Fifth Sunday in Lent--Seventh Sunday of Easter.
March 22, 2015
Engaging the Texts
Jeremiah: Covenant language is an important part of the Hebrew Bible. Readers of the entire story in this testament learn of moments when the covenant was lived faithfully and moments when the people of God betrayed the covenant and failed to live into it. This is much like what we continue to do today.
"Covenant," as detailed in the Bible, is defined as the agreement between God and the ancient Israelites, in which God promised to protect them if they kept the law and were faithful. (1) The covenant between God and God's people is one that gets played out throughout the history of both Jews and Christians. The covenant that has been prophesied in chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah is now detailed in a more explicit nature. Unlike previous covenants, which have been displayed on stones, this covenant will be written on people's hearts. This is a profound image for preaching. Knowing that God's promises are not simply a contract written out in legal terms, but are carefully and consciously written onto our hearts can be a transformative reality for those who hear this message of grace. Helping listeners hear the difference between "contract" and "covenant" would be important.
Psalm: In this text we read of David's confession of sins and his repentance for those sins. He is pleading with God for forgiveness and the second chance that comes from the cleansing of one's transgressions through salvation. In golfing, a player can get a "do-over" by claiming a "Mulligan." Receiving a "do-over" in life is a profoundly important moment. We all are sinful and are in need of a "Mulligan." We receive this through the love and grace of God. We receive this through the power of the salvific acts of Jesus. We receive it by naming our sinfulness and being repentant for that sinfulness. Claiming that forgiveness is a vital step.
Gospel: In this reading, individuals who are not part of the Jewish community come to see and hear Jesus. They have come because they seek him. They had, like many during those days, heard of his teaching and healing. For all we know, they might have been friends with Philip. The grain of wheat needing to die in order to flourish is an element of nature that many would have been very familiar with. This reading also alludes to the reality of Jesus' own life that will be played out over the next few weeks through the readings during Holy Week. The allusions to his coming death are clear, but there is an homage to the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus as well. When a voice from heaven proclaims the glory of the Son, we are once again reminded of the past glorification and the glorification to come.
Preaching throughout the season of Lent can be incredibly enriching and powerful. We live in a culture that is profoundly image-rich and the texts during Lent are image-rich as well. We think and remember through images. Preaching sermons that are centered on images and use descriptive language can bring listeners into our preaching in important ways. Utilizing the power of these images as a preacher can add rich dimensions to the preaching moment and provide entry points for those in our communities of faith.
In the Gospel text, as well as the baptism and transfiguration stories alluded to in the imagery of the text, and in the covenant language of the Jeremiah text, we see and hear God "naming and claiming" God's beloved. One of the most blessed moments in pastoral ministry, for me, is to baptize someone. Naming that person as a "Child of God," claiming them for and within the community of faith, and placing the water on their head is a significant moment for the initiate, their family, and for the congregation. But for me it is also a profound and spiritual moment. The joy of being God's representative in these events has brought me to tears. The first baptism I ever performed was of two teenagers who came to faith through our youth ministry program. We all cried throughout the baptism. These young people had names, histories, and families, but being publically claimed as children of God for the first time was a powerful event for us all. These ritual experiences are special. The readings today once again take us to the claiming of God's beloved. Being beloved by God can lead us to a transformed life.
Stepping into the pulpit on this fifth Sunday of Lent, the images and threads of covenant, repentance, and claiming are quite powerful. But these diverse threads can feel disjointed and can lead to a sermon that is focused on too many different ideas. Discerning the primary focus is one of the most important steps preachers can take in helping their listeners engage the sermon. So pick one theme, one image, and one main thing. Let it shine. There are obviously links between these images, but the preacher has to make choices. What do your people in your pews need to hear? How can you best relate those images to them--through story, poetry, or images? Be aware of the contextual needs of your people and craft a sermon that addresses their needs.
Palm and Passion Sunday
March 29, 2015
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 11:1-11 (Palms)
Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)
Engaging the Texts
Isaiah: The clarity of trust in this third Servant's Song, despite dealing with difficulty, is a testimony to faithfulness that few of us can exhibit. The phrase "morning by morning" reminds me of the lyrics of the hymn, "Great is Thy Faithfulness."
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; All I have needed Thy hand hath provided-- Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me! (2)
The promise of God's persistent love each and every day is one that has potential to bring comfort despite all we face in our daily lives. We may not always feel that love, but it is there nonetheless.
Palms text (Mark 11): Jesus rides into Jerusalem as David or Solomon might have entered the city to shouts and praise, but this strange king is on the back of a lowly colt. This is an image that most people in the congregation are familiar with. The allusion to the humble entry depicted in Zech 9:9 is evident. The people along the road were chanting Psalm slogans celebrating the entry of a king, but this leader is to be different from what anyone expected.
Passion text (Mark 14 and 15): The story of Jesus on the way to the cross is a multi-faceted look at a weeks worth of events and encounters: an anointing, a meal with friends, a trial and the cross itself. The opening image is of Jesus being anointed by an unnamed woman with very expensive ointment. The extravagance of this act portrays--for the reader and the listener--the ability for us all to be extraordinarily extravagant in our love for and care of others. Jesus proclaims that this woman's story will be remembered forever. What a phenomenal witness of grace. The move from Bethany into Jerusalem was dictated by Jewish law as the Passover meal had to be consumed within that city.
During the meal, the disciples are told of the upcoming betrayal of Jesus by one of his most trusted companions. Judas was not predestined to betray Jesus. He made his own choice and we, too, make our own choices in life--some good and some bad. As the week progresses, we see more intense scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, and the trial. All of these events bring us to the final acts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many people today know more about this story from movies like The Passion of Christ and The DaVinci Code than they do from experiencing Holy Week services. (3) For this reason and others, engaging this Gospel text as Mark has written it becomes vitally important.
Preaching on Palm/Passion Sunday can be an issue for the preacher. There are so many rich texts and vivid images from which to choose that the task can become overwhelming. Knowing the focus of your message, whether palms, passion, or some combination of the two, is imperative.
There are a number of reasons to read and incorporate both the palm and passion texts. The reality is that some people will not attend all of the Holy Week services planned for your community of faith. Providing an opportunity for them to hear both sets of texts before they return for Easter Sunday is very important. However, simply reading all of the texts for this week can feel daunting, let alone preaching a sermon with so many foci for the day.
The preacher has to make a decision. Is the reading and hearing of the Gospel narratives with a very brief message enough in your context? Is there an expectation that you preach on all of the texts? Or is it possible in your community of faith to read all of the texts, preach a sermon of typical length, and know when church is over--it's over--without complaint if it "runs over"? Know your context as you begin this week's preaching preparation and lean into that.
Themes for this Sunday could include the image of journey. The journey through these texts is a complicated one, as is the journey that Jesus takes through this final week of his life. Another possibility is the use of juxtaposition between the crowd shouting "Hosanna" at the beginning of the week and the crowd shouting "Crucify" later in the week. One might also use the relationship between bitter and sweet as a way to talk about the highs and lows of the week's events by using the meal images in the texts.
We can all too easily identify with those who might be labeled as fickle in their choices as depicted in these readings, both the crowds and the disciples. But it is important to hear the presence of God and God's faithful acts in the life, suffering, death, and coming resurrection of Jesus. God is active and evident in these narratives. Jesus is not a helpless victim in all of this. He is the protagonist. He announces his death and interacts with the Jewish and Roman characters in the story. (4) Seeing God, in the person of Jesus, acting decisively in his own drama is something important to note for our listeners. We, too, must be active participants in our own journeys of faith. And, like Jesus, we are not alone on this trek.
April 2, 2015
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Engaging the Texts
Exodus: The Exodus passage includes part of the instructions for the Passover meal. The communal nature of the meal, especially for families not large enough to have a lamb on their own, sets up this week's readings with the theme of holy meals. The lamb is an important part of the meal, not just because it is on the menu, but because it is the lamb's blood that is to be sprinkled over the door to mark Jewish homes to protect their firstborn sons from the angel of the Lord. The gift of deliverance and protection of the Jews was a gracious act by God and the yearly Passover meal was to be honored as a reminder of this grace.
1 Corinthians: The words in this text may be some of the most familiar in all of the New Testament, particularly to those who have grown up in the church. These words, profoundly echoed in our Eucharistic liturgies, guide us to the table of our Lord. The words are so well known that many could and probably do recite them internally along with the presider when they are spoken from the table. Regardless ofhow your tradition understands Eucharistic theology, this act of remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a pivotal liturgical act that connects all who partake with the saints eternal and the gathered community. The words are powerful, but the physical act of eating and drinking is profoundly important.
Gospel: The narrative of Jesus' Last Supper with the disciples has been depicted by some of the most famous artists in history. This meal is one of the key moments of the disciples' collective experiences. We are reminded in John's text that they were gathered for a meal, but in the midst of it they received an astonishing blessing when Jesus washes their feet. In this act we witness the humanity, humility, and love of Jesus. He rises from the table to wash the disciples' feet and in that one moment we are reminded of how we are to serve and sacrifice for others. But, like Peter, we want to turn the table and wash the feet of Jesus instead.
Love is the final piece of this reading. Jesus has first modeled servant love, but then he speaks emphatically that the new commandment he brings is to love one another. In doing so people show their discipleship to him. This is the crux of the Gospel narrative.
Babette's Feast is one of my all-time favorite movies. The film is about a young French woman who comes to work for two Danish sisters in a small village. Babette wins the lottery and chooses to use her winnings to cook an extravagant feast for the sisters and their friends. What follows is an amazing visual feast of cooking and eating. The reserved Danish guests do not want to enjoy the meal, but the extraordinary feast is impossible to ignore and they succumb to the astonishing magnificence of the meal. Likewise, the meals in this week's texts, the Passover and the Last Supper, are meals that have lasting and profound importance for both Jewish and Christian communities.
Meal metaphors invite connections to peoples' lives. Family and friends gathering around a meal are almost commonplace in many cultural contexts. We gather for meals for holidays, birthday celebrations, special occasions, and for other reasons. Meals in my family are loud and exhilarating. They can be joyous and at times complicated. But we always look forward to them. Utilizing the meal metaphor of the readings for this day is not only easy, given the threads of connection between the various texts, it is expected. And that is absolutely the right thing to do. We also connect the meals in the texts with our most ordinary daily meals. Jesus is present in these meals, too.
The other primary image from the texts is Jesus' washing of the feet of the disciples. Many people are incredibly uncomfortable with the act of foot washing--and I'm among them! Feet are body parts that many of us hide within socks and shoes. When a foot-washing ritual is suggested, we're the ones who hang back and hope no one notices that we never came forward. Allowing another person to touch our feet is bad enough, but to be subjected to someone washing our feet is too much. Hearing about Jesus doing this is a powerful reality. Jesus knew what was coming. He announced, "The hour has come to depart," so he was clearly aware of all that was to come (v. 1). And in the midst of dealing with his own feelings, he stopped to serve the ones who followed him.
Helping your listeners pause in the midst of their own lives to serve others in every way possible would be a significant message to deliver from the pulpit. Helping your community of faith live out their faith with a servant attitude and participate in vital, physical, and humble service sometimes requires concrete examples of ways to do that. Providing these concretizations from the life of the community, from the wider context of our world and your church, and from the individual lives of your people will go a long way to help them live into this call. Living faithfully and loving fully is what this new commandment is all about.
April 3, 2015
John 18:1-19:42 (or Mark 14:1-15:47)
Engaging the Texts
The Isaiah text is the fourth "Servant Song" in the book of Isaiah, usually called the Suffering Servant text. In this text we sense the patterns of sinfulness, redemption, judgment, and grace that are part of the story of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament. This text is about the long-awaited Messiah, but it is not specifically about the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Preaching the gospel into this text does not do justice to the Hebrew narrative, but it is still hard not to "hear" Jesus as we read the text. Attend with integrity to the realities of the context of this passage in its time and place.
The suffering servant of God is lifted up in this text. The song expresses a number of differing realities: he is exalted, he sacrificially cleanses, his words will not be honored, and he will give himself over to pain and sickness. The powerful reality is that this chosen servant of God will bear our pain and sickness--willingly. The servant will suffer for our sins and we will be healed. Whatever your theory of atonement, this is the crux of the passage--the assurance that our sins will be removed and our pain and sickness will be healed. At the end, this passage also states emphatically that the servant will triumph over death (53:10-12). However, it is the self-giving nature of the servant that is so powerful for most readers and listeners.
Gospel: The Gospel passage for Good Friday includes the betrayal, arrest, and trial of Jesus as well as the crucifixion narrative from Johns gospel. Evidently the garden where Jesus was arrested was a place that the disciples had visited before with Jesus, as Judas knows the place well. This familiarity is striking. Using a familiar place to betray a friend and leader is frightening. Who among us has not encountered betrayal of one kind or another? But this is another layer of betrayal.
John's gospel is extremely helpful in bringing the reader into the physical realities of Jesus' suffering and death. Many scholars describe Christ's death as taking less time than was typical of others who were crucified signifying that he willingly gave up his life on the cross. (5) The crown of thorns, the nailing of his body to the wood, and the piercing of his side are vivid reminders of the suffering he endured. This fact taken into proper perspective means more to the listener even in the modern era.
Good Friday is one of the most profound and sobering moments in the cycle of the Christian year. Being given the opportunity to preach on this holy day is both a privilege and an honor. On this most solemn day, preaching means telling the story. For many who are part of the church, Good Friday is one of the days of the liturgical calendar that holds the most meaning. In the midst of this service they feel both the depths of despair and the heightened awareness of what is to come. For others, for whom being present in this service of darkness and death may be new or problematic, the feelings may be raw and uncertain. Preaching needs to be sensitive to the emotional range that may well be present in the room.
We live in a world of such pain and suffering. People are killed by rampant gun violence. Black and brown lives are relegated to a "less than" status far too often. Women are paid less and forced to hear others denigrate their bodies and choices. Relating to the suffering in these texts can help our listeners connect to the pain and suffering of Jesus, which can be pivotal to hearing the message. Often we feel distance between Jesus and our own lives. This is a moment when our own experiences and the suffering of others can lead our congregation members into the story in a more personal manner.
Preaching on these very familiar texts can be both a blessing and a curse. Acknowledging that many know these texts quite well and will come with assumptions and understandings of their own will be key. You as the preacher have the opportunity to speak something new and intriguing into this situation. Connecting the garden images of the Hebrew creation story and the garden of Jesus' arrest might be an important image for you to develop. Perhaps the relationship between the suffering servant and the suffering Christ is your leading motif.
One of the questions about preaching on Good Friday is how to end the sermon and service. Leaving people with the discomfort of loss and death is a powerful way to send them into the emotional reality of Holy Saturday and then to Easter Sunday. The final piece of this passage is the placing of the body of Jesus in the tomb by a secret disciple, Joseph of Arimethea, and Nicodemus. This loving act seals the story and leaves off in a world without a Savior. The hope and promise is that Jesus will be resurrected, but for now he is gone and we have to sit in that darkness.
April 5, 2015
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-34
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Engaging the Texts
All four Gospels along with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary include women as the first witnesses of the empty tomb. The presence of the women "is a non-negotiable part of tradition ..." (6) While the names and the number of women vary, Mary Magdalene is always there. Three women are featured in Mark's account. These three women were remembered by name at the cross (15:40) and two of them saw the place where Jesus was buried (15:47).
Mark's resurrection story seems rushed--like the first verse of his gospel. "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." There isn't even a verb! Mark's resurrection story ends with the word gar--"for." That ending feels unfinished and it didn't take long for others to add a shorter ending, then a longer ending! But Mark's original ending wasn't haphazard but very well planned. The grammar and syntax of Mark 16:8 show a carefully constructed verse in two parallel parts:
The final gar creates an especially abrupt ending to the gospel. However, the author has artfully shortened the clauses to wind the syntax down toward the gar. The two halves of v. 8a each have six words in Greek; the two halves of v. 8b wind down to four words, then two.... (7)
Mark created an unfinished ending. He's pointing beyond this story and wants the reader to move beyond the story, too. That little word gar isn't a mistake, but a word that leaves readers on the edge of their chairs, tipping forward. New Testament scholar Joan Mitchell sees the women's silence as an intentional strategy in Mark, opening a space for the reader to respond:
The women's concluding silence creates generative potential space ... in which readers and hearers can respond. The empty tomb and the fear and silence of the last disciple characters surviving in the narrative bring the readers and hearers to their own thresholds of faith, to the limit of words to speak the unspeakable, to the limit of story to make the absent One convincingly present, and to the limit of human experience to trust Who or What is beyond death. (8)
We are closer to these three women than to any other resurrection story. They didn't see Jesus (at least not in this story). We haven't seen Jesus either. The empty tomb proved nothing except that Jesus was gone. Let these women be afraid and perhaps we will allow ourselves to be afraid also.
But there was something else. "Galilee." That's what the man in white said: "Go back to Galilee." The young man had been quite specific. "Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." But the women fled, filled with terror and amazement. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And that's where Mark's story ends.
Now the text doesn't say it, but they headed for Galilee. We can be quite sure of that because some time after this, they must have said something to somebody. They headed for home. Something happened to them in Galilee as it had happened before. Oh, we can argue that they went out believing because they had seen the tomb empty. But what sort of evidence is that? The empty tomb could only be the source of endless speculation, never the source of faith. These women went to Galilee and Jesus met them there. How? What did he look like? What did he say? Mark tells us none of these things. But it was more than the memory of an empty tomb that broke their silence. Here's another question: Why would anybody remember the testimony of these three women? There was no reason under the sun to remember those whose voices had absolutely no authority. Their testimony was next to worthless in verifying anything, let alone resurrection. Only something deeper than terror could break their silence. It happened in Galilee. It always does.
For Galilee is the place Jesus is going--ahead of us, just as Jesus went ahead of them. Easter morning moves us out of the graveyard toward Galilee, the place Jesus has promised to meet us. We always want more evidence than we have. If we are honest, we, too, are filled with terror and amazement. "Who will roll the stone away for us?" is not an old question. Who will roll away the stone of doubt? How will we know this Easter gospel is true? What will finally assure us that this good news is not preposterous?
We stand today with these three women. They didn't know the answers either. But they headed toward Galilee. They knew without saying a word that this was the direction faith was taking them. As pastor/novelist Frederick Buechner said,
"We want to know who Jesus is before we follow him, and that is understandable enough except that the truth of the matter is that it is only by first following him that we can begin to find out who he is." (9)
Second Sunday of Easter
April 12, 2015
1 John 1:1-2:2
Engaging the Texts
Thomas always comes on the Sunday after Easter whether were in Year A, B, or C. Lectionary planners knew this story needed to be heard every year, but before we get to Thomas, a quick look at the other readings.
Acts 4 is seldom quoted by defenders of capitalism! In the Acts community "no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common" (4:32). Of course, Luke was not describing Rome or the United States, but a community of Jesus' followers centuries ago. We hear echoes of Acts 2:42-47 at the end of the Pentecost chapter. There, too, the believers had all things in common, sold possessions and distributed to those in need. A significant difference in Acts 4 is the heightened role of the apostles. Those who sold possessions are called to lay the proceeds "at the apostles' feet." The apostles will then distribute goods to those in need. Some have argued that this sharing never happened--it was simply a utopian vision of the early church; however, this text is followed by two stories that make the picture quite real. Barnabas was commended for selling his field and laying the money at the apostles' feet. Ananias and Sapphira also sold a field, kept some money for themselves, and fell dead at the apostles' feet. Sounds pretty serious!
This Sunday begins five weeks of reading through 1 John. The letter begins with images of light and life from the prologue of John's gospel. Some listeners will hear familiar words from the liturgy: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us...." You might preach a series of five sermons on 1 John or help people come to a deeper understanding of liturgical language rooted in scripture.
Or, you might turn to Thomas even if you have preached on this text many times. There's a problem at the beginning: "the doors of the house.. .were locked for fear of the Jews." Remind listeners that everyone inside that room was Jewish! You might change the public reading to say "fear of the authorities." It's important to acknowledge that anti-Jewish animosity leaked back into John's gospel from a later time. This is important on these Sundays after Easter when there is no reading from the Old Testament (except for the Psalm). We don't want people to think we have given up the Old Testament after Jesus' resurrection. Jesus appears inside the locked room without knocking. His body has been transformed in some mysterious way, but still bears the wounds of crucifixion. It is the wounded Christ who says, "Peace be with you." Jesus had promised the disciples peace when he sat at table with them for the last time (14:27). He had also promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:16-17,25-26; 15:7-15). Now Jesus was breathing that Spirit and that peace into them. Past promises are now present.
But where was Thomas? Why didn't he feel the need to be in hiding? No explanation is given but there is no reason to think that Thomas ran away. It was Thomas who said he was willing to die with Jesus (11:16). It was Thomas who asked Jesus to show him the way (14:5). Jesus meets Thomas at the point of his need: "Put your finger in the nail prints and place your hand in my side." It isn't clear if Thomas actually does this but he exclaims, "My Lord and my God!" Then Jesus speaks words that aren't really for Thomas at all. Jesus is looking over Thomas' shoulder, looking at the preacher and the congregation, giving us a benediction: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
If you have preached on Thomas too many times, you may decide to preach on Acts 4. What would it mean if our congregations were shaped by this communal sharing? As noted above, Luke isn't talking about the economy of a whole society and yet if Jesus' followers were shaped by this communal ethic they could be a catalyst for the common good beyond the church. How can people help one another with difficult economic decisions? "Household Economics" is an especially helpful chapter in the book Practicing Our Faith, edited by Dorothy Bass. Pentecost ends too soon if we don't connect the outpouring of the Spirit with the transformed life believers are called to share with one another.
John 20 offers an abundance of themes. Here are glimpses of a few--but you cannot choose them all:
* The connections between Spirit and breath/wind with many clues from earlier parts of John's gospel (e.g., Nicodemus in John 3, characteristics of the Spirit/Advocate in John 14 and 15).
* "Peace be with you"--how can we help people experience deeper meaning in passing the peace during worship? What word of peace do you long to hear?
* What does it mean to retain or forgive sins? Is this a word only for ordained pastors?
* The significance of Jesus' wounds: if we don't see the wounds, we won't see Jesus. Where do we see wounds in our own lives and in the larger world? This can be a very personal sermon or a more public consideration of the tragic wounds of racism in the United States.
* "Do not doubt, but believe"--Can there be faith without doubt? What does it mean to believe in spite of doubt?
People feel a special kinship with Thomas. A lifetime of preaching and listening cannot exhaust this friendship.
Third Sunday of Easter
April 19, 2015
1 John 3:1-7
Engaging the Texts
The hallelujahs are quieting down, the trumpets are in their cases, and the flowers have been sent to homebound members--or are slowly wilting as the custodian (or pastor) tries to remember to water them. By this third Sunday of Easter much in the congregation seems to be returning to status quo. It is precisely in this time
that the texts for today add significant power. There is another shaking up of the people ... turning and returning.
It may be helpful to remind people of Jesus' path to the cross which winds through the temple. It was in the temple that Jesus challenged the practices of the day. Jesus took vendors, religious leaders, and well-established practices to task. Jesus turned over the tables, turned people from the temple (driving them out), and turned several in authority against him. This week we re-turn to the temple with Peter and John. These two Jesus-following-Jewish-disciples are practicing their faith and engaging in religious ritual and worship. At the temple Peter and John encounter a man born lame who turns to them for alms. Peter announces that they have neither gold nor silver to give (an interesting note of not bringing money after Jesus drove money changers from the place); rather, Peter holds out the promise of life and healing in the name of Jesus the Nazarene (an announcement that likely made many uncomfortable). Then Peter grabs the man--"seizing" or "arresting" him in the Greek--and makes him stand.
In the wake of Easter what does it mean to take a "broken," longing, hurting person waiting at the Beautiful Gate of the Most High and to turn his gaze, arrest him (taking him by the arm), and make him stand? The juxtaposition is in contrast to Jesus who Peter says was condemned and died. This man is lifted up and given life--all in the promise of God made known in Jesus. Peter now uses this testimony to call all people to repent (be turned), to be seized by the promise made known through the prophets, through ancestors in faith, and now Jesus--and to be raised up (called to stand).
In the texts that follow we hear again and again of the turning and returning to God. The Psalm offers a deeply embodied turning to God in prayer and awareness that God is present and engaged. The Second Reading invites people to hear the promise of being lifted up as beloved children of God and turned and oriented to what this means for the future.
Finally, the Gospel is a powerful Easter story of journey, relationship, and promise. Very likely many of us have preached on the concepts of road/journey, conversation/testimony, communion/ breaking of bread. Today, coupled with the other texts, there is an opportunity to reflect on turning to encounter the wounded Jesus in our midst and being turned to joy and proclamation.
Just as Peter and John return to the temple and live and witness to new life in Jesus; just as the epistle writer turns people in orientation to living as beloved children of God; just as the Gospel lesson--after two disciples returned from Emmaus--portrays the disciples being reoriented from fear to promise, there is a wide sense of new life in turning to the Holy.
What does it mean for people who are returning to church this third Sunday of Easter to hear and proclaim the life and promise of Jesus? How are they seized and changed at the beautiful sanctuary doors? How is God embodied for them in story and breaking of the bread? The Easter story continues to turn and reorient us in our living and being. We are now gifted in our re-turning to tell the story (to witness and proclaim) to others.
Prior to my tenure at Calvary Lutheran in Minneapolis, the congregation remodeled the worship space. The communion table came down to the main floor and the community created a space for part of the congregation to be seated in a circle or semi-circle. There is a gift in finding ways to restructure the worship space and to invite people to hear the texts while looking at one another. This is an opportunity to really look at who has shown up and reflect on how God is telling a story of turning their gaze, seizing their arms, and lifting them up in new life.
Today may also be an opportunity to teach people how to give their own testimony. When we hear the words of Peter or experience the disciples being lifted up as witnesses, how are we equipped to share this story? How do we talk about the ways that God has oriented us? How we have been turned or re-turned to God?
During the Easter season with broken bread at Emmaus and Jesus sharing a meal of fish on the beach, it can be powerful to do a "communion procession." Many of us have experienced a Gospel procession, but what does it mean to take the bread and cup out into the middle of the congregation and say the words of institution in the midst of the assembly? This offers another way to see new life for the lame, the hurting, the longing. It offers a deep and abiding promise of Jesus being seen today in our very presence as the meal is shared. It invites us to return to the places from which we have come and to be witnesses of the en-fleshed life and promise of God.
The urban congregation I serve values hearing and seeing the word challenge and change them. They long to see how the word is calling them to deeper authentic relationship. Today's lessons accomplish both. Our hearts and minds, our journeys and stories, are turned again to God who seizes us from the life that has been and lifts us high--through the cross--to walk and live again.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 26, 2015
1 John 3:16-24
Engaging the Texts
Wrapped in the texts for this week are words of restoration and healing. In the first reading we encounter Peter "filled by the Holy Spirit" giving testimony about a man who is now in good health on account of the name of Jesus the Nazarene. Through Jesus new life is made known.
The Second Lesson calls the followers of Jesus to live God's love and to lay down their lives for others; to give of their abundance (the goods of the world) for the sake of their brothers and sisters in need. The lesson calls the community into the on-going witness of restoration.
The Gospel frames restoration in the life and laying down of life by the good shepherd. This language speaks to the agrarian context and familiar image of shepherd; it hearkens back to images of David (of the keepers of God's people).
In this season of Easter, the concepts of healing and restoration are powerful. Invite the community to reflect on what it means to hear of one who gives his very life to heal and restore the world and her people. What does it mean to understand God's abundance and restoration being poured out? How are we engaged in the on-going work of God's love and healing?
The texts provide wonderful reflection on the power of God that is embodied by Jesus. There is opportunity to celebrate God's Spirit dwelling or coming to life in the people.
The preacher may want to lift up testimony (Peter), God's enduring promise (Psalm), Jesus' love for the people and through the people (1 John), the witness of the shepherd--tied to care of community and expanding promise (John). Framing all of these is the salvific vision and action of God. The witness of Jesus now emboldens us to live and proclaim the restoration of life, relationship, and care for others.
Growing up on a farm and raising sheep with 4-H, I love the ability to connect with Jesus as the shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. As a teenager I made treks to our sheep barn every one to four hours during the night in the midst of lambing season. I also recall stories of my grandfather who spent time in the 1920s helping with sheep in the hills and mountains of the Dakotas and Wyoming--watching out for coyotes, mindful of cold weather, alert to dangers in the terrain.
The reality, however, is that the vast majority of people in church are far removed from the reality of shepherds (other than perhaps a romanticized version), and most are removed from agricultural life. How can we take the richness and power of these passages and bring them to bear on life in most of our congregations today?
Some ideas that come to mind:
In our congregation there are a number of women (many now in their 60s-90s) who might be described as neighborhood moms. Many of these women were stay-at-home moms who cared for their own children and were the safe place for kids in the area. They monitored the neighborhood for dangers, they put Band-Aids on numerous "boo-boos," they put dinner on the table always expecting that they may have two to twenty more show up, they raced around town to schools and doctors' offices--and occasionally the police station. My guess is that as we hear the story of the good shepherd this may be an image that resounds for a number of adults in our congregation who either were that person or were cared for by that person. Many will be able to name how this person showed love or faith to them--people who gave of their life for others.
It is also important to explore other vocations akin to shepherd/care giver. Is there a school custodian who greets all of the kids by name as they come to school, who cleans up after them, who makes sure kids, teachers, and staff have everything they need? Is there a city bus driver who knows the people at each stop, who asks them about their day, who waits an extra minute to make sure someone isn't missed at their regular stop? Is there a beautician or nurses' aide in the area hospital or nursing home who goes out of the way to relate to the people who are there, to ask about their hurts and pains, who gets to know people's families and gives people that extra effort?
The shepherds today may look very different from the shepherds of 2,000 years ago. Yet, there is a deep relationship, a care for the other, a willingness to give of oneself. There is a richness in thinking how people today live out their lives and reveal love, healing, and promise.
Grounded in the promise of Jesus' restoring individuals, community, and the cosmos, the on-going witness is one of following in his ways. There is an image Luther uses of each person being a "little christ." Today we might invite each person to be a "little shepherd." In experiencing the one who lays down all he has (ego, clothing, family--even last breath) for the sake of others, how are the followers of the Good Shepherd now invited to give of themselves for the sake of others and the world? No matter age, gender, race, sexuality, class, status--or even vocation--the call of the shepherd who lays down his life now lays claim to our living, dying, and very being. If your community is one that provides opportunities for healing services or testimony during worship, this is a day that naturally opens up these possibilities.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2015
1 John 4:7-21
Engaging the Texts
This is a day to consider making a change in the appointed readings. Throughout the Easter season the First Reading is always from Acts, with no reading from the Old Testament except for the Psalm. While there are good reasons to hear Acts after Easter, there is a sense of loss in not hearing readings from the Old Testament--as though those texts no longer matter after Jesus rose from the dead. On this Sunday it is especially meaningful to hear Isaiah 56 alongside Acts 8; thus, the readings for this Sunday would be as follows:
First Reading Isaiah 56:1-8
Second Reading Acts 8:26-40
Psalm and Gospel readings would remain as appointed.
Isaiah 56 speaks of two groups of people who have been excluded from God's chosen people: foreigners and eunuchs. This was a surprising promise to exiles returning from Babylon. How will they maintain their unique relationship with God? Surely not by mingling with foreigners who do not share their religion! Surely not by welcoming eunuchs who will have no children to pass on the faith! But God's promise comes precisely to these two groups. The promise to eunuchs is particularly striking: "I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters" (Isa 56:5). What an unexpected promise to those who would never have children to carry on their names! The Hebrew for a monument and a name is yad vashem, the name of the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Those who perished will be remembered even if they died childless with no one to recall their names.
Isaiah 56 is the framework for the story in Acts. Luke is especially fond of Isaiah 40-66. Here in Acts 8 Isaiah's promise to foreigners and eunuchs is embodied in one person--an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip and the eunuch rode along together as Philip interpreted words from Isaiah 53 about the one who was like a sheep led to slaughter, humiliated and denied justice. Perhaps they kept unrolling the scroll until they came to chapter 56. Imagine the Ethiopian eunuch's joy as he heard God's wonderful promise especially for him.
What about the gospel? There's plenty of good news in both Isaiah and Acts. John 15 is also good news--even with images of judgment for those who fail to bear fruit. In one of his many "I am" statements in John, Jesus chooses the image of vine and branches to show the close relationship between himself and his disciples. We hear this text after Easter but Jesus was speaking at the Passover table, his last meal with the disciples before he was crucified. Over and over Jesus emphasizes the word "abide," a very important word since he would soon be leaving them.
I encourage preachers to focus on Acts 8 alongside Isaiah 56. Both texts heard on the same day are rich with possibilities for preaching. The sermon can point to the many surprises in the Acts story. At the beginning the narrator tells us this is "a wilderness road" (literally "a desert road," erene). Tuck that away for later. We don't talk much about eunuchs and if we do, we are probably embarrassed. Some people are born eunuchs, others are castrated (as the castrati boy sopranos castrated to keep their high voices). We don't know about this eunuch's past, but we do know about his present. He is a very powerful person, in charge of the queen's treasury, well-educated, reading from his own scroll in his own chariot. He has gone to Jerusalem to worship. Was he allowed in the assembly of the Lord (see Deut 5:23)? Had he been humiliated like the person in Isaiah? For many years churches have excluded and humiliated people seen as sexually different. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people may have gained respect in many professions, but Christian churches still named them unfit to serve in the assembly of the Lord. We don't have to claim that the Ethiopian eunuch was gay or transgender to see that he would have been considered sexually "other." How can we say to those who have been excluded: You have been given a place within God's house, a monument and a name?
Another surprise in this story is how Philip answers the eunuch's question, "About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Starting with the Isaiah text, Philip "proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus." But Jesus was not in the text! We believe that the Spirit anointed Philip and Luke the evangelist to "see" Jesus in Isaiah even though Jesus' name isn't there. Philip was interpreting the Isaiah text--not because the Ethiopian eunuch couldn't read, but because he didn't yet understand the fullness of the story. Without a witness beyond the text, Philip could not have seen Jesus in the text. We can help people who worry that we have given up the Bible when we help them see that the words written down invite us to see more than the words written down! The final surprise comes when the eunuch shouts, "Look, here is water!" Remember: this is a desert road--there shouldn't be any water! Then he asks, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Some might shout "Everything!" You're a foreigner. You're a sexual misfit. You haven't been to catechism class. But here is water. Sometimes God makes a river where there hasn't been one before.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 10, 2015
1 John 5:1-6
Engaging the Texts
Krister Stendahl once told a group of Lutheran pastors in New York City, "Don't preach on love if it's not in the text." Well, this Sunday, love is in the texts! Love is explicit in John's gospel as well as 1 John. It's not hard to hear a call to love extravagantly in Acts 10 even though "love" is not in the text. That story at the end of Acts 10 will be more fully understood when set within the whole chapter. Last Sunday we heard the story of the Ethiopian eunuch baptized on a desert road. Today the story focuses on someone very different from the Ethiopian eunuch. Cornelius is not a foreigner, but leader of a regiment of 100 Roman soldiers. He is an insider in the culture even as the Ethiopian eunuch was an outsider. He is a Gentile who is respected by the Jewish community. Most of Acts 10 describes Peter's strange dream in which a sheet comes down from heaven bearing all sorts of animals, many of them considered unclean. "I've never eaten anything that is profane!" Peter protests. Later he comes to see that the dream was about far more than food: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality" (10:34). After Peter's little sermon something shocking happens: the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius' household--even though they weren't circumcised or baptized. Connecting this story to the other readings, Peter and those who came with him were being called to more expansive acts of love.
In the second reading from the last chapter of 1 John, love and obedience are intertwined. How do we love God? By keeping the commandments. This makes love more than a squishy feeling and gives love content that is shaped by God's justice. As Cornel West often says, "Justice is what love looks like in public."
John 15 emphasizes this same connection between love and commandment. So what is the commandment? The commandment is to love one another! It often happens in the book of John that we feel like we're going in circles, getting a bit dizzy. Jesus repeats the command to love one another so often that we get the sense he really means it! This chapter is part of Jesus' "farewell discourse" to his disciples--like a professor being asked: What would you say if you knew this were your last lecture? Perhaps by the time John was writing this gospel, love for one another had become more difficult.
I remember a Peanuts cartoon I saw years ago. Lucy proclaims in exasperation: "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand!" How do we preach on a word as slippery as "love"? I love my dog. I love ice cream. I love my parents. I love music. I love God. Knowing that there are three different Greek words for "love" may not be very helpful. The same Greek word is used in this text for God's love for Jesus, Jesus' love for the disciples and Jesus' command to love one another--all forms of agape.
This command to love one another came before Jesus began his last lecture. He had just washed the disciples' feet when he said: "I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (13:34). Did Jesus mean since I have loved you or because I have loved you? What if Jesus meant in the way that I have loved you, you also should love one another?
What does Jesus' love look like in John's gospel? In John 4, Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman at the well. She's a different gender, different ethnic group, different religious tradition. This is a reaching-beyond-boundaries kind of love. Four chapters later, Jesus bends down to be with a woman accused of adultery. Her accusers have the written law on their side, but Jesus does not condemn her. This is a people-before-rules kind of love. In chapter 9 Jesus heals a man born blind and refuses to accept the conventional wisdom that this man or his parents must have sinned. This is a love that challenges accepted norms. We can't stop at every chapter, but there are many clues along the way that show us how Jesus loved. At the Passover meal, just before Jesus' love command, we see a bending-down kind of love. At the end of his life, Jesus looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her. "Woman, here is your son," Jesus said. And to his disciple, "Here is your mother." This is a family-creating kind of love where water is thicker than blood.
When love is shaped by God's commandments this love can't be whatever we make up. How do we reach across boundaries to love people whose race is different from our own? How is that love shaped by God's call for justice? Sometimes John's gospel can seem other-worldly, but this is the gospel that shocked the philosophers: "And the Word (logos) became flesh and lived among us ..." (1:14a). How can loving one another take on flesh? It's not optional: Jesus commanded us to love.
May 14, 2015
Engaging the Texts
Ascension Day always falls on the fortieth day of Easter. The timing is based on Acts 1:3 which tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples "during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." Congregations that do not have Ascension Day services often move the commemoration to the following Sunday. Whether Thursday or Sunday, the Acts account is too important to miss. The disciples' question is urgent: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" The question indicates that the disciples are still confused about Jesus' mission. Throughout his life, Jesus kept saying, "The kingdom of God has come near"--and it was quite clear Jesus didn't mean a nation-state. After telling the disciples they cannot know the time, we hear one of the biggest little words in scripture: "But." That word usually marks an important shift, an alternative way of thinking. Here, that little word changes the focus from speculative time to present-tense time. The focus also shifts away from Jesus to the disciples: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you-, and you will be my witnesses" (italics added). Don't spend your time trying to discern God's mind; rather, believe that you are called to carry on the ministry of Jesus, empowered by the same Holy Spirit that anointed him back in Luke 4.
The Gospel reading from Luke 24 also tells the ascension story with a slightly different emphasis. In this ending to the resurrection story, Jesus "opened their minds to understand the scriptures." He had done the same thing as he walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Would they have recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread if they hadn't heard him open the scriptures? Part of the disciples' call is to continue this work, opening the scriptures. That call has been passed down through a long chain of disciples to you and me.
Here's a silly question: "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Wouldn't YOU stand looking up toward heaven if you had seen Jesus rising up? There was another time when two men in dazzling clothes appeared to the women at the empty tomb. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" they asked the women. Their question must have seemed absurd for the women had not come looking for the living, but to pay respects to the dead.
Jesus doesn't seem to be where he's supposed to be. He was not in the tomb, but risen and gone to Galilee. In today's story, Jesus was no longer on earth, but risen beyond human sight. We might begin to believe that to be with Jesus means to be somewhere other than where we are now. We, too, are left wondering.
There's a wonderful woodcut of Jesus' ascension by Albrecht Durer. If you look closely at the picture--not up in the clouds, but on the ground--you can see footprints on the earth. Durer has carefully outlined Jesus' footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their mouths open. Perhaps the artist was simply imagining a detail that isn't in the text. Or perhaps, he is asking us the question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" The witness we have received is not "What goes up must come down." Rather it is this: "The one who went up is still around." Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a deep sense of Christ's footprints on the earth. "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth," he wrote in Cost of Discipleship. That is, we do not have to leave this earth to be with Christ, but Christ continues to be present to us in the power of the Spirit. Bonhoeffer goes on, "A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities ... that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him." The body of Christ takes up space on the earth.
The Ephesians text says it boldly: "And [God] ... has made [Christ] the head over all things for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." Sometimes, it's still easier to keep looking up there or out there or somewhere other than where we are--especially if we think of the church as the body of Christ. We see so many blemishes, so many things wrong. Perhaps you have friends who say, "Show me a church where ministers aren't self-serving, where people aren't hypocritical, where love is genuine, and I'll join that church." Maybe you have said that yourself. We will have to wait a long time for this perfect church. Such a church takes up no space on this earth.
At the end of this Ascension Day service, invite people to look at each other--across the aisle, behind and in front. Ask people to keep their eyes open as you pray the prayer from Ephesians: "I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers."
Go in peace. Jesus is here with us. Thanks be to God!
Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2015
1 John 5:9-13
Engaging the Texts
If you are marking today as Ascension Sunday, see previous comments on those texts. If you held Ascension Day services on Thursday, the focus today will be texts for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The first reading from Acts takes up the story after Jesus' ascension. In Luke's understanding, the disciples represent a restored and renewed Israel; thus, it is critical that there be twelve disciples corresponding to the twelve tribes. Judas must be replaced and his replacement must be someone who has accompanied the disciples from Jesus' baptism until his ascension. How that is possible is a mystery because the disciples were not called until after Jesus' baptism. The two who qualify are not known anywhere beyond this text: Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. It may seem a rather arbitrary process to make the choice by casting lots, but there are many references to casting lots to make decisions in the Old Testament. Jonah 1:7-8 is probably the most familiar. The lot fell to Matthias and the circle of twelve was now complete, awaiting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit that follows immediately in Acts 2.
Today completes the readings from 1 John that began the Sunday after Easter. Themes in this portion reflect the theology of John's gospel: "If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son." With that reading in our ears we turn to the gospel.
John 17 is often called Jesus' high priestly prayer. This prayer concludes a lengthy time around the Passover table that began with Jesus washing the disciples' feet. That image of Jesus bending down needs to be remembered as we listen to Jesus' prayer in which he seems to be very exalted.
"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one." While Jesus is praying to his Father, this is a very motherly, tender prayer. Jesus' prayer isn't only in the past. The verse that follows today's reading goes on: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who come to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one ..." Jesus is praying also for us. We are over-hearing a great pastoral prayer. Each section ends with a silent "Lord, in your mercy" and the whole church responds, "Hear our prayer."
That they may be one--this is Jesus' prayer for the twelve disciples and for all who come to believe through their word. Then shouldn't we get rid of denominations? Some church growth workshops recommend deleting denominational names all together. I understand the reasoning: if you grew up as a Methodist you might never walk in the door of a church called "Lutheran." And if you've never been inside a church, you have no idea what "Lutheran" is. Get rid of those denominations--let's all be the one Christian family Jesus prayed for.
Well, there's a problem. Jesus prayed that they might all be one, not the same. Jesus didn't even pray that they would all agree. Denominations can be seen as signs of human brokenness, but denominations can also be gifts--if we remember that our oneness is in Jesus Christ. Denominational names are adjectives rather than nouns. There are Lutheran Christians and Roman Catholic Christians, Presbyterian Christians and AME Zion Christians and many more (even though we use shorthand and turn the adjectives into nouns!)
Non-denominational churches may be appealing, but they can also be deceptive. It is surely possible to be prideful in saying, "I'm a Lutheran." I once wore a little charm on my watch with the Luther rose on one side and "I am a Lutheran" on the reverse. Perhaps this was, in case of an accident, someone would call a Lutheran pastor! It is also possible to be prideful about having no denominational name. "Our church in non-denominational," a woman told me some years ago when she stopped in to invite me to a neighborhood Bible study. She gave me a little book titled Christianity Can Be Profitable. It was about making money and it was written by her minister. Technically, she was right: her church was "non-denominational." But we could also say it was a very small denomination defined by one minister and those who followed his teachings.
Denominations can be seen as gifts and reminders of the larger, global family that is Christ's Church. When I say I'm a Lutheran Christian I am mindful that there are others with different adjectives who name the name of Jesus. It is possible to worship in a thousand different tongues and rhythms, to raise our arms in ecstatic praise or sit quietly barely moving an eyebrow. It is all right to drink wine or grape juice from a common cup or a little glass. It is all right to use a green hymnal or a red one or none at all! Our oneness is not in these human constructions or constitutions, not in popes or councils. When we forget the source of our oneness, Jesus is still praying for us.
(1). http://dictionary.reference.com/ browse/covenant (Accessed November 30, 2014).
(2.) https://www.hymnal.net/en/ hymn/h/19 (Accessed on December 10, 2014).
(3.) http://www.gbod.org/resources/ palms-or-passion (Accessed on December 2, 2014).
(4.) Mary Margaret Pazdan. "Passion Narratives" in The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2008), 94.
(5.) Accordance Bible Software commentary on John 18:1-19:42.
(6.) Joan L. Mitchell, Beyond Fear and Silence: A Feminist-Literary Reading of Mark (New York: Continuum, 2001), 39.
(7.) Ibid., 15.
(8.) Ibid., 114.
(9.) Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 98.