Plentiful Words, Rare Truth

A Sermon for Proper 4; 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20), Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

Just a week or so ago the NFL owners meeting ended. They adopted several rule changes. One involves kickoffs, during which 40% of concussions occur. Another is that it is now a penalty for a player to lead with their helmet when tackling. These are designed to improve the safety for players. Another change involves rule about players not standing during National Anthem. You may remember the controversy this has caused the last year or so. It is interesting how the actions of a few define all the players. We rarely hear about other kinds of actions by NFL players in regular news. On Facebook, I recently read of two. In one a player helped a lady who was having difficulty paying the $50 fee for her oversized bag. He stepped forward and paid it for her. She offered to repay him with the cash she had, he simply replied, “Use it to pay it forward for someone else.” Another player noticed an elderly woman having trouble getting her bag from the overhead compartment. He got it down for her and carried to the front of the plane. The flight attendant told her the wheelchair and escort would be waiting for her, to take her to lobby. They got to the terminal, there was the wheelchair, but no attendant. So, he pushed her in the wheelchair, to the lobby where her daughter met her. Both these stories were posted by others who saw the behavior. It is a combination of stories, some controversial, some in service to others, and other things as well, that paints the truer image of NFL players.

This morning’s reading from 1 Samuel is the same. The appointed verses are the story of Samuel hearing God’s call and with Eli’s help, answering “Speak Lord, for your servant is here.” It sounds like a prophetic call story, but it does not have the typical structure of a prophetic call. (Birch). However, the optional verses and the story in Chapter 2 (2:11-17 and 22 – 34) tell the rest of the story. Eli’s sons are moral and spiritual hooligans. (Bratt). They grossly abuse their priestly office for their self-interest. It is no surprise then that all Israel does as they see fit (Bratt). The prophecy, by a stranger, in chapter 2 is against Eli and his priestly lineage. The word God tells Samuel to tell Eli repeats that prophecy. These verses reveal the complete story of what is happening here (Birch).

This story is more than Samuel coming of age and taking his first step in service to God. This is a story of a time when the Word of God was rare, and visions were uncommon (Birch). It is significant that Samuel has no basis on which to recognize the Lord’s summons (Birch). His failure to recognize God’s call mirrors the Israelites’ continually ignoring God’s voice (Bratt).

I do not believe God’s word or divine visions are rare these days. Quite the opposite. Doug Bratt puts it this way It’s increasingly hard to actually hear God speaking. It’s hard to untangle so much of the noise that our culture makes from God’s Word of Life. So many people claim to speak for God that we need some kind of good theological filter. The cacophony, the noise of so many competing voices is a sign that there is more at stake in our public, political, religious, and civic institutional decision making, that what the arguments are about. What is at stake is

  • who we are,
  • how we talk to one another,
  • what we model to the world, and
  • how we respect our foundational institutions and values (Friedman).

In describing the fall of one more respected public figure, connected to handling an exploitive sexual relationship, Ross Douthat writes

the big story … is a high-stakes showdown between two generations. Both generations are theologically conservative, but the figures raising their voices … have been —associated with a vision of their church that’s more countercultural, less wedded to the institutional [alliances], more likely to see racial reconciliation as essential …

[T]he temptation to dismiss discomfiting revelations as fake news, to retreat back into ignorance and self-justification, is at least as powerful as the impulse to really reckon with the truth.

[T]he question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge? (Douthart).

It may well be, that as in Samuel’s day, like Israel, many in our world simply do as they seem fit (Bratt).

I do not think it matters if you use an Ignatian concept of the Spiritual Examen (Ashley). or Lectio Divina, or African Bible Study, or some other form of discipline to discern God’s calling or vision. I do believe an indicator of whose voice you are hearing is how it leads you to lead others to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The story of Samuel coming to know the Lord is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees that our call will be easy. Every time has its own peculiarities and God-filled silences and cacophonies. Each of us is called to be a prophet, in our own way. That call includes continually listening for the Voice, and then to speak what we hear (Bridgeman). To faithfully hear and speak takes a willingness to get out of the way, to hear without editing, to act, and then take responsibility for our response to what we have heard (Epperly). To be a prophet involves an openness to the advice and wisdom of others who might help us in discerning God’s call. (Birch). But whether we are prophetic or not our words, our actions, or lack of words or action, plays a part in others coming to recognize the voice of the Lord and divine visions.

None of this is easy. And as strange as it may seem, it is Eli who models this kind of self-awareness, and openness to God’s word. The judgment against him and his sons is harsh. It can never be expiated, can never be atoned for, never be corrected by sacrifice, or offering (1 Samuel 3:14. And though Eli is neither corrupt nor unfaithful, he accepts divine judgement, rather than seeking self-interest, when he says, “It is the Lord.”

It is hard to accept and harder to speak truths that challenge what we like and what benefits us. I think this is the source of all the turmoil in response to black ballplayers kneeling rather than standing as the National Anthem is sung. I expect we try to define the prophetic role as predicting the future and not speaking hard truths, because speaking the hard truth is lots harder, and personally costly. Today’s Psalm is clear

It is a fearful thing and a loving thing to know that God has searched me and known me, sits with me, rises with me, sees my path, and knows all my ways, is behind me and before me, lays a hand upon me (The Living Church).

The psalmist provides us a powerful, source of strength and hope wherever we go, we are in God’s care: no emotional, spiritual, or geographical state can take us beyond God’s presence (Epperly).

 A final observation. In all the prophets’ words about harsh truth and oncoming disaster, there is always a word of hope and a path to God’s presence. The same is true here. The reading ends

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19-20).

You know I am fond of saying “The Kingdom of God is right here right now.” I know this is especially true as we accept our prophetic voice and name the evils where we are, such that all God’s people may know and show justice, mercy, and humility, to each other and before God.


References

Ashley, Danáe. “Bread, Law, and Spirit, Pentecost 2 (B).” 3 6 2018. Sermons that Work.

Birch, Bruce C. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Frist and Second Books of Samuel. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. X vols. OliveTree App.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 4B 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20). 3 6 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Bridgeman, Valerie. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20].” 3 6 2018. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?&gt;.

Douthart, Ross. “The Baptist Apocalypse.” 30 5 2018. nytimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/opinion/paige-patterson-southern-baptist-convention.html&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 6 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Sounding Code Red: Electing.” 29 5 2018. New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/opinion/midterms-trump-democrats.html&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Nelson, Thomas. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Church. Righteousness and Mercy. 3 6 2018. <livingchurch.org>.

 

 

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A Move, DNA, and Moral Heroes: Toward an understanding of Trinity

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday; Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

You may know that Angie and I have sold our house on W Pecan and are moving to Westminster Village. The grand adventure started Monday a week ago with a project to reconfigure and expanded the fenced in area of our new backyard. Even with a late start, Monday was a good day. Marcel, our nephew who is helping us, and I

  • took down two sections of existing fence,
  • dug 5 new post holes, and
  • planted 5 new posts.

Tuesday was another late start, with a supply problem, it is hard to install what isn’t there. Still, we relocated the existing sections of the fence we took down Monday. The supplies arrived, ~ and it rained. Wednesday, we continued, only my inability to measure 8 feet caused a problem; it is hard to install an 8-foot fence section in a 9-foot span between posts. Again, with some ingenuity from Angie, we were successful; however, it rained again. Thursday, Marcel, and I were back at it, and it rained again. We finished up Friday, except for the gate. Saturday was gate day, I never thought the easy part would be figuring out how big the gate should be in an angled fence line. No rain and perseverance paid off. The fence is installed, the gate is installed, it even opens and closes.

Sunday, with help from a friend with a trailer, we moved our bedroom and stayed the night. Monday, with the help from the Mississippi County Union Mission, we moved all the furniture. Tuesday, with continuing help from the Mississippi County Union Mission we moved some items to controlled climate storage near our daughter. We also moved all the boxes. Wednesday, we moved all the little stuff, flowers, backyard furniture, stuff in the garage, and backyard shed; would you believe it took all day. Thursday, after Rotary, I

  • picked up the last of the little stuff, and the trash can,
  • swept the garage, and
  • said goodbye to the lady who spent most of two days cleaning the empty house.

When I got home, I joined the earnest and continuing effort to unbox everything we had spent weeks packing.

You may wonder what our moving adventure has to do with celebrating the Trinity. Well, what they have in common is that the more I think about both the more I realize what I still don’t know about either.

You may recall the church spent nearly a thousand years, and at least four major councils producing 3 creeds, all trying to explain our understanding of one God, as Father, Jesus, and Spirit. You know one of these creeds, we say the Nicene Creed every time we celebrate communion. You are at least familiar with a second creed, the Apostles’ Creed, we say in Morning Prayer, and with Baptisms. You are probably not familiar with the Athanasian Creed, which is not used, primarily because of its length. It is in the historical documents included in the prayer book. All of them try to explain how three equals one; or one equals three, which any elementary student will tell you isn’t true. So, where can we turn for inspiration?

You know I believe cosmology gives us the language of science to talk about the how of the world as we can see and measure it. The language of science informs the language of philosophy, we use to talk about the why of the world, especially relationships between individuals and groups of people. The language of philosophy informs the language of theology we use to talk about the meaning of the world, and of course God. Last Monday the New York Times published an article titled Every Cell in Your Body Has the Same DNA. Except It Doesn’t (Zimmer). We all know our DNA, is the stuff the defines what we look like, and all sorts of our physical being. The DNA in every cell has all the information necessary to recreate us. This is why cloning works. Only now medical scientists, seeking explanation for unusual illnesses, are learning this is not true. Sometimes genes vary from cell to cell, not unlike the way they vary from person to person. It is not an entirely new thing, medieval Europeans knew about terrifying trees, that were one kind, but were also all scrambled up. Darwin was intrigued by similar observations. If you eat pink grapefruit, you know about this.

 A Florida farmer noticed an odd branch on a Walters grapefruit tree. These normally bear white fruit, but this branch was weighed down with grapefruits that had pink flesh. Those seeds have produced pink grapefruit trees ever since.

What we now have is a scientific observation of how one thing, us, is made up of millions of identical cells, and that sometimes can be us, made up of mostly identical cells, but some that are different. This is not an explanation for our belief in our understanding of God as Trinity, but it at least introduces the idea of a complexity of being we have not previously known.

That same day David Brooks, one of the columnists I read closely, wrote What Moral Heroes Are Made Of (Brooks). Brooks writes about

  • their unhesitating will to act,
  • a simplicity of moral response – “This is just what I do.”

Moral heroes’ identities are tightly woven into their moral ideals. Typically, they are a part of a group sharing similar values, and aspirations, who share the core tasks, and support each other when an individual cannot carry the load by themselves. They have a profound belief they can make a difference when others say it cannot be done. Moral heroes understand that no matter the diversity of their individual passions they are all part of one big struggle to make a difference in the world. Brooks understands that a core attribute of moral heroes is community; the community they are in, the community that needs change, and the Omni-community that is all communities woven together. Brooks’ moral heroes know none of us are complete without our community, and our community is not complete without all its individual members. Blend this with the understanding, of identical DNA that is different, a same but different understanding of Trinity begins to emerge.

Our understanding is no longer one an understanding, it is becoming one of relationship. Neither God, nor Jesus, nor the Spirit can be without the other two, and the whole cannot be without all three. You know from Genesis that we are made in the image of God. A biblical idea that supports Brooks’ understanding of moral heroes. It also connects us to Trinity. As Trinity is important to us, so are we important to Trinity. We cannot be without each other, including Trinity, and Trinity is not the same without us. This is not an argument that we are like God. It is a proclamation that for us to be whole, to know shalom, our relationship with each other, in all those complex possibilities, we will mirror the perfect relationship of God, Jesus, and the Spirit, that is at times, spoken of, as love.

So now I see the circle. Understanding moving is not about understanding all the details of

  • what happens when and
  • how long, and
  • the required materials.

No, understanding moving is being aware of all the relationships between all the people involved. And all those relationships are grounded in our relationship with Trinity, which is perfect love revealed and shared with us, and thus blesses us, every one of us.

Glory to our Trinity – God/Jesus/ Spirit, that brings blessings to you;
and blessing to you, that gives glory to our Trinity – God/Jesus/Spirit.


References

Brooks, David. What Moral Heroes Are Made Of. 21 5 2018. <nytimes.com/2018/05/21/opinion/moral-heroes-improve-society.html>.

Zimmer, Carl. “Every Cell in Your Body Has the Same DNA. Except It.” New York Times (2018). <nytimes.com/2018/05/21/science/mosaicism-dna-genome-cancer.html>.

 

Dare we risk the ride?

A sermon for Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 

Preface: This was preached last week, immediately which we started our move. Boxes are just now unpacked enough to blog my thoughts.

A long time ago I saw a movie, I don’t remember the title, I don’t remember the characters’ names or who stars in it, I do vividly recall the parts about the challenges in a small country church. [1] James is the pastor. David is the … well, we would say sexton. James takes care of the people. David takes care f the building. David’s job is challenging, the building is old and in need of some significant maintenance. James’s job isn’t any easier; no, the people are not that old, it is just that there are two wealthy families in the community, who are always trying to outdo each other, so much so that their impulse to help, a mildly disguised effort to impress, mostly results in ~ not much. Each family has developed a cadre of supporting families. And there are a couple of independent cadres determined to not have a thing to do with either family, but they tend to split into fractions of their own. This complex web of cadres of families in the county makes James’s job even harder.

David’s job is also made harder by the still he is secretly running in the basement. One day, when David has fallen asleep at the fishing hole, the still explodes, setting the church on fire. The fire brigade is slow arriving; the alert system donated by one family cadre doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter, when the hoses, donated by the rival family, are connected they leak so bad no water gets to the nozzles. The smaller rivals start blaming the two big family cadres, those two, start blaming each other. The arguments grow at the same rate as the intensity of the fire. James had enough; he shouts: “Oh, please just everybody shut up, and let this church die in peace!” then he turns and walks down the road. Everybody else stands in stunned silence.

The next day David is trying to apologize to James. It is an awkward conversation at best. David really does love the church, her people, and building. James can see that, and he wants to help David discern what to do but is so overwhelmed by his own grief that he can’t respond. All he sees is a bitterly divided community, and a church literally splintered. There may be a county left, at least the lines on the map; there is certainly no community left, that went up with the smoke of the church fire. Once again James turns to walk down that country road.

2000 years ago, the Jews, God’s people were scattered all over the world. There were ten or fifteen different forms of Judaism (Bratt). Many believed God has withdrawn the presence of the Spirit (Nelson). Most of the diaspora Jews, from 17 countries within the Roman Empire, spoke Greek (Keener and Walton), meaning they could speak with each other. So, each hearing the disciples speak of the gospel and Peter speak of prophecy in their own language is not simply a miracle of language. It is reminiscent of the theophany at Mount Sinai, and Israel receiving the 10 commandments and the making of a community (Gaventa and Petersen; Wall). Pentecost was about the miracle of the remaking of a community, re-forged across many differences that was made possible through the transforming work of the Spirit (Day). The outpouring of the purifying, empowering Spirit is not a unique event from a time long ago. God’s presence continues to be among those who seek God/Jesus/Spirit (Wall). We have witnessed the power of God’s presence. In 1906, on Azusa Street, a revival forged a community across all kinds of community boundaries, black men laid hands on white women and black women laid hands on white men to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Hearts were transformed, lives tuned to the eternal presence of divine love of all (Day). Those lives continue today in the many Pentecostal churches across the nation and the world.

Just as the destruction of that country church signified the mess that community was in, the incivility, disregard for life, and the destruction of God’s people of all origins and faiths signify the mess we are in. We know our communities, our international, national, state, county, city, school, business, civic, church, and social communities are in a host of messes a long time in the making. This political moment is enabled by the complete loss of mutual understanding, and civility, it is powered by a total loss of community (Day). We know we need a transformation. We know we need the power of the Spirit.

James knew the power of the Spirit. He always had. The difference is at this moment he is so overwhelmed he is vulnerable enough to sense the Spirit’s presence. Before he gets around the first bend he is met by a long procession of trucks loaded with supplies and cars loaded with people. The real surprise is that the families are all intermingled. All signs of the previous cadres are gone. The church family, in fact, the whole county family is gathering to rebuild the church. Well, the church building. The Spirit started rebuilding the Church in the searing fire that exposed divisions that needed spiritual cauterizing. As David directs the caravan into the church parking lot, you can see James watch in amazement, and you can see his insight; David was wrong, the still was not the cause of the fire, oh it exploded, but there was a little Spiritual help. James watches the Spirit continue to work as once divided families begin working as a single divine community.

Like James, we know the power of the Spirit. The question is will we be willing to be vulnerable, are we willing to experience holy disorientation, as the disciples, and gathered Jews from all over did those millennia ago, as white and black worshipers at Azusa Street did some 112 years ago, as James’ community did (Day). Will we risk the disorientation of the Spirit, will we risk shaking everything up and breaking down all the barriers we use to separate humankind, will we dare ride the unpredictable winds of the Spirit (Epperly). and follow her to a reorientation and the presence of divine love for all. The Spirit is right here, right now. Dare we risk the ride?


References

Bratt, Doug. Pentecost B Acts 2:2-21. 20 5 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Carey, Greg. Commentary on Acts 2:1-21. 20 5 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Charles, Hoffacker. “This Sacred Discontinuity, Day of Pentecost (B).” 20 5 2018. Sermons that Work.

Day, Keri L. “We need a Pentecost.” 9 5 2018. christiancentury.org. <https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/when-easter-sunday-falls-april-fools-day&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 20 5 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Nelson, Thomas. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

The Living Church. Entirely Yours. 20 5 2018. <livingchurch.org>.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

[1] A parishioner knew the movie, “An Angel in My Pocket” starring Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke, 1969

YGRHRN

A sermon for Easter 7; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

 

In my trolling. around trying to find better ways to organize all the organizing tools I use I have come across a website named IFTTT, which means “if this then that.” Examples of what it allows you to automatically do are upload attachments from emails to google driver; or if it going to rain tomorrow add a reminder to your calendar. Today’s reading from Acts is another example that there is nothing in the world because it is an IFTTT story.

The “If this” is if the number of Jesus’ chosen followers is not twelve, and the “then that” is to choose a replacement. But why 12, why not 11, or 13? In ancient times numbers had meaning beyond count; 12, like 7, is a number for completeness. 12 has from her earliest days been a part of Israel’s history. In Genesis, Jacob has 12 sons, who become the 12 tribes of Israel (Keener and Walton).

Part of Jesus’ teaching is the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, so there must be 12 leaders for the 12 tribes of the new Israel (Harrelson; Gaventa and Petersen). In his opening lines Peter says the scriptures must be fulfilled, in verses we did not read (18-20), Peter cites the psalms (109) as reason to fill the empty apostle’s place (Wall). So far, we see the need for the 12th man is the symbolic restoration of Israel, and so that Israel will be whole (Allen). Restoring the Twelve also addresses any question of divine faithfulness. God’s fidelity is involved in the presence of the Twelve (Wall). There also the implication that as the Twelve are complete Jesus followers are ready for whatever is ahead of them (Keener and Walton).

The next sentence (2 verses) lays out the requirements. He must be male, and here the word is male (Bratt). He must be with them from the beginning (John’s baptism) until the Ascension and have been an eye witness to everything (Harrelson). He must become, with the remaining 11, a witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Wall).

An aside; this is not the only description of an apostle in the New Testament. Paul uses the apostle, which means “one sent” to refer to many followers, not just the Twelve. Both the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene are depicted as apostles to the apostles (Harrelson). It is worth noting all the people sent with the first word of Jesus’ resurrection are women. An Apostle can be anyone sent as a witness of God/Jesus/Spirit.

Back to the story from Acts. The next step is nominations. Nothing is said about how this happens, only that 2, Joseph called Justus and Matthias, are proposed.

The third step is that the group prays. In Luke prayer surrounds all significant moments. Here the story touches on the reading from the Gospel according to John which recounts Jesus praying for all the disciples. Jesus asks the Father to protect them as he sends them into the world, just as the Father sent Jesus into the world (John 17:15-19) (Lewis). Prayer encircles the entire community, who follow Jesus, as they prepare to make this decision. It reminds them they are always encircled by divine love. And it connects them to divine wisdom, power, and insight (Epperly).

The final step in filling the Twelfth Apostle is to choose. Following common practices of the day they cast lots. They are not engaging in magic, which is forbidden. They are continuing the trust they place in God in their prayers. Saul casts lots, the Urim and Thummim, in 1st Samuel to a question (1Samuel 14:36-44) (Harrelson). Lots are used in Joshua (19: 1-40) and Jonah (1:7-8) (Wall). Urim and Thummin are typically restricted to priest, so the disciples are likely using a lot marked for each that are placed in a jar that is shaken until one falls out, or something similar (Wall). As we heard Mathias is chosen.

It is curious to note this is the last time we read about Mathias in scripture. After a dozen or so chapters Peter is no longer heard from. In fact, all twelve chosen apostles fade into the background (Harrelson; Wall). With this realization suddenly “If This Then That” doesn’t seem to carry the meaning of this story. Perhaps the message is “Not That, This.”

There other succession stories in scripture, there is nothing particularly significant about this process (Wall). And while it does remind us to trust God’s quiet voice far more than our carefully constructed processes, the story is not about process, or us, the story is about the continually “in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth” (Allen). While it is true that God works through Peter, and Matthias, and the other chosen apostles, and disciples, and the whole host of those who believe, and doubt, the story is that God’s kingdom continues to make its way into the world right here, and there, and everywhere, right now, and tomorrow, and forever. The story is that even in the in between times (and remember the Spirit has not yet arrived) the Kingdom is present, God is present in the in between times.

There are lots of people living in between times. I am living between having retired and being retired; between living at 1121 and living at 6651 or is it 15. Some of you have kids who are between one grade and the next. There are kids between parents. There are parents and loved ones between this type of care at home and another type of care perhaps not at home. There are people between this job and the next. We are approaching election season, so we are between our current representatives and the next. There are all kinds of betweens, and God is present in all of them. When our trusted symbols are no longer available; God/Jesus/Spirit is available to you. Today’s story from Acts isn’t “If This”, nor “Not This” but “YG-RH-RN” Yes, God is right here, right now.

References

Allen, Amy Lindeman. Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. 13 5 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.
Bratt, Doug. Easter 7 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. 13 5 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 13 4 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. “Prayers Needed.” 13 5 2018. Working preacher.
McCormack, Jerrod. “In the Space In-Between, Easter 7 (B).” 13 5 2018. Sermons that Work.
Thomas Nelson. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.
Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

Witnessing: Working the Work God Has Given Us to Work

After a short break to begin adjusting to life as a retired priest, I have returned to weekly preaching.

A sermon for Ascension on Easter 6; Acts 1:1-11

We had been at Scout camp for nearly a week. Every day the camp leader was doing things for various groups of Scouts. We watch, we listen, we ask questions, we do the things we are asked to do – most of the time. Somewhere in all that I think we help. When we gather the next to the last morning, nothing was laid out. Our camp leader comes around the corner and just before we get anxious he calls us to follow him. We hike out of the Scout Camp through no man’s land, which was off limits, so we had never been there before, to the Cub side of camp. He leads us to a spot, explains that a group of new Cubs Scouts, who have never been to camp before, are arriving the next morning, and this site needs to be ready. We can see that everything that was needed is there, neatly stacked, ready to be put to good use. He looks at us and says “It is your task to have this camp ready for them when they arrive.” Then, he turns and walks up the hill into no man’s land. We stand there for some time, staring at the top of the hill. Then someone speaks up “Well it’s time to put to use everything we have heard, and seen, and been taught and practiced this week.” And after a short pause, we get to it. I won’t say there are not any challenges, there are. I won’t say there aren’t disagreements, there are. I will say we have everything we need. I will say that by nightfall we have done what we were called to do. And the next day those Cubs arrive to a campsite all set up just for them.

A couple millennia and 33 some odd years ago a young Mary accepted the calling of her angelic messenger to be the mother of the Son of God. Some 30 years later, two of John the Baptist’s followers heard a young rabbi say, “Come and see.” and they do. The next day this young rabbi says to another “Follow me.” and he does. For the next three years a growing group of men and women, Jews and gentiles, common folks (Gaventa and Petersen), perhaps a Temple priest, a member of the Sanhedrin, perhaps a scattering of folks from one prestigious group or another follow this young rabbi. They walked all over Israel, Galilee, and parts of Samaria. They watched, they listened, asked questions, went where they were asked to go, did what they were asked to do. They witnessed miracles; people healed, outcast restored to the families, untouchables reconnected to their communities, thousands feed, unbelievers become believers, outsiders reveal profound faith. They were uncomfortably close to direct challenges to Jewish authorities, and Roman overlords. They came to believe. They understood this young, itinerate rabbi, from nowhere, was who he said he was, the Messiah. They put everything they had into the promise he was going to restore the world. They believed everything would change. And then at the last Passover, he died. No, he was killed by jealous, angry Jewish political, business, and religious authorities. He died at the hands of a fearful Roman governor, who knowing the charges were false, authorized a crucifixion. He died abandoned by that hopeful band of ordinary folks. But then, he was alive again. No one believed the women who went to anoint his body. But then he showed up in the middle of a locked room. And did it again a week later when Thomas was there. For the next couple of weeks, maybe 40 days (Harrelson), they watched, listened, asked questions, and did the things they were asked to do.

The followers grew in numbers, strength, courage, and hope. They asked him “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). To their surprise, he answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority…” (Acts 1:7). But he is not finished, continuing

… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

After that, he goes up into the sky. The disciples are standing around looking up into the sky. Then suddenly two strangers speak up, Why are you staring into the sky?” Just this side of an uncomfortable pause they continue “This Jesus will return the same way you saw him go into heaven. Here begins the rest of the story. Here begins our story, my story, your story.

Today is the 6th Sunday in Easter, Wednesday is the feast of the Ascension when Jesus returns to heaven. The disciples want to know if now is the time when it will be like they think it will be. Jesus tells them that is not anyone’s business except God’s. He also tells them that there is more to come, that by the power of the Spirit, they are to be his witness here, there, all the way to the ends of the earth; with an emphasis on the ends of the earth (Gaventa and Petersen). Their witness is to proclaim the truth about the one true God against the alternative visions of all the nations’ cultural-theism (Harrelson) (Keener and Walton). Their witness is to upset all competing authorities, local, national, empire, religious, business, whatever, and to bring salvation to all (Gaventa and Petersen). Their witness is to promote Jesus’ message about the overarching presence of the kingdom of God (Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus shifts the emphasis away from the expectation of his imminent return toward practices of witnessing the gospel day-to-day (Harrelson). The two men description of Jesus’ return does remind the disciples of the end of days as written in Daniel (7:13-14) (Keener and Walton); so even if it cannot be known where, or when, or how, it is nonetheless a divine promise.

All these thoughts are divine forces shaping our calling as witnesses. They define what we are witnesses too; they define where we are to witness; and by implication, they define how we are to witness. But, none of it matters when all we do is to stand around staring into the sky; and there are an amazing number of ways to stare in to the sky. As a Scout the sky can look like a hill top; as a faith community, the sky can look like anything from a program we are excited about to a controversy we are angry about, or anything that diverts our attention. As a city, county, state, or nation it can be anything that threatens us, drawing us to seek other means of protection that diminishes our trust int God. You get the idea, there are many things that keep us from doing the work we are called to do.

You have heard my take on Godly work, drawn from the story of the man born blind in John 9. The disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned?” which is a staring into the sky question. Jesus answers

No one sinned. This man was born blind. Now is the time for us to work the works given us to work.

All those years ago, when I stood with my fellow Scouts, all it took was one of us to speak out, and then all of us began to work the work that had been given us to work. The Book of Acts is a series of stories of one person speaking up and the community beginning to work the work given them to work.

In the Ascension story, I see two challenges for us. Learning what is your, what is our favorite way of staring into the sky. And secondly, to follow the Spirit’s nudging us to speak, thereby unleashing the Spirit driven power which empowers all of us to be witnesses to the love of God revealed in Jesus to the end of the earth, which from Jerusalem looks at lot like right here and right now.

The Ascension is the story of Jesus’ return to Heaven. It is also the beginning of the story of our witnessing, our working the work God has given us to work.

 

References

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Smith, Mitzi J. Commentary on Acts 1:1-11. 29 5 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Walton, John. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1978.

 

 

 

The Wisdom of the Empty Tomb

A Sermon for Easter; Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8

Happy Easter!
April Fool!
Which is it?

Speaking of surprises, I grew up with surprises. My earliest is when to our mom’s dismay our grandmother brought out his enormous plate full of chocolate balls with cotton centers; we were surprised.

One Sunday lunch a fabulous a carrot frosting cake came to the table, everyone was excited; only my grandmother couldn’t cut the cake pan beneath the frosting; we didn’t see that coming.

One Christmas morning, after the appointed hour we all rushed down the stairs into the family room; it was gone! the tree, the stockings, the mountain of presents, the plate of cookies, the glass of milk all were gone, Christmas was gone! We had not been Grinched everything had been quietly moved to the living room still, we were really surprised.

For her 40th birthday, 40 individual small happy birthday cards were taped to our back door, all from mom’s best friend to her complete astonishment. Not to be outdone, 40 individual thank you cards were clipped to the bush by the friend’s back door, who was flabbergasted.

One Tuesday, when one of mom’s best friends was coming over for coffee all three sets of 12 settings of china/dishware were missing; they could find a cup to drink anything out of, they couldn’t believe it.

One day after school I got to the school parking lot, my blue Chevrolet Impala was missing, I was completely shocked; I caught a ride home when I got there ~ there it sat; for a second time, I was completely shocked.

A dozen rose stems were to be delivered for mothers’ day, she wasn’t home, she never expected them, but wasn’t in near as much shock as the prim and proper neighbor who had to deliver them.

At midnight one April 1st a gruesome groaning emerged from the 20-foot-high atrium in my parents’ front entry; while investigating they came upon a 12-foot-tall knight; my folks were astounded.

We enjoyed April Fools day, no matter what date someone decided it may be on. All the surprises were followed by uproarious laughter, and we still enjoy reliving the stories. The only criteria limiting our imagination was trying to gauge the response of the person to be surprised. I grew up with surprises This morning’s gospel continues the Gospel surprises.

Jesus giving a loud cry and breathing his last (Mark 15:37) was a surprise. All his followers, hiding in the dark corners still expected the Messiah to prevail, no one sees Jesus’ death coming. The Centurion overseeing the soldiers, completely used to crucifying Rome’s troublesome people, is so taken aback he says Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39). The Temple authorities and priests, cleaning up after Jesus tirade, are smug in their knowledge that the upstart rabbi will die and would no longer disrupt their carefully crafted ways. The darkness covering the land catches their attention, the moment of deepest darkness, when the earth shakes so hard that rocks shatter, and tombs spill their dead startles them. The wondrously embroidered great curtain of the Temple being torn, ripped in two, from top to bottom, completely shocks them (Mark 15:38, Matthew 27:51, Luke 23:44).

Early morning of the day following next Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him. Joseph of Arimathea had gotten Jesus’ body from Pilate, wrapped in a linen cloth, and placed in a rock hewn tomb; but he had not anointed Jesus (Mark 15:43). They were determined to give Jesus a proper burial anointing. They know the door of the tomb is sealed with a great stone and wonder who will move it for them. The women are astonished when on their second look they see that the stone has already been moved; yes, this is unexpected; but now they wonder what other surprise awaits them (Logue)? Entering the tomb, surprise! the women meet a white clad angel who reassures them saying

… you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. … 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.” (Mark 16:6-7).

His words stagger them. They are amazed and terrified. They flee. They say nothing to anyone. Here ends the Gospel.

Really, here is where Mark’s Gospel ends. Yes, when you look in you in your bible, you will see “The shorter ending” and “The Longer ending” that includes appearances, and a commissioning. But, they are not in the earliest copies of Mark’s Gospel. They have been added at some later date. Apparently, someone believed it is not right to end the gospel with us hanging in surprise. But why not? The empty tomb is a surprise.

Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman Empire, representative of the empire and all of its power, the personification of politics is surprised. King Herod, who presided at one of Jesus’ trials, representative of a culture economic self-interest is astonished. The Chief Priest, representative of religious aristocracies is amazed. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the teachers and lawyers who rigidly guide daily life didn’t see that coming (Curry). I suspect they would walk through their memories, and may be their records, of Jesus to look for clues that explains this surprisingly empty tomb.

And that is exactly what Mark invites us to do. The angel tells the women to tell the disciples, specifically, Peter, to go to Galilee and Jesus will meet them there. After introducing us to John the Baptist, in verse 9 of chapter 1 Mark writes In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee (Mark 1:9). By the angel’s words, Mark invites us to go back to the beginning and re-read the Gospel story, knowing the ending, and look for the clues that reveal what’s happening (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Black; Hoezee).

The disciples lack of faith during the storms at sea, Peter’s inappropriate response to the transfiguration, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denials, the disciples’ desertion, all are driven by fear, isolate them from Jesus (Perkins).

Reading these, and all the gospel stories through the wisdom of the empty tombs reveals that

fear does not have the last word
hatred does not have the last word
violence does not have the last word
bigotry does not have the last word
greed does not have the last word
sin and evil do not have the last word
even death does not have the last word;
the last word is God, and God is love (Curry).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb teaches us that the Resurrection matters (Lewis), and that there are no resurrection-free zones or times (Epperly).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb confirms the truth of the curtain laying shredded on the Temple floor. The barriers between God and humanity are ripped asunder; the spirit of God is on the loose (Ruge-Jones); God’s love is no longer contained in a temple;

[God’s love] can go anywhere and reach anyone.
Even those who are different from us.
Even those who don’t deserve it.
Even those who don’t believe.

God’s love now permeates the whole universe and continually pulls us from death into life, with each breath we take, from the beginning of time until the end (Cox).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb confirms that resurrection is not limited to our future but invades our daily lives right now (Lewis).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb highlights God’s shattering all human expectations, all of our expectations (Black).

Reading the Gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb, reminds us that no matter how different tonight is, that no matter how dark the abyss, no matter how stripped of all worth we may feel, we are always more than dust and breath, we are God’s creation lovingly made in God’s image.

Reading the Gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb assures us that more than waiting for you, God/Jesus is with you right here, right now and always will be, even when, especially when, you are terrified, and dare not speak to anyone.

Reading the Gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb draws the Hallelujah from our hearts (Cohen).

Hallelujah He IS risen!

(congregation)The Lord is risen indeed, Halleluiah!


References

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Mark 16:1-8. 1 4 2018.

Cohen, Leonard. “Halleluiah.” Various Positions. Columbia, December 1984.

Cox, Jason. “Sacrifice, Sunday of the Passion:.” 25 3 2018. Sermons that Work.

Curry, Michael B. “Presiding Bishop Curry: Easter 2018 Message from the Holy Land.” 26 3 2018. episcopalchurch.org. <https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-curry-easter-2018-message-holy-land&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 1 4 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 16:1-8. 1 4 2018.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 1 4 2018.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection Matters. 1 4 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Logue, Frank. Look Again, Easter (B). 1 4 2018. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Roth, Diane. “April 1, Easter Sunday .” 5 3 2018. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org/article/living-word/april-1-easter-sunday-mark-161-8>.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Commentary on Mark 14:1-15:47. 25 3 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Thomas Nelson. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

Townes, Miles. “When Easter Sunday falls on April Fools’ Day.” 21 2 2018. christiancentury.org. <https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/when-easter-sunday-falls-april-fools-day&gt;.

 

 

 

It is Finished

A sermon for Good Friday; Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22:1-11, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42

 

It is finished: three years of ministry, teaching, healing, and signs of power.

It is finished, three years of increasingly tense encounters with Jewish authorities.

It is finished: arrest in the dark of night the all-night trials before Annas and Pilate,
and Peter’s denials.

It is finished: the mocking abuse of soldiers and police, the Jews desire for the release of Barabbas Bar – Abbas son of ~ father.

It is finished, the Jews’ proclamation they have no king but the emperor.

It is finished ~ crucifixion.

It is finished.

 

It is finished Jesus, the intenerate rabbi from Nazareth is dead. Two marginal, mostly secrete followers, remove the body, prepare it with myrrh and aloes, wrap it in a linen cloth, and place it in a tomb.

 

It is finished.

There is nothing left to do, the messianic hope is gone, the promise of restoring the House of David is vanquished, the potential of glory is lost, the ring of Hosanna has dissipated.

It is finished.

There is nothing left to do. The hopeless stand at the edge of the abyss, they ponder ~ what’s next; all their bearings are gone; they’ve no clue how to orient themselves.

 

It was a grand idea, a half a decade in the making, thousands of hours, other opportunities shunned, and suddenly, unexpectedly the realization that it is finished! Standing at the edge of the abyss, with no idea what is next, lost, unable to find any bearings. It is finished. There is nothing left to do. The edge of the abyss is terrifyingly real. ‘Nothing’ is an all-consuming experience.

Some of you have similar experiences; unexpected death, unanticipated diagnosis of severe illness, job loss, financial collapse, the failure of a long-perused dream or ideal. You know the feeling; it is finished! there is nothing left to do! Tonight, we recall the moment when all creation knew it is finished! there was nothing left! Tonight, we recall the moment the cosmos teetered at the edge of the abyss, of nothing. We bring our collection of it is finished experiences with us. Through them, we connect with this moment, with each other with all humanity, with all creation.

All of us want to move on. There is the urge to swap stories of how we moved on; or not. There is the desire to tell each other “It will be alright.” never knowing, never saying what ‘alright’ is. None of us – none of us is eager just to be just to exist at the edge of the abyss, when everything is done, when there is nothing left.

But; here we are. And it is exactly where we should be. Standing at the cross-shaped abyss, that like some divine black hole is stripping us, sucking away all pretense of glory, power, wealth, position, privilege, success, accomplishment, knowledge, wisdom, wit, piety, and, righteousness, eradicating all pretense ~ until

It is finished.

There is nothing left.

Nothing, except ourselves, our souls, and bodies; dust and breath, just as God created us.

 

My hunch is ~ we should stay here awhile.

My hope is ~ we will.

My prayer is ~ we can.