Not Seeing the Surprise

A sermon for Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:14, (51-0), 11-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

When you that hear Jesus and the disciples are at the Passover or the Last Supper what image pops into your head? I bet you it is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. No question it is a magnificent painting. But I’ve read three articles this week, which started me wondering if Leonardo, and we, have the correct image. In the painting, things seem very formal. There is lots of conversation, but not much fellowship. In the Gospels, there are details about setting up for the Passover meal, but little about the meal itself. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the action takes place in the context of the meal. As we just heard, in John, everything happens before the meal begins. But what is the Passover meal? Yes, we know its origins are in God’s instructions to Moses for an everlasting ritual of remembrance as Israel is about to embark on their Exodus journey. But what Exodus describes, doesn’t fit da Vinci’s picture. So, what’s up?

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Last_Supper

It is likely da Vinci’s painting is of a Seder Supper, which is part of the 7 day Passover celebration. A Seder is a celebration, even if it is a very scripted meal. In the middle of the meal, the youngest able child asks four questions why do we only eat matzah bread tonight? why do we only eat bitter herbs tonight? why do we dip food in water twice? why do we eat reclining tonight? The answers connect the family to the Exodus story. we eat matzah because our ancestors could not wait for bread to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt we eat only bitter herbs, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery the first dipping symbolizes replacing our tears with gratitude, and the second symbolizes the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering we recline because a person who reclined at a meal was a free person (Wikipedia). The Q & A gives us a sense of what God wants Israel to remember, but not a sense of the feeling to the meal. The three articles did.

The first was about Israel closing Jewish entry to Red Sea resorts because of a terrorist threat. It is a reasonable action. The learning is that people go to a resort to celebrate Passover; it is a holiday. The second article was about stories of the youngest child asking the 4 questions and family support and good times that the families enjoyed. The last article was about festive foods for the remaining of the 7 days of Passover; the pictures were tempting. It all sounds as if Passover and Seder are much closer to holiday and holiday meals. I was thinking about Christmas and Easter holidays and those fantastic feasts. I believe the disciples are expecting a festive, celebratory meal that celebrates Israel’s freedom from slavery. It is not what happens on this night.

All four gospels are something like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A family is in middle of a festive grand meal when someone makes a surprise announcement. Sometimes it is an unexpected marriage or engagement; other times the announcement is of some business decision or an overseas adventure. In every case people leaving in an angry huff; and occasionally amidst threats, it is an Agatha Christie story. No matter the announcement, it is a real bummer that kills the festive mood.

In Matthew and Mark, during the meal, Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him. That will break a festive spirit. Later he breaks bread, then blesses bread and wine to be his body and blood of the new covenant. We celebrate this as the institution the Eucharist. I don’t think the disciples are celebrating; they are more likely thinking What! Luke puts Judas’ decision to betray Jesus before the Passover meal, so, we don’t know what the disciples know. However, we do know Jesus includes a woe to the one who will betray him. That has got the disciples wondering about each other, and maybe about themselves. John has Jesus start washing the disciples’ feet before the meal ever gets started. Right time; wrong action. Then he goes on say: you should do for each other what I have done for you (John 13:15); and a little later this is how others will know that you are my disciples (John 13:34). None of these scenes are celebratory. Everyone is wondering who is going to betray Jesus? and hoping it is not them. Everyone is wondering about Jesus giving them his body and blood to eat and drink to give them new life. We get it, but we have had 2 thousand years to come to terms with it, and they were not all easy years. Think about hearing this for the first time, without any kind of preparation or notice, in the middle of a celebration dinner. Surprise!

Everyone is surprised. Jesus is dashing any dreams of grandeur or imperial station. Everyone is wondering how to be a servant and do I really want to wash my colleagues’ feet? Think about the hesitation you experienced when having your feet washed was first introduced.

I am beginning to wonder if 2000 years of tradition, with all its wonderful artwork, inspirational music, and ancient liturgy have taken an unintended toll. It was about 1500 years from Israel’s exodus to Jesus’ last Passover Seder. It is just short of 2000 years since then. Where is the surprise? Where is the shock? Where is Jesus turning it all upside down?

He is still here. We have just gotten good at not seeing. The Gospel stories are framed by the twin forces of internal and external oppression. Though in different forms the same is true for us. As blessed as my family and I are there are internal forces, some government, some social or community, some financial, some family, that from time to time are oppressive or at the least constraining. I’d shed them if I could. As blessed as we are as a country there are external forces, some economic, some violent, that have a restrictive feel. If your family is of recent foreign national origins, those forces may really be oppressive. We are enraged by babies killed by deadly gas. Some are enraged by action to stop that, as the same officials ignore babies from the same country that drown as their parents are trying to get them to safety. Just the passage of time, and the emergence of new generations’ coming to power with their own devices and desires that are not ours, sometimes pushes too hard. We are every bit as surprised, as the disciples were. Just not at the dinner table, and not as much by internal expectations as by external disruptions.

However, Jesus still teaches us to be servants and to love despicable aliens, and the threatening ‘thems’; if in no other way than by loving each other as examples.

And we can love each other in how we live into humanity’s first calling to till and keep the garden/ the earth (Gen 2:15) which today is caring for all creation not consuming it out of the desires of our hearts or the profits we seek.

We can love each other by walking humbly, loving kindness and doing justice, (Micha 6:8). We can love each other by leaving vengeance to God (Deut. 32:35, Romans 12:19) not to powers of the State that continually seeks favor (think votes) by proclaiming it is protecting lives by threatening lives, directly in executions, or indirectly through biased social – economic structures that oppress the poor, the widows, orphans and the aliens (Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Zech 7:10, Interpreters’ Dict) We can love each other by learning to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defending the orphans, and pleading for the widow (Isaiah 1:17)

We can love each other in rendering true judgments, showing kindness to those of different persuasions than we are; in showing mercy to those we judge to be undeserving; by not oppressing those who live at the edge of existence, the alien, or the poor; whose work we often unknowingly depend on, (have you eaten this week?) and by not devising evil against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).

We can love each other as we let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). We can love each other by trusting the peace of God that is beyond our understanding yet leaves us mysteriously whole within ourselves and with one another both friend and stranger.


References

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

Olivetree. Olivetree Cross Reference. n.d.

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

Wikipedia. “wikipedia.org.” n.d. Passover Seder. 11 4 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover_Seder&gt;.

 

 

 

A Grand Affair To That Uncomfortable Feeling

A sermon for Palm Sunday

Of the Psalms:  Matthew 21:1-11
Of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11,
Of the Passion: Matthew 26:14- 27:66

It is our tradition to read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service. The sermon is preached after the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word.

 


You may recall that way back in the first week in February we went to celebrate my Dad’s 90th Birthday party. Everyone was there. All 5 children and spouses; 20 grandchildren and spouses and 10 + great grandkids; and an additional four cousins who live nearby and a some very close long – long time friends were there. There were so many folks there we actually had three different parties; one for friends where Dad lives, one for the rest of us who have birthdays in February, and there are a host of them, and finally the grand affair on Saturday night. And we all had a marvelous time.

That meant we were traveling on home Sunday the 5th. So, we were on the road for the 1st half of super bowl 51; no big deal, except that I follow the Falcons. We got home got unpacked found the game about halftime and the Falcons had this glorious 21 to 3 lead. And then I saw Julio Jones catch a stupendous touchdown pass, wonderful; we had a 28 to 3 lead. And then I made a mistake. I looked at the stats; and the Patriots led in every single category, except for the score. I instantly recalled the last three games; the Falcons had huge leads and had to hold on for dear life to win. I had this bad feeling; we had been here before especially in the last couple of years. And I had witnessed the Patriots’ propensity, for the inexplicable victory. You know the end of the story the Falcons lose 31 – 28; it was the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history.

This morning we started with a grand affair. It was not a re-enactment of Jesus Triumphal entry; it was more than that. It was an active remembrance of Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem and our role in that story. We felt all the glory, and the laud, and the honor. We are caught up in all the hope and promise. We are certain that the Son of Man is on the ascendency, and soon he will throw out corrupt Jewish officials, he will drive out the oppressive Roman Empire. We will be free.

After his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus’ first stop is the Temple. This makes sense; the Temple is God’s home on earth. When he gets there, he turns over all the bankers’ tables who are exchanging foreign coins for Jewish coins, so that Jewish pilgrims can buy sacrificial animals. And then he drives out everyone who is selling sacrificial animals, likely setting all the animals free.

We are used to hearing this called Jesus cleansing the Temple. But this is not so accurate because he doesn’t quote scripture about ritual defilement and cleansing. He cites Jeremiah (7:11) who is criticizing the people who after committing egregious acts of injustice run go hide in Temple, behind its rituals and sacrifices. Jesus does this as the Son of David, heir to the long-lost throne of Israel. It is interesting to note the officials do not express concerned with the disruption, of the banking and animal businesses. They don’t say anything at all. But on his way, out, Jesus heals the blind and the lame, who are usually prohibited from the Temple grounds just as they are excluded from Jewish society as a whole. But what gets the officials’ attention is the children shouting Hosanna to the Son of David (Matthew 21:15). Actually, this makes them angry. I actually suspect, it makes them very much afraid. Matthew writes Jesus abandons them … [and] spends the night in Bethany (Boring, Harrelson)

We have been here before; we have had that uncomfortable feeling, many years ago. [dark voice] We know prophecies of destruction, [darker voice] and we know what happened. [pause] [lighter voice] There are no such prophecies today, and shouts of Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest heaven! (NRSV Matthew 21:9) still, resonate in our ears. And yet … [long pause] that uneasiness hangs in the air. One wonders ~ what collapse ~ is about to befall us?


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

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.

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

 

It’s Not Knowing It’s Knowing

A sermon for Lent 5: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Vincent Gray was a child with problems seeing things; he saw ghosts. His therapist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is not successful in helping him. Years later Gray shoots Dr. Crowe before killing himself. Crowe recovers and later that year begins seeing Cole, another child with a similar problem. He is completely dedicated to helping Cole, inspired in part by his perceived failure with Vincent. He rarely interacts with his wife anymore. And in fact, there is no conversation at all anymore.

Crowe becomes convinced that Cole has a gift to help the dead, complete their unfinished business. He is successful in helping Cole understand and accept his gift, and Cole saves the life of one ghost’s younger sister. He is also able to help his mother reconcile with her dead mother.

One evening when Dr. Crowe retunes home, he begins to notice subtle differences. His wedding ring is on the on the bed; he recalls that he has not had it on since he began seeing Cole. His wife is laying on the bed watching the video of their wedding. He hears his wife ask him why he left her. And then Crowe remembers Cole’s talking about the effects of a ghost’s unfinished business and realizes that Vincent had killed him and that with Cole’s help he has finally come to accept his failure to understand and help Vincent. Released of this burden Crowe is able to tell his wife she was never second, that he has always loved her and is able to move on.

The audience, I being one, is shocked by the reversal of perspective. As had Dr. Crowe we had all completely misunderstand the world of the story. M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense spins around Crowe’s misunderstanding of the critical moments of his life (Wikipedia). Crowe is not alone in misunderstanding, critical moments of life.

Today is the next to last Sunday in Lent. The Gospel story is about Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. But I am no longer sure that Lazarus’ death is the point of the story, though it is an important element. The last four weeks the Gospel readings have had a central element of misunderstanding. In the wilderness, the Devil tries to trick Jesus into misunderstanding who he is. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus saying “being born again” as literal and not the transformative “being born from above.” The woman at the well misunderstands Jesus offering “living water” as something that will deliver her from having to come to the village well to get water thus avoiding the scorn of her neighbors. Driven by confusion, fear, and attachment to tradition the neighbors, parents, and authorities of the man born blind’s life misunderstand the relationship between life’s hardships and sin and the deepest meaning of Sabbath. All of Lent is a misunderstanding. They continue this morning.

The disciples misunderstand Jesus saying Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death, but God’s glory; and later when he says Lazarus has fallen asleep, they miss its customary reference to death (Harrelson, O’Day). When Jesus arrives, Martha misunderstands Jesus’ reference to resurrection as the classic Pharisee reference, drawn from Daniel (12:2), to the end of time, and that keeps her from hearing Jesus revelation of himself (Ellingsen, Harrelson, O’Day). When Mary hears of Jesus arrival, she goes to meet him, and so do all the mourners from Jerusalem. When they meet, Jesus is moved by her weeping and that of her friends. The misunderstanding here is at least as old as the King James’ Bible in which we first read “Jesus wept” (11:35). The original words express anger or indignation and agitated or troubled; they are not any way an expression of sentiment which we typically draw from ‘wept.’ (Harrelson, O’Day). The friends misunderstand Jesus’ tears leading them to wonder Could he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying (John 11:37)? Martha’s misunderstanding of Jesus continues when she objects to removing the stone that seals Lazarus’ tomb because of her fear of obnoxious odors, and the tradition that after 3 days the soul has left for good, and there is no longer any hope of revival (O’Day).

Our own encounters with death, in all its manifestations, lead to confusion. When we die, we do not go to heaven to be angels. According to the bible, angles are their namesakes – messengers of God. When we die, there is a time of waiting, which is not revealed scripture, and when we face Jesus as the prosecutor, and Judge and oh, by the way, the defense attorney we face judgment. And by grace life in God’s presence is our future. Death, like barrenness, blindness, or any another illness or misfortune is not a consequence of sin; it is just life.

Any other popular conception of death is like attributing illness to sin; it is a misunderstanding. It seems if all the world is full of misunderstanding. Which leads on the wonder, what to do about all these misunderstandings?

One of the statements I think is more profound than first appears is

There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are also unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld, Brainyquote).

When we hear the word ‘known,’ we generally associated that with knowledge. If you know something, it is a piece of information, maybe even a fact. But you can know somebody, and to know someone implies a relationship, and a relationship infers some sort of experience. So, Lent is not about knowing Jesus it is about knowing Jesus. All these stories reveal that it is not what information we know or what understanding we don’t know about Jesus that dispels misinformation. It is what we don’t know, that we have not experienced with Jesus that matters.

All the misunderstandings in these Lenten stories precede encounters with Jesus. With Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind, misunderstandings are transformed by their experience with Jesus (Lewis). Lent 1 is not a vicarious wilderness experience with Jesus. It is an invitation to take a wilderness experience of our won, with the assurance Jesus will be with you. For the last four weeks, we’ve heard various wilderness experiences, and in all of them, some folks have an experience with Jesus that leads them or other people to believe in Jesus, even if it takes some time. We should also acknowledge that not everybody will venture into the wilderness, and not every encounter with Jesus leads to knowing Jesus because things like tradition, existing belief or some other rules can get in our way.

As for each you, I believe each of you: knows your life with Jesus and knows your lack of life with Jesus; it is what you don’t know of your lack of life with Jesus that is the Lenten challenge.

Dr. Crowe faces misunderstandings around his death and is able to move on. Martha, Mary and a few of their friends face misunderstandings, around Lazarus’ death, and share in Jesus’ experiences that bring them to belief in him.

The question this morning is what misunderstanding, born of some shrouded death, will lead you to share in Jesus’ experiences that brings you to belief and life in him?

 

References

Brainyquote. “donaldrums.” n.d. http://www.brainyquote.com. 2 4 2017. <https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donaldrums148142.html&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 2 4 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 2 4 2017. <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.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection Now. 2 4 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Liggett, James. “In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A).” 2 4 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lose, David. Lent 5A: Heartache, Miracle, Invitation. 2 4 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 11:145. 2 4 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Wikipedia. “The_Sixth_Sense.” n.d. wikipedia.org. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense&gt;.

 

 

 

Disrupted Expectations

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

 

I am 64, and Angie is just a few years younger. We understand why our children are the right age to raise children. Towards the end of last year’s Razorback football season, Michelle and Russell got tickets to a Hogs game. They asked if we’d keep LG. Of course, we would; what a silly question. Our answer was an exuberant yes. And we had a good time. At 2 LG kept us going. She got to us about 10 that morning and didn’t stop till she dropped asleep just about 9 that night. I slipped out to come here for Sunday morning about 7:30. LG was still asleep, and I am not sure when she got Angie up except that I’m sure it was earlier than Angie’s expectation. I got home, and they were off on some 2-years-old adventure. We packed her up and took her home. I’m not sure who was happier to see Michelle and Russel more, LG or Angie and me. We had a good time. But we were done. LG is all toddler disrupting every expectation, we had. We were glad to get back to our usual expectations.

About a month ago, we picked up Angie’s service dog in training, Burt. He is a mastiff shepherd mix. You have heard me say he is like having a 120-lb. toddler in the house. Just his size and exuberance has disrupted our expectations. On top of that, his arrival introduced a new player into the pack. Little rivalry has shown up. If Nugget comes to see one of us, both show up. If Nugget wants his head scratched, so does Burt. If Burt wants his tummy rubbed, so, does Nugget. Together 200-lbs of canine disturbance has been injected into our carefully choreographed daily expectations. Progress is being made. Not every canine move is now matched with a competing move. However, I have noticed it is a lot harder for Angie and me to see the disruptions than we thought it would be. And it is even harder for us to figure out how we should respond; where do we make adjustments? where do we enforce existing rules? What is really hard is to for us, is to change our expectations of what is right and our related behaviors. I feel just a touch, no more than that, I feel real empathy for the Pharisees and authorities in this morning’s, Gospel story because Jesus has arrived on the scene and has completely disrupted all their expectations.

The story begins with one of my favorite bible verses Jesus’ disciples asked him,

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

 Jesus answers:

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. (John 9:2-3)

A quick side note. We can all understand how the man’s parents might have sinned, at least we think we do, but that will come in a bit. But how in the world does a fetus sin? Well, it turns out it is a bit of Jewish Midrash speculation, think bible commentary on Gen 25:19 the story of Esau’s and Jacob’s fetal growth and birth, which was difficult enough to cause their mother, Rebekah, to plead to God (Sakenfeld). Why this is one of my favorite verses is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question. It is the thinking of the day that any kind of suffering is the results of some sin or another (Ellingsen). Jesus rejects that idea completely saying: (and this is a little bit of a different translation)

Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me (Vena).

Sin was not the cause of the man being born blind, neither was some mysterious divine need. He was just born blind. Now ~ now it is necessary for us, for Jesus and his disciples, to work the work God has given Jesus. Rejecting the notion of a connection between life’s suffering and sin, is the first disruption Jesus brings.

The Pharisees and authorities proclaim that Jesus is a sinner because he healed on the Sabbath (John 9:16). Jesus has previously argued, that if you can circumcise on the Sabbath, you can heal on the Sabbath (John 7:23). This is a rather broad argument. But here the sin is not just general healing but physical kneading, making the mud, and kneading is explicitly forbidden (O’Day). This accusation is very specific, and Jesus rejects it too.

Now the Pharisees, the leaders, some of the people and the, as of yet, uncertain, disciples seem to be thinking both the man and Jesus are sinners. The evidence against the man is that he is blindness. The evidence against Jesus is a violation of Sabbath rules. If you think there seems to be more than an incidental disagreement about the nature of sin here; you are correct, there is. In 1st century Israel, everyone understands sin is defined by moral behavior revealed by one’s actions. Jesus disrupts the world’s expectations by defining sin as a theological behavior, one’s relationship with God, specifically, accepting Jesus as a revelation of God  (Harrelson) (O’Day). It is a far bigger disruption, affecting many more expectations than healing or keeping Sabbath.

We see how the man’s neighbors, some Pharisees, and even his parents step away from him when the controversy arises. However, they have actually stepped away from him much sooner. Anyone could have helped him by giving him some meaningful thing to do, some purpose for life well before Jesus ever showed up. No one ever did (Kubicek). Karen Lewis drags this disruption right into the middle of our lives. She notes the questions we might ask:

  • Why should we help those when it hasn’t proven to help their performance?
  • What will the blind man now truly contribute to society?
  • What kind of results will he actually be able to produce anyway?
  • Isn’t he just a drain on our society?
  • Wouldn’t he then use up funds meant for hard-working folks like me?
  • Shouldn’t we dole out monies to people who can prove their worth?
  • Shouldn’t we make sure to take care of the ones who demonstrate that they can give back (Lewis)?

It sounds like an argument in many legislative chambers whenever supporting the marginalized is the subject of debate.

Everyone in Jesus’ day thought, and many people today think, sin is a moral behavior defect. We may argue about a specific moral action, say some sexual expression or another, or some financial scheme, but we rarely, if ever, debate the nature of sin. So, if sin is not a moral behavior defect, what is it? Jesus teaches that sin is all about our relationship with God; specifically, our accepting him, Jesus, as the one sent by God. This means that Jesus takes away the sin of the world simply by being here, and his being here means that through Jesus we can change our relationship with God. It is an invitation for us to allow ourselves to be transformed by the divine love that comes to us in the incarnate Jesus (O’Day). It is an invitation to see how Jesus’ world, how our world, marginalizes people, who are different than we expect, by legal and cultural subtlety that deny them the opportunity to support themselves or to be the image of God they are, with dignity (Vena).

In a blog this week Steve Pankey wrote:

The authorities’ unwillingness to see their stubbornness is most dangerous, it is easy to see only what we want to and this means we miss the good and the bad in our midst and also that the way of God is out of [our] sight (Pankey).

My Lenten questions for us are:

  • what are we, what are you, unwilling to see that obscures the good and the evil that surrounds us, that surrounds you?
  • What are you so unwilling to see, you accept that the way of God is out your of sight?

The Lenten challenge is:

  • are you willing for these expectations to be disrupted by the arrival of light of Christ?

 


References

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 26 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 3 2017. <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.

Kubicek, Kirk. “Light! Lent 4(A).” 26 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher On Being Found. 26 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Pankey, Steve. On being blind. 26 3 2017. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1312346053>.

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

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 9:1-41. 26 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

 

 

 

 

 

Unexpected Guides, Surprising Directions

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

The Jewish-Samaritan rivalry dates all the way back to the 7th century under Assyrian occupation. Temple was built at Gerazim and became the center of worship in the 4th century under Persian occupation. The Samaritans worship at this Temple, but the Jews believed that worship must be in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although Gerazim was destroyed in 128 BCE, the schism continued at least to Jesus’ day. (Ellingsen, O’Day, Sakenfeld). It is part of the reason that the Jews avoided Samaria. When Jesus leaves Judea and heads back to Galilee, the typical route would be to go around Samaria. Jesus goes through Samaria. It has long been held it was simply a short cut. But if we listen closely we hear that John writes “[Jesus] had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). In truth, it becomes Jesus’ first venture into the rest of the world (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).

I hope you have heard the contrast between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus as you listened to the John’s Gospel story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well. They are many, and they are interesting.

We have been so well (pardon the pun) taught all about the social dynamics between the woman, men, and Jews we overlook the scandal of the well. In the Old Testament, a well is an archetype for marriage  (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Moses meets his wife Zipporah at a well in Midian (Exodus 2:21). And Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at this very well (Genesis 29:1) (O’Day). We all know Jesus does not marry. However, the marital implication hints at the depth of intimacy in the story to come.

The encounter begins with Jesus’ polite request for water. The woman asks him Why are you asking me for water? Jesus answers If you knew me, you would ask me and I would give you living water. The term ‘living water’ has two meanings; it can be flowing water like a stream, or it can mean life-giving water. The woman misunderstands what Jesus is saying; sound familiar.

After their convoluted conversation and she asks for the water, that Jesus is really offering, Jesus, asks her about her husband. She says she doesn’t have one, and Jesus goes on to tell her all about her history with men. But note; there is not a single word of judgment; there is not a single word of forgiveness; because there is no need for one. The woman is likely barren, and her husbands have simply divorced and abandoned her. Jesus reveals that he knows all about the tragic story of her life, which she confesses is true. Jesus also knows she has been abandoned, again, and again and again and again. He knows she is lonely. And perhaps in the greatest gift of all, Jesus sees her; a beloved child of God made from the dust of the earth. Jesus values her (Lewis, O’Day, Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Thus, far their story has progressed from protest to misunderstanding to confession to divine recognition and love (Harrelson).

Now knowing that Jesus is a prophet, the woman risks asking him if the proper place to worship is Gerazim or the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies “Gods is seeking those who worship him in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23) Revealing more of her theological knowledge and understanding, the woman goes on to say I know the Messiah is coming. Jesus replies I am he. (John 4:26).

“I am” is an intentional referral to the revelation of God’s name to Moses (Exod. 3:14) (O’Day).This is Jesus’ first “I am” statement, the first full revelation of who he is, is to a rejected, abandoned woman, in a foreign land (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And in doing so, Jesus encourages her role as a witnessing disciple ~ before she even begins to act. As for the rest of the world, in doing so, Jesus crosses boundaries of gender, and race, and religious traditions (Vena).

This morning’s Gospel story opened with a lonely rejected woman coming to the village well to get water at high noon, hoping to meet no one; and she runs into a Jewish rabbi. She leaves the well having abandoned her water jar, her source of life, to go share her story (Hoezee). In her absence, the disciples arrive.

Jesus’ discussion with the disciples is quite cryptic. The language is all agricultural; you plant, and you wait for the harvest. The Messianic implications are that you wait for the Messiah. Jesus message to the disciples is that the waiting is over. Jesus is prompting his disciples to open their eyes and to see who the harvest is, that is already being gathered; in part, this is a reference to the woman who is in the village sharing her story at that very moment. Here we learn from John, the mission to the rest of the world is not after Jesus’ death or any other marker, the mission for the rest of the world beings right now (O’Day).

As this conversation is going on the woman has gone to town and is telling the villagers everything. She invites them to come and see, which is my favorite evangelical invitation. I suspect to everyone’s surprise they believe her, at least enough to follow her back to the well of life. When they get there, the villagers’ experience with Jesus expands their faith and believe because of their own experience (Vena). They invite him to stay, and that invitation has implications that they are seeking a relationship with Jesus (O’Day). What more could a witness ask for?

The story of Jesus meeting a woman at the well is the story of the making of a disciple. It begins with both the witness’ and the audience’s mutual vulnerability. Jesus risks talking to the woman. The woman risks accepting Jesus’ invitation. It grows as the audience lets go of their or our most precious traditions as we realize they do not nurture our relationship with God (Lewis). Discipleship grows as we as we are released from our fear of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us (Vena). We see traits of being an effective witness. The woman offers her experiences as they are. When she is, tentative or isn’t certain of the answer, she shares them as that; for example, she asks “Jesus really the Messiah?”; she shares that as it is. Curiously enough, it adds to her credibility. The woman brings the villagers to Jesus, and her job is now done, and her witness decreases, as did John the Baptist’s, as the villagers’ have their own personal experience with Jesus. If we can have our personal experience with Jesus, which we share with others, certainly these villagers can. A witness cannot replace an immediate experience with Jesus; a witness leads others to it. An effective witness knows salvation is offered on God’s terms and often is not in the terms a witness may have preconceived (O’Day).

It is a reasonable Lenten discipline to examine our witness of Jesus. It does not matter what our life’s experience is, whether we have been planted in the best soil or on the rocky path, either way, Jesus will nurture us. It does not matter the depth or certainty of our theological knowledge, and if you are here you have some theological knowledge; even if you don’t know what you know, Jesus will lead you into bearing fruit, which is continuing to do the work of God given to Jesus. It does not matter how long it takes, different fruit and crops mature at different rates. It does not matter how magnificent our story is; it only matters that we know our story, in Jesus’ story, well enough to share it.

Last week I invited us to consider Nicodemus, a leader with rank, education, and influence, to be our Lenten guide. Today I invite us to invite a woman, of unknown birth, without rank and without status, to join our team (Gaventa and Petersen). It seems our Lenten journey seems to be led by unexpected guides, showing us surprising directions to living waters.

References

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 19 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 19 3 2017. <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 John 4:5-42. 19 3 2017.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 3 2017.

Kesselus, Ken. “Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A).” 19 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Holy Conversations. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 3 A: Living Water, Living Faith. 15 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

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

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 4:542. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

 

 

I am Nicodemus

A sermon for Lent 2; Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Wednesday a week ago, we had a long power outage. Most it was a big inconvenience; especially at night. It was dark; really dark; scary dark. Then again, if you were outside and if you looked up, as we did, you saw a sight we rarely ever see, the stars; all of the stars. Stars you can only see if you are in the dark. The dark enables you to see the night sky in an entirely new way; it is an inspiring experience; all because it is dark; really dark; enabling dark. Wednesday, it was dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark.

Some Wednesday night some 2000 years ago, a leader of the Jews is walking through the dark. He is seeking the leader of a new and growing group of followers. The leader is a rabbi, known for signs, perhaps a miracle worker, Nicodemus may simply be curious about this Jesus. On the other hand, he goes to see him in the dark and nighttime is the traditional time to study Torah, so perhaps he is seeking an in-depth conversation (Vena). Then again, night time and darkness are metaphors for separation from the presence of God (O’Day; Harrelson) so perhaps this devoted community leader has his doubts, his questions about all their ways of life. Perhaps it more than curiosity, perhaps Nicodemus wants to see the Kingdom as Jesus, and his followers do. Whatever his reason Nicodemus speaks with Jesus and life is never the same.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born from ‘above.’ Nicodemus asks him How can one be born ‘again’? The confusion come from a word with two meanings; it means both ‘above’ and ‘again.’ Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking literally. And that causes him trouble mostly because,

to be born again, as Nicodemus understood it, would have meant altering [his] … honor status in a very radical way and he was not ready to trade his honorable position in society for an uncertain new status (Vena).

 Perhaps Nicodemus just simply misunderstood (Gaventa and Petersen). But, Gail O’Day writes

that Jesus is being intentionally ambiguous and intends Nicodemus to hear both meanings inviting him to explore below the surface seeking deeper revelations. But his imagination is not flexible enough (O’Day).

Next, Jesus using Nicodemus’ confusion about live birth says no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). Paralleling the double meaning of ‘again’ and ’above’ Jesus connects entrance into the Kingdom with both live birth, and spiritual birth; birth in the flesh, and birth in the spirit; thus, connecting flesh and spirit, which is very much against the thought of his day (Harrelson; O’Day). He compares this to the wind which blows where it will. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘spirit,’ so Jesus connects new birth to the mysteries of free moving wind/spirit that is, quite simply, beyond our control (O’Day).

Comparing the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness also makes use of a double meaning word. ‘Lift up’ also means ‘exalt.’ Jesus exaltation is how we, by belief, have eternal life (Harrelson).

 For John, eternal life is defined by God, not as future immortality in heaven, but as a spiritual reality that can only be seen by those born of water and spirit as living in God’s unending presence right here, right now (Harrelson; O’Day; Vena). All this is too much for Nicodemus. And that is the intention. Nicodemus is intended to struggle with this trifecta of double meanings as he discerns what eternal new life, born from above, in water and spirit given by the raised up/exalted Son of Man really is. And so are we. The discerning struggle calls us into deeper and deeper listening to all Jesus shares that John recounts (O’Day).

This is not an easy trip for Nicodemus. He appears twice more; once saying that law requires that the Pharisees give Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:45-52) (Sakenfeld). His last appearance is when Pilate give Jesus’ body to him and Joseph of Arimathea for burial (John 19:38-42) (Sakenfeld). Nicodemus is not alone in a long perhaps wandering journey to belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who died so we could have life in God’s presence. It took all the disciples a long time, a good three years, to understand.

So, if you have questions or doubts; if you don’t quite get all the nuances of how Jesus’ death brings you life you are in good company. If you aren’t quite ready to toss off whatever honor and status you have in life and commit to being vaccinated against death by a dead, resurrected, ascended Jesus, neither was Nicodemus (Hoezee; Harrelson).

I know, we all know,

that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16).

We know it so well, it is trite. We believe it so strongly, it divides us. We know it so well, believe it so strongly that I doubt its Lenten value because it is too common, or too divisive to help us see ourselves and change our lives.

On the other hand, Nicodemus is a good Lenten model. He comes to Jesus full of expectations, ready to learn and misunderstands from the very beginning. He doesn’t understand life in God’s presence. He doesn’t understand water/flesh and the spirit as one, in the presence of God. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Moses, and the healing snake lifted up over Israel that saves them from death. He is bound to social customs of honor, prestige, and power he finds hard to give up. And so am I.

I hold miss expectations of Jesus and misunderstand his call if not daily, most certainly regularly. I look at the world and just don’t get life in God’s presence, especially in the here and now. There are too many people who are oppressed for arbitrary human divisions of race, gender, sex, skin color, national origin, faith, illness and lack of success. I believe; I have faith that Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension makes a difference in this world. But the failure of corrupt justice that crucified Jesus is still far too prevalent, and so I doubt. And I ponder my own subtle complicity in all this corruption. I find it as hard to give up social customs of honor, prestige, and power that I benefit from as Nicodemus did. So I am drawn to confess; I am Nicodemus.

So, in so much as you find yourself looking in the mirror and seeing Nicodemus looking back, I invite you to invite Nicodemus to guide your Lenten repentance. However, beware, it is a journey that is dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark. It is a journey from misunderstanding born of darkness, to darkness born of burying the one who loves you.


References

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 9 2017. 12. <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 John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Jolly, Marshall A. “Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A).” 12 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. John 3:16. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 2 A: Just One More Verse! 12 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

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

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 3:117. 12 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

Desert Remembrances

A sermon for The 1st Sunday in Lent 1; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32,
Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

 I first met George a couple of decades ago. On several occasions, we had been a part of energetic conversations with several priests. We had also had many one on one conversations that ranged from trivial to spirited debate. One day we got to sharing more personal stories. He asked me “Where are you from?” I told him just what you would expect, suburban DeKalb, County outside Atlanta Ga. Our chatter continued. A bit later he asked me, “Where are your people from?” And I shared some of my parents’ ancestral stories. George shared some of his ancestral stories. That evening our relationship grew, and a deeper bond trust formed.

When people ask “Where are you from?” they are not always interested in your geographic history. When they ask you “Where are your people from?” they are not always interested in your ancestral pedigree. What they may well be most interested in is what kind of person you are. And a way of learning who you are is to listen to you share the stories of your origins, and the stories of your roots. It works because who we are is shaped by our communities, and is deeply formed by the community of our origins (Johnson).

On Ash Wednesday, we explored the meanings of dust and ash the two principle images of the day. We heard from the creation story:

 [that] the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7)

We also learned that dust is associated with the desert wilderness, its chaos and its danger (Gaventa and Petersen). In a very profound way an answer to “Where are you from?” and “Who are your people?” is “The wilderness.”

Just before this morning’s Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ baptism. It ends: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17) God’s words are heard by Jesus, and no one else. Jesus’ hears the affirmation of who he is. The very next verse tells us that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, which has an implication of to search (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament). I believe Jesus being lead into the wilderness right after he is told he is God’s son, is all about Jesus being in the place of his origins, the origins of all human life, the wilderness, so that he can reconnect to his origins, reconnect to his roots, and come to know who he is, and whose he is. David Lose writes that we cannot know who we are until we remember whose we are, and all of us are God’s because we are created by God. The temptation in Eden, has its origins in the snake, coaxing Adam and Eve into forgetting whose they are (Lose). The same principle is underneath all the temptations Satan challenges Jesus with.

Satan tempts Jesus to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. Notice that ‘stones’ is plural, there will be bread for many people. To do so, Jesus would put himself in God’s place reacting the story of manna in the wilderness (Boring). Jesus, remember he is God’s beloved son, and God will continue to care for him.

From the Temple pinnacle, Satan taunts Jesus to prove who he is by throwing himself off the because quoting psalms 91:11,

God will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’ (Matthew 4:6).

Jesus recognizes of Satan’s attempt to twist scripture to his purposes and away from God’s purposes. Jesus rebuffs the temptation, saying “you should not test God,” a reference to Israel’s testing God at Massah, when they were thirsty (Deuteronomy 6:16) (Olive Tree).

Next Satan takes Jesus to a mountaintop, a place where gods live, and a place where Moses meets God and offers him dominion over all the Kingdoms of the world. The temptation is for him to step into the role of The Emperor of Rome, rejecting his identity as the Son of God, and thus take on a rebellious role. Jesus remembers who he is; he remembers whose he is, he rejects worshiping anything, or anyone else other than God, his loving Father (Boring).

To hear all this as Jesus simply defeating Satan is to miss a larger picture. Audrey West writes:

  • Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish (Matt 14:17-21; 15:33-38),
  • [Jesus] refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others (Matt 27:38- 44) while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross (Matt 27:46).
  • [And Jesus] turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness (West).

Jesus doesn’t merely resist or defeat Satan. Jesus is connecting to who he is and whose he is so that he is prepared to go into the world and follow the ministry God has given him to do.

On Ash Wednesday I invited you to choose a Lenten discipline. And an aspect of that discipline might include a kind of wilderness experience. It is a time and place that leads you back to your origins; Where are you from? Who are your people? Whose, are you? All of us have different origins. We are all from different parents and different places. Even if these are the same, we are born at different times, with different physical makeups, and we have developed different friends. No matter the similarities or differences of where we are from, or who our people are we all share two common traits. We are all made from the dust of the earth (Gen 2); and we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). We are God’s, more than that; we are beloved by God. May your Lenten journey renew your identity of who you are and whose you are. And in coming to know yourself may you come to know the ministry God/Jesus/Spirt is calling you to live.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 5 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 5 3 2017. <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 Matthew 4:1-11 . 5 3 2017.

Johnson, Edwin. “Engaging Lent, Lent 1(A).” 5 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Choice Temptations. 5 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 1 A: Identity as Gift and Promise. 5 3 2017.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

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

West, Audrey. Commentary on Matthew 4:111. 5 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.