part of Matthew’s account, however, that I have often drawn inspiration.  The angel speaks of Jesus as “going ahead of you to Galilee . . . Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  (John 28:7 & 10)

I’ve always liked the notion of having to look ahead to see Jesus.  Celebrating Easter at the beginning of the fall season perhaps images that better than our springtime observance.  In the Spring, all the earth bursts with hope.  To celebrate the resurrection in the fall is a strong statement of hope.  It is like planting a bulb and looking ahead confident that the bulb contains life which is going ahead of us.

Two footnotes:

1.  My youngest son celebrates his 31st birthday on Easter Sunday this year.  I was 43 years old when he was born, no spring chicken.  He didn’t coming in the rising promise of my early parenting days, but later in life, perhaps just when I needed the touch of hope he provided.  Hope can come in any season of life.

2.  Pastor Rick has been talking to us, on Sunday mornings during Lent, about prayer.  Margie and I have been reading “Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies,” by Brian Doyle.  Last night we read about his struggles while praying for a dying friend:

“ . . . I mutter my prayers . . ., form them in the cave of my mouth and speak them awkwardly into the gray wind, watch as they are instantly shattered and splintered and whipped through the old oak trees and sent headlong into the dark river below, where they seem lost and vanished, empty gestures in a cold land . . . But I believe with all my heart that they mattered . . . I believe that the mysterious impulse to pray is the prayer, and that the words we use for prayer are only envelopes in which to mail pain and joy, and that arguing about where prayers go, and who sorts the mail, and what unimaginable senses hear us is foolish.  It’s the urge that matters---the sudden Save us that rises against horror, the silent Thank you for joy.  The children are safe, and we sit stunned and grateful by the side of the road; the children are murdered, every boy and girl in the whole village, and we sit stunned and desperate, and bow our heads, and whisper for their souls and our sins.  So a prayer for my friend Pete, in gathering darkness, and a prayer for us all, that we be brave enough to pray, for it is an act of love, and love is why we are here.”

Brian Doyle has, in my opinion, written about Easter!
Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures
Liturgy of the Palms:  Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Liturgy of the Passion:  Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66

We have come again to the Sunday where we can choose to wave the palm branches and cheer for a strange looking king entering Jerusalem on a donkey or take on the somber mood of the events that follow.  There’s a rapid change from an exuberant crowd shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9) to a less celebrative crowd crying out for Jesus to be crucified (Matthew 27:15-23).  We move from a crowd eager to support a revolutionary king to a story line of betrayal and denial and death on a cross.  Even if we stick with the so-called “triumphal entry” we have to note that the very next verse has Jesus entering the temple and driving out the money-changers.

All these images don’t seem to fit together very well.  When it comes to Jesus, he never quite fits what we expect.  We see it in the birth in a manger surrounded by shepherds, along with the fact that the Christmas stories we tell also include wise men from the East.  We see it in the people with whom Jesus chooses to associate, including the rough fishermen and the tax man who become his closest disciples.

Nowhere is the jarring contrast more apparent than on this parade into Jerusalem.  The hope was for a king who would overthrow the oppressive powers of the day.  Instead they got a humble man on a donkey.  (Matthew 21:5)  One of the readings for the “Passion” emphasis speaks of “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2:5-8)  A king who goes willingly to crucifixion?  Who would have thought?  Almost nobody!

Yet we have images from Isaiah of one who gives his back to those who strike him, who suffers “insult and suffering.”  (Isaiah 50:6)  Psalms portrays one whose eyes waste away from grief, whose life is “spent with sorrow.”  (Psalm 31:9-10)  Even Psalm 118 (often read on Palm Sunday) beloved for its poetic description of a king entering the city contains a hint of darkness when it speaks of “the stone that the builders rejected . . .”  (Psalm 118:22)

We could talk about how some of the imagery had a history of association with kings, not to mention the long-awaited Messiah.  We could note Matthew’s attempt to see the story as a fulfillment of prophesy.  “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet . . .”  (Matthew 21:4---See also Matthew 26:54 & 56, 27:9)  We could make our way through the long Gospel reading for Passion Sunday looking in on Jesus’ intimate celebration of the Passover with his friends, living through tales of betrayal and denial, watching Jesus praying in Gethsemane with disciples who can’t stay awake.  Arrest, questioning, the familiar figure of Pilate and crowds crying out for crucifixion follow, and, finally, death between two thieves, and burial.

Which stories do you want to unpack?  What lessons might we learn if we took the stories one by one?  I found myself a bit overwhelmed this week as I read through this seemingly tragic narrative.  We were expecting a revolution and this is what we get?

I could note that the form of Jesus’ entry was probably a deliberate contrast (a bit of street theater) with that of Pilate who came leading Roman soldiers into the city, representing Roman strength.  I have not found any definitive answer to who used what gates, just informed (or not so informed) speculation.  It makes a tempting narrative to associate Jesus or Pilate with the symbolism of various gates, Jesus coming in, for instance, from the east, the direction from which Messiah is to come and Pilate coming from the west through a gate associated with King David.  It’s even more interesting to consider the possibility of Jesus entering through the Dung Gate, the smallest of the gates of Jerusalem, possessing the lowest archway.  The Dung Gate only allows foot traffic. It derives its name from the fact that refuse and ash were escorted out of the city through this gate and dumped in the Hinnom Valley.  He probably didn’t come in that way, but it would have been rich (I think there’s a pun lurking I in there somewhere) with symbolism if he had.

It’s impossible to take on all those stories and images at once.  I found myself coming back repeatedly to the fact that Jesus just didn’t fit, and doesn’t fit, expectations.  That observation was intensified during our Tuesday morning lectionary discussion at Breakfast Club.

In my Palm Sunday sermons I’ve often noted that the people cheering along that entry route weren’t going to get what they wanted.  I have commented on how we are often looking for Jesus’ to bring a peace and prosperity that have more to do with glittering human hopes than the sacrificial service in the fight for justice that seemed to be his forte.  The former can lead to empty lives devoted to power; the latter can lead to death, but, perhaps, a lasting legacy.

The thing is there are many images one or another group of humans treasure.  Forty or fifty years ago I read a book that set forth a variety of portraits of Jesus.  Among those I remember were Christ, the harlequin, and Christ, the revolutionary.  I tried to find the book on the internet, although that’s difficult when I can’t remember the title.  I thought the book was by Alvin C. Porteous, one of my professors at Linfield College, who went on the teach at Central Baptist Seminary then located in Kansas City.  Even with that information, nothing turns up.  Am I just imagining things again?

Someone at breakfast commented that Jesus becomes who we need him to be.  It’s true that no one of the images catches the fullness of Jesus, but we tend sometimes to treat our favorite image as if it were somehow superior, or the final word.  Popular in circles where I move is the image of Jesus as a revolutionary, and it’s an image that I find has its attractions.

If the events in this week’s readings teach us anything, though, it is that Jesus somehow escapes, refuses to fit into, all of our images.  Even our images of revolution are challenged, as were those of the people who saw Jesus entering Jerusalem that day.  Just as Jesus was not the kind of king the people expected, neither was he the kind of revolutionary some hoped, or hope, for.

The major tool of his revolution was his refusal to fit in, his willingness to pursue the ideals of love and justice at all cost.  Maybe the call to us is to do the same.  We do not have to fit in and go along!  Now, if we acted on that, wouldn’t that be revolutionary?
Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130:1-8, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Maybe I should write about zombies this week.  Zombies seem to be sort of “in” these days.  Some definitions of a zombie:  (1) “a person who moves very slowly and is not aware of what is happening especially because of being very tired”; (2) “a dead person who is able to move because of magic according to some religions and in stories, movies, etc.”  A supernatural power is sometimes involved.  Zombies are associated by some with voodoo from the West Indies, a zombie being defined as “a will-less and speechless human . . . capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated.”

Ezekiel takes us to “the middle of a valley . . . full of bones.”  (Ezekiel 37:1)  The people of Israel were in exile, feeling dead as a pile of bones.  God’s challenge is “ . . . can these bones live?” (vs. 3)  The interesting thing is that even after the bones are connected by sinew and covered with skin, “there was no breath in them.”  (vss. 6-8)  Were they zombies of sorts?

There’s more to the story, but for the moment, let’s consider this state of being alive but not living.  It’s there in the Psalms as the Psalmist cries out, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”  (Psalm 130:1)  He is immobilized as he struggles for a sense of meaning in life.  He knows that God offers forgiveness (vs. 4), but, in the meantime, he waits.  “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.”  (vss. 5-6)  Does he feel like he’s sort of in a state of suspended animation, zombie-like?

Much of scripture seems to depict a situation in which people can be alive but not living.  In this week’s passage from Romans, Paul contrasts death and being animated by the “Spirit.”  It’s almost a description of the soulless existence of a zombie.  “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace . . . you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you . . . if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”  (Romans 8:6, 9-10)  Although the final verse of the reading may be seen as pointing beyond this “mortal” life (vs. 11), Paul, in general, seems to be talking about a quality of life in this realm.  This is not just a call to live in anticipation of physical resurrection.  It is a call to live a life guided and infused by an empowering and meaning-giving Spirit.  In scripture, to be alive is more than to just walk around going through the motions.   

The power of God at work is the essence of life, whether it be called “Spirit,” or defines Jesus, who in our reading from the Gospel According to John says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  (John 11:25)  Notice the recurrence of the word “life” in several others of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel.  “I am the bread of life.”  (John 6:35)  “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me.” (John 14:6)  We might also note that, in John 4:7-45, Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman at the well about “living water.”

We could talk at length about the structure of the Gospel According to John and its use of metaphors to communicate the significance of Jesus; it is sufficient for now that we be reminded that there is something more to life than physical existence.  The story itself is about Jesus calling Lazarus out from the grave, so that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth,” and people are told, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (John 11:43-44)  Or is it really about the physical resurrection of Lazarus or more about Jesus as one who inspires and empowers life that is more than going through the motions?

Whatever final significance we give the story, it is true that there have been human beings, in every generation, who have known the empty feeling of just going through the motions.  T.S. Eliot wrote eloquently of it in “The Hollow Men.”  We talked at breakfast this morning about some of the things that get us down.  Such conversation can put us on the edge of depression, and, before the breakfast was over, we were ready to talk about hope.  If you want to really get depressed, read the T.S. Eliot poem, which ends with a whimper: “This is the way the world ends.  This is the way the world ends.  This is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang but with a whimper.”  At the beginning of the poem we find the lines that struck me deeply, when in college, in its description of the way many go through life, in sort of a zombie-like state.  “We are the hollow me.  We are the stuffed men leaning together headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!  Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”  It’s interesting that, just before the whimpering end, he interweaves contrasting states with a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer (“For Thine is the Kingdom”) and the short sentence, “Life is very long.”  “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.  Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response falls the shadow, between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow.”  The last words before the end are “for thine is the life, life is, for thine is.

What do we make of life in the midst of such a dismal description?  I wonder if the popularity of zombies these days is not somehow related to a feeling by many that we are just going through the motions seemingly unable to make much of a difference.  That seemed to be what got us all down the most this morning---the feeling that the world seems to be spinning out of our control, whether we’re considering politics or the environment, tribal conflict, etc., and we feel almost helpless in our efforts to bring about constructive solutions.

I don’t have any easy answers.  The discussion often came back to how frustrating it can be to have to live with some of our questions unanswered, how to live in mystery and hope.  Even Mary and Martha were unhappy that Jesus didn’t respond sooner.  (John 11:21 & 32)  Surely if Jesus would just come to our rescue everything would be all right. 

There’s much discussion in the lengthy gospel reading about illness and being asleep and dying, about resurrection in the future---and now, not to mention the fact that Bethany was a dangerous place for Jesus and his disciples to go. (vss. 3-4, 7-8, 11-14, 23-26) There’s much human emotion, including the observation that “Jesus began to weep.”  (vs. 35)  Neither this story nor any of our texts this week seem to leave us with much but mystery, but they hold the promise that there is more to life than going through the motions.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live . . .”  (Ezekiel 37:14)  “But there is forgiveness with you . . .”  (Psalm 130:4)  “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.”  (Romans 8:11)

Again and again we catch a glimpse of those who demonstrate that the powers of death are unable to overcome.  We talked about people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.  We, on occasion, feel those powers stirring within us.  We see more than, at first glance, seems to be there.  At the end of all the talk may we be among those at the end of the story of Lazarus who believe in and act in concert with the powerful mystery that, from time to time, lifts us to the point that we transcend going through the motions. tal 

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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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