A Tale of Three Readings

So what are we to learn from the three distinctive readings for Pentecost?

Let’s   begin with Genesis & the Tower of Babel, recalling a story of initial unity that never really existed. We are certainly not dealing with history – what we are dealing with is a story told around a campfire that contains more truth than history ever could.

          Everyone spoke a single language – and everyone worked together – and they accomplished good things – until they decide they were as powerful as god.  And suddenly the world as we know it appears – different languages, confusion and clash of different culture, so no one is able to cooperate with the others.  Here we find in ancient Hebrew scripture our present situation… primarily seeing difference, disunity, and distrust.

          In the book of Acts we hear of the apostles (after what we call Ascension)  waiting together – not knowing what to do.  Commissioned by Jesus to tell the story but instructed to wait not knowing what they were waiting for. Together in the upper room on the Jewish feast of Pentecost  they have an experience they cannot describe except in comparing it to other things

– like the sound of a mighty rushing wind – but yet it wasn’t a wind.  

They saw something come upon them like tongues of flame – but it wasn’t flames or fire.

They found that the experience changed them and later described it as being filled with God’s spirit. They found the courage to leave the fear  that held them in that upper room, and discovered the ability to do what they did not believe they could do. They were able to speak to those gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world.

It is like the reversal of the tower of Babel. Where people who were powerless in terms of the culture and society of the day, recognized God in their midst and found that Spirit which unites them and gives them the ability to tell the story of Jesus to a diversity of people in spite of the differences. This community of believers found a unity of purpose.

          But some have asked how do we know that something really happened?  By the fact that we are here in the 21st century  as people following in the way of Jesus. The fact that for generations these stories have been shared, and  each generation discovers them to be good news for people of different countries, cultures, races and temperaments is proof that there is a spiritual reality here.

          The additional proof is that that for generations people have experienced God’s spirit present with them, and many are able to do amazing things. They become people like Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandella, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, and also like those saints we have experienced in our life that do not have world wide fame but who none the less touch lives deeply.

In the Gospel of John we hear of Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, before the crucifixion. There there is tension in the air as Jesus is trying tio prepare them for the future they do not see ahead of them. There is a sense of urgency, of time is running out. Phillip, unable to understand what Jesus is trying to tell them, asks for Jesus to show them God, saying “Show us the Father”. In essence Philip wants to know everything in one clarifying moment

– wants to under stand the mystery

– wants to comprehend all Jesus has been teaching him… wants to see it clearly NOW!  

I think we have all had those moments when we want to understand it and we want to understand it NOW!

Instead Jesus tells him: 

  • You know me – To see God look at me – you can see the divine through and at work in me.
  • If that is not enough – look at the things I do and see God at work in them.
  • And insists that anyone (including Philip, you and me) who believe in Jesus and offer them selves in service to others will discover within themselves the Spirit of God.

Pentecost celebrates God’s gift to his people of this Spirit. Through the Spirit God dwells within us to empower us to find and use the gifts we have been given.

          When we do, we are able find unity with others different from ourselves, to do things that may astound us, and allows us to recognize this indwelling presence of God.

          In baptism we receive the sign of the cross of Jesus on our forehead with the words “You are sealed by the Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  That sign is an assurance that God created us, loves, us, gifted us, and commissions us to be God’s heart, and hands, and voice in the world.

            In the account of Pentecost in Acts there was a sudden event leading to dramatic results.  The resurrection account in the Gospel of John is different after Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit – there is not much change in the apostles, they remain in the locked room. It was a first ‘baby step’ changing their understanding, which led later to the overpowering presence of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  This tells us not to be disheartened if our journey has not yet produced dramatic spiritual results.  Stay on the path.  Don’t go back to your locked room of defeat or fear; do not end this spiritual journey.  Jesus says “The wind of the Spirit blows where it wills” and one day it may blow upon us with a deepened awareness of the Spirit’s power within us, or may kindle a fire within us that changes our life and the lives of others.

Jesus said  “…my peace I give unto you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Don

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Transformation & Love

In the book of Acts today we have a strange story of Peter’s vision as sail cloth lowered from heaven, ritually unclean animals and Peter being told to kill and eat these unclean critters. If we look at it closely it is a story about transformation. Peter was raised strictly in the his faith., He knew the dietary laws which prohibited him from eating a variety of food – including animals that the Holiness code of Leviticus calls unclean.

Here is orthodox Peter still living by the Jewish dietary laws he grew up with. And in his vision he sees this whole cart load of unclean animals and is told “Here Peter have snack” – He refuses saying I cant, I have never eaten these unclean things. And the reply is “what God has made clean you must not call unclean.”

Peter is then summoned to go off to Caesarea to go to Gentiles. Part of the tradition of Judaism was a sense of separation of us /them via circumcision,– dietary laws, rituals, all to draw distinctions. Gentiles are from us Jews. We are clean and holy – they may be OK but they are unclean in terms of our religious values.

Pete goes there anyway and finds that the spirit is at work amongst them as well. God was showing Peter a new way of thinking and acting. God continually leads us into new ways of thinking and acting.

We are the body of Christ as well as the community of the church. This is not a static community – where everything stays the same for generations on end. It supposed to be a dynamic community where God leads each generation into new understandings of what it means to live and to serve and to love.

In the Gospel of John we have one of the simplest and one of the hardest portions of the Gospel. “As I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Simple in that we know what love is and hard in that it is difficult to act lovingly towards other people at all times and circumstances. But the simplicity is deceiving. It may not be all that simple. We are supposed to love others as Jesus loved his disciples – as he loves us. But just what does that mean?

Some believe it means that we need to be perfect – to love in a perfect way as Jesus loved in a perfect way. But that takes our job from difficult past impossible. None of us are perfect nor can we realistically attain to perfection. That is an impossible goal.

When I look at the Gospels I see that Jesus learns from others throughout his ministry. He not only teaches the crowds he also learns from them. Jesus continues to learn how to live out his beliefs wholly and with more consistency – and that you and I actually can do.

Some see in Jesus a selfless love. In the greatest of human loves there is always an element of self within. Self dominates our thinking – what will I get, how will it benefit me? That is a part of our evolutionary heritage – survival of self. When we are able to get past self we find in those moments a different kind of love that communicates deeply and sincerely.

Others point to the sacrificial way in which Jesus loves. He gives up his life for his friends. Sacrificial love is not impossible for us to emulate but it is difficult. We keep getting in the way. Our egos, our wants, our frailties, each of these trip us up.
We may think we are being sacrificial but often discover that we are fooling ourselves. Like toddlers we begin with small steps, small bits of sacrificial living. But the more we learn to do it the better we may get at it.

Some say that love is blind. That it does not see the humanity of the other. But love as Jesus lived it was not blind. He clearly saw the frailty of those before him. Saw them and loved them for what they were – frailties, failings, inconsistencies, and all. Love that is blind ends with disillusionment and disappointment. But love that sees, sees past, and accepts the other as they are – is love that truly heals.

Some think of Jesus’ love as servant love – reaching out to serve, to feed, to heal, to bless. Again it is an image supported in the Gospels and yet hard for us to live out every day. It is an image that speaks of service to others before service to self.

But too often that vision carries with it a negative sense of self worth reasoning that says unless I forget myself, unless I hate myself, or neglect myself I am unworthy. We need love that is balanced – that can see clearly beyond ourselves and are willing to serve needs beyond our own – and to be healthy it is a love that recognizes that in giving the summary of the law Jesus tells us we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This tells us we need to have a love of self – an acceptance of who and whose we are – and we have to do this in order to be able to love others.

This gospel of love is not simple – it is not easy. It is some of the hardest work we can do. I was talking with a man who was attending an Elderhostle at a retreat center a few years ago. He was speaking about the church he belonged to. He said that when he walks into the church during the week – when no one is there – it is quite easy to be a Christian. It is only when other people are there – with all of their needs and demands, all of their peculiarities, all of the foibles and strange ways of being and living, that being a Christian becomes so difficult.
We are called & baptized into a community of believers for it is in the community that we can learn how to love as Jesus loved. Where we begin to model our lives and our behavior after the one who showed us how to love.

The Gospel tells us
Love is the command,
love is the way,
love is the inspiration –
love is the difficult choice we make,
love is what we try to live out,& what we fail to live out,
love is what forgives us and tells us to try again – & again, & again…

Our as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry sums it up – “If it is not about love – it is not about God…

Don

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Threats & Murder

Ananias, a disciple of Christ, also had a vision. He was asked to go to Saul, a man who had the power to arrest Ananias, in order to give Saul his sight and a message from the Lord. God intended to use this Saul (whom we now call Paul) to being the good news to the gentile world. With great trepidation, Ananias went to see this murderous menace he has heard about – and laid on hands of healing to help Saul regain his sight.

But sight is not always sought, let alone regained, by those intent on their own way – whose evil intentions remain on accomplishing threats and murder. We wonder what kind of world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. We hear much fear of the many possibilities there are for evil and destruction to cross the paths of our loved ones, disrupting their lives.

In today’s Gospel reading we have a glimpse into the lives of the disciples following Jesus betrayal and brutal death. They went back to Galilee, and not knowing what else to do, they go back to what they knew – taking care of themselves, they return to fishing. They go back to the familiar. As recounted in John, they catch nothing. It seems that even in their old trade they do not find success. A stranger on the beach suggests they cast the net on the other side of the boat. And they get an astounding catch – so great, that they are astonished that the net was not torn. Jesus was recognized, and Peter rushed to shore to be with him. Jesus was prepared for them, a meal was ready to share.

This Gospel describes a very typical human reaction following great trauma and upset: the disciples returned to the familiar. They wanted to regain some sense of normalcy, and of moving on with their lives. They tried to go back to the way things were before. As if we can ever get back to what was ‘before.’

Jesus addresses Peter – the disciple who not only ran away, but also three times denied even knowing Jesus – and says ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Peter says “Yes! You know that I love you.” Jesus says “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks twice more, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ After each affirmation Peter is told “Feed my sheep.” In doing this, Jesus not only helps Peter forgive the betrayal but also points him in a direction – that of doing what a shepherd does, but doing it for God’s people.
The focus on the Easter Season is new life, abundant life, life lived in the resurrected Christ. This is the kind of life God desires for us, as well as the kind of life the church wishes for its members, and parents wish for their children.

Jesus asked, ‘Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.’
These are nice words. But they will just remain only nice words if we do not understand what Jesus was teaching Peter.

‘Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.’ Jesus, who knows that Peter loves him, was asking Peter about more than the status of their relationship. Jesus is telling Peter that love is not a feeling or a thing but is essentially an action. It is not enough for Peter to feel good about Jesus, Peter must actively work to feed and nourish God’s people in order to live out the love and forgiveness that Jesus has shown him.

As part of our baptismal promises and confirmation vows, we have pledged to live out in the world the love and forgiveness God has given us – in tangible ways, through specific actions. Actions in Christian community, actions at the work place, actions at home.

Ananias, who knew of Saul’s evil reputation, went to lay hands on Saul as the Lord asked him to do. After he was healed, Saul spent several days with the followers of Christ in Damascus, and ‘immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” This 180° turn in attitude was followed by dramatic action.

What action need we, who are follower in the Way of Christ, take? The Baptismal Covenant asks:
* Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News?
* Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
* Will you strive for justice and peace among all people?
A number of projects undertaken by members of our current congregation show forth this sort of action: Food is donated to a food pantry where several of our members are volunteers. School children receive extra reading help;
Offerings, made while sharing thanksgiving and prayer concerns, are collected for use in mission projects through the United Thank Offering; Clark County CARES work on addiction issues is enabled, City Pride enhances the livability of our city. The list goes on and on…

After Jesus addressed Peter for the third time, telling him to “feed my sheep,” he told Peter what would happen in his old age. “Someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” – an indication of the kind of death by which he would glorify God.

We know that many Christians of the first few centuries, as well as some today, face persecution for their beliefs. They risk their lives to proclaim “Jesus is Lord.” They stand in the face of evil, and hold on to their God. They do not go back to ‘business as usual’ – they use their particular gifts to take their part in changing the world one bit at a time. Not everyone can stop evil perpetrated by others, but Christians can seek the light of Christ by which to choose their actions, in order to respond to Jesus’ call to “feed my sheep.”

When Jesus finished speaking with the disciples, he simply said, “follow me.”

Where was God during the shooting in North Carolina? God was present in the actions of Riley Howell a student who tackled the shooter saving the lives of many others. God was present in the midst of that chaos in the person of students and faculty who looked out for others, who helped one another, who enfolded others, comforted others. God is in the people reaching out to others in sorrow and love. God is present in the medical professionals who treated the survivors. We will hear many stories of the presence of God in time of trouble if we listen to the stories of the people of God.

These apostles in the reading today – Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee, and Saul (renamed Paul) – did indeed follow Jesus. They left their fishing nets, and made the choice to follow the Way of Christ. They entered unfamiliar territory; they used their gifts to serve others and to continue God’s work in the world. We know this because it is recorded in our sacred scripture, and in stories and legends that is part of the legacy of followers in the way.

Their stories have been handed onto us, as has this same ministry of Christ. While it may not seem, for example, that being involved in making Easter baskets for the Youth Shelter or providing food for the food pantry is a direct answer to those who breathe threats and murder, it is!

These are examples of a few simple ways through which we share the new life and love we find in Christ, and of proclaiming by our actions as well as our words, the Good News of God in Christ.

When Jesus finished speaking with the disciples, he simply said, “Follow me.”

Alleluia, Amen!

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Living the Impossible

Have you ever been surprised and startled by experiencing something that you never thought was possible? I know I have. Do you recall what it was like living the impossible – wondering if it were real or simply a dream from which you would awaken.

Thinking about John’s description of the evening of the resurrection that, it seems to me, would describe the emotional atmosphere in the upper room on the night he described. Recall that the women returned that morning and told of their experience at the tomb – not finding Jesus’ body there – which had not been believed by the men hiding in fear in the Upper Room. Shortly after dark the followers from Emmaus arrived breathless telling of their encounter with the stranger on the road – and how he was became known to them as Jesus in the breaking for the bread. And now in this closed room with its locked doors Jesus appears among them. He speaks peace to them. He then tells them they are sent as he was sent. And then in an act reminiscent of the creation story in Genesis breaths on them saying to them they are receiving the gift of the Spirit.

Is it any wonder that Thomas who was not there for all this comes back to friends who are very different, no longer bound by fear of arrest & death. They want Thomas to believe the impossible and he is just not able to. I’m sure he wants to. Who would not want to? The impossible is that beloved friend had died, but death did not have the last word.

Thomas was not able to make that fantastic leap without experiencing something akin to what they experienced. And a week later Thomas has his own experience – not a copy of theirs – and comes to his own realization and understanding. The story of their experience by these others opened Thomas to be able to have his experience of the power of God seen in Jesus.

This leaves us with the question of what has been our experience that leads us to active faith, fellowship, service and mission? It is an important question because if we expect to have someone else’s experience or some sort of cookie cutter experience that has been established as the “way” to see and believe, we shall be most disappointed. Each of us experiences of God with us and within us is manifested differently.

For example, Nancy and I walk & pray labyrinths. Nancy often has what might be called a spiritual or mystical experience while praying a labyrinth. I on the other hand have a quiet walk and some prayer time. On my part I find God in community, in sharing the stories and pilgrimage of life – mine and others; in what might seem to others as odd and brief moments of recognition.

For me the sacramental life of the church is an important touch stone. Before we enter the church for worship each Sunday we have a prayer among the participants. My favorite prayer ( and now the one I use almost exclusively, ends with “and be known to US in the breaking of bread.” For me communion is a significant moment of recognition of God active and present in my life.

Yet I know that for many others God’s presence is seen primarily in nature; or is felt in contemplative prayer; or in Avast array of other personally meaningful ways. So this story of Thomas is not a condemnation of Thomas as a doubter nor of an oddball who can’t believe the obvious – but rather it reminds us we each need to and are able to have our own experience of the power of God in a way that is personally meaningful to us.

This shows the importance of answering the question within ourselves “where it is that I am able to or surprised by catch a glimpse of God in my life?”

Once we identify that compassionate presence what is our response? Do we see it as a commissioning to do something? Peter appearing before the temple authorities whom he had formerly feared (Acts 5:27 and following) obviously felt it imperative that he share his story. In doing that he help others be open to their experience by his sharing what he had seen and heard – as a witness to the events.

We also need to recognize that Jesus appearance among them was frightening and scary for his friends and followers there. But once Jesus shared his peace with them – and they recognize it was Jesus – the fear was changed to gladness and a measure of peace was found.

Thomas has his experience and moves to a new understandings of life, and new priorities for his life. Legend tells us that Thomas like the other apostles traveled far sharing their experience of Jesus. Thomas it is believed traveled as far as Tamil Nadu in present day India. He is believed to be what is now the Mar Thoma Church in India.

His legacy is to assure us that questions and doubts are not antithetical to faith. According to author Frederick Buechner Doubts and questions “are the ants in the pants of faith” causing us to grow and change our understandings and actions as followers of Jesus.

Thomas and other apostles, saints and followers in the way who have gone before us invite us to open ourselves to see our own experiences of God in Christ in our life. To celebrate that experience and nurture it in community and finally to be willing to share it with others so that they too might identify that loving presence within and around them as well.

Jesus said to them – to you: Peace be with you.. As the father has sent me so I send you.

Receive the Holy Spirit And YOU shall be my witnesses…

Thomas was not able to make that fantastic leap without experiencing something akin to what they experienced. And a week later Thomas has his own experience – not a copy of theirs – and comes to his own realization and understanding.

The story of their experience by these others opened Thomas to be able to have his experience of the power of God seen in Jesus. This leaves us with the question of what has been our experience that leads us to active faith, fellowship, service and mission? It is an important question because if we expect to have someone else’s experience or some sort of cookie cutter experience that has been established as the “way” to see and believe, we shall be most disappointed. Each of us experiences of God with us and within us is manifested differently.

For example, Nancy and I walk & pray labyrinths. Nancy often has what might be called a spiritual or mystical experience while praying a labyrinth. I on the other hand have a quiet walk and some prayer time.

On my part I find God in community, in sharing the stories and pilgrimage of life – mine and others; in what might seem to others as odd and brief moments of recognition. For me the sacramental life of the church is an important touch stone. Before we enter the church for worship each Sunday we have a prayer among the participants. My favorite prayer ( and now the one I use almost exclusively, ends with “and be known to US in the breaking of bread.”

For me communion is a significant moment of recognition of God active and present in my life. Yet I know that for many others God’s presence is seen primarily in nature; or is felt in contemplative prayer; or in Avast array of other personally meaningful ways.

So this story of Thomas is not a condemnation of Thomas as a doubter nor of an oddball who can’t believe the obvious – but rather it reminds us we each need to and are able to have our own experience of the power of God in a way that is personally meaningful to us.

That shows the importance of answering the question within ourselves “where it is that I am able to or surprised by catch a glimpse of God in my life?”

Once we identify that compassionate presence what is our response? Do we see it as a commissioning to do something?

Peter appearing before the temple authorities whom he had formerly feared (Acts 5:27 and following) obviously felt it imperative that he share his story. In doing that he help others be open to their experience by his sharing what he had seen and heard – as a witness to the events.

We also need to realize that Jesus appearance among them was frightening and scary for his friends and followers there. But once Jesus has shared his peace with them – and they recognize it was Jesus – the fear was changed to gladness and a measure of peace was found.

Thomas has his experience and moves to a new understandings of life, and new priorities for his life. Legend tells us that Thomas like the other apostles traveled far sharing their experience of Jesus. Thomas it is believed traveled as far as Tamil Nadu in present day India. He is believed to be what is now the Mar Thoma Church in India.

His legacy is to assure us that questions and doubts are not antithetical to faith. According to author Frederick Buechner Doubts and questions “are the ants in the pants of faith” causing us to grow and change our understandings and actions as followers of Jesus.

Thomas and other apostles, saints and followers in the way who have gone before us invite us to open ourselves to see our own experiences of God in Christ in our life. To celebrate that experience and nurture it in community and finally to be willing to share it with others so that they too might identify that loving presence within and around them as well.

Jesus said tho them – to you: Peace be with you..

As the father has sent me so I send you

Receive the Holy Spirit

And YOU shall be my witnesses…

Don

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Nic(odemus) at Night

If I was to provide a title for the Gospel on Trinity Sunday (Jesus & Nicodemus) I think it would be “Nick at Night.” Nicodemus a leader of Jerusalem came under cover of darkness to see Jesus. He did not want to be seen; wanted no one who knew him to know of his visit. Something about Jesus had caught his interest and Nick felt moved to talk with him.
Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter by telling Nicodemus that only those who are born from above (also translated as born again) can see the kingdom of God. But we must look at what the term “born-again” meant to the Johannine Christ who invented it. The First Use of this term that I know of was the late night visit of Old Nicodemus to rabbi Jesus. Nicodemus was, as the gospel tells it, a man of the Pharisees, called “a ruler of the Jews.” That is to say, he was an establishment religious type, a very highly respected member of the Council of Religious Leadership, as we would say. Fellow members of that group would be the Episcopal and Methodist bishops, the RC cardinal, the executive presbyter of the Presbyerians, the chairman of the council of rabbis, and so forth. The religious establishment.
Jesus was a Pharisee, that is, a religious liberal, as compared to the Sadducee, the fundamentalist group. Nicodemus was disposed to agree with Jesus, who was himself of the Pharisee school of thought. Unlike Sadducees, they believed in Resurrection, hoped for an end to the Roman occupation, which the Sadducees had made their peace with. And they were generous and liberal in their handling of Scripture, unlike the narrow-minded Sadducees. Nicodemus after all came to Jesus not as an opponent, but as a sympathizer and collaborator, just afraid to be seen with Jesus. He addresses Jesus as “rabbi” — an honorific title of the religious establishment. This is not flattery, but genuine respect. Nicodemus genuinely likes Jesus and approves of him and what he is publicly saying and doing.
We shall never know what Nicodemus intended to say to Jesus in the next breath, for Jesus broke in and in essence said, Where you are coming from, Nicodemus, what you represent, is the old order! The fact that you must come to me by night, secretive, afraid to be seen in the day time with me, tells me that you are operating in the old establishment out of fear In this darkness, you can’t SEE the possibilities of a new political agenda, the reign of God in our time!
Indeed, Jesus sees that Nicodemus comes to him laden with all the luggage of the old order, which he represents. He brings with him the entanglements of establishment religion. Indeed Jesus sees that Nicodemus does not come to him as an individual seeking counsel or conversion of life. He believes he already has his head screwed on right. Privately, he might hold the right opinions. But he comes laden with the language of the old order, of hesitancy and compromise, of “reconciliation” and repair, bent on preserving the old order of privileged rank where the mills of God grind so slowly that no one’s grain gets ground today though the fields are white unto the harvest.
Nicodemus is willing to call Jesus “rabbi”, or “Father”, or “Abouni” or “Abbot” or “Bishop” or “Brother”, or whatever is prescribed, But he is not going to come out in the day light and say “I’ll go with you all the way to the Revolution.” The night-time cover belies his apparent solidarity with Jesus’ radical movement for change.
Jesus says, “You can’t even SEE what I’m talking about when I say “Kingdom” unless you start over from square One.
“How is that done?” Nicodemus asks. “Can a geezer be newborn at my age? Can our establishment religion be started over after all these centuries? Can we enter into the matrix & be born again? Now Nicodemus is a “teacher” in Israel, a doctor of the Church, and certainly therefore in a position to understand such things. For the primary fact is that God loves the world, and loves it so much that God is intimate within and through it and apart from it all at once: a panentheism. . And God has made Godself available for the human community and the whole creation.
All of us can go back to the tree from which we were hewn, to tap into the fountains and floods of our origins. And to enlist with the Spirit that is blowing in the Wind, alive, and moving to the future. Being Born again doesn’t mean moving back to King James’ Version of the Bible and settling down in the Prayer Book. God says to Moses on Sinai, “Take off the shoes you wore here. This is where Holy starts over. This land is Holy, right here. This is where the bush is burning, but never consumed. You did not receive a spirit of timidity, calling you to the Bush of the past, its fire extinguished, but to the lively future of the New Covenant. You must be born anew and start off from here.
Those who looks to the establishment for views will see the establishment view. And those who are born anew will go at once to open new windows, to leave the door ajar, and listen for the thunder. The wind blows where it wills, and you can’t prevent it. So it is with those born of the Spirit. To be born anew is to let new beginnings happen. All Creation is standing tippy toe expectantly waiting for something new to be seen amongst us. And the something new will not be found in layers of rules and heaps of structure. It will be found in listening to the inspiration, the breath, of the Spirit calling us into a new future into which Jesus has gone before and where God awaits us.

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“Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die…”

The last sentence of the portion of the Gospel of Mark’s description of the women at the tomb reads “So they fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” This puts to rest any of sense that after the resurrection Jesus friends and followers went racing madly through the streets shouting out the good news.  They didn’t. They said nothing to anyone. Because they were afraid.

Throughout the Gospel the disciples don’t get what Jesus is saying. After his arrest the men had run away and deserted him – the women, given their secondary status were largely ignored by the authorities, so they faithfully continued to be with him through death and to the tomb. Yet after they were given the news that Jesus was raised – they are told to share the news with the disciples and Peter – but they don’t do it. They run away in fear and say nothing.

Resurrection is a fearful thing. And why is it fearful? Because it is associated with death. Where this is no death there can be no resurrection. As a contemporary humorist observed “Everybody wants to get to heaven but no one wants to die.”

We talk about the only two things that are inevitable are death and taxes. Yet we are part of a death denying culture. We try to hold death at arms length, and pretend it will never happen to us. We don’t like to talk about it deal with it or be around it. Yet every one of us faces many kinds of death – not just physical death – but other deaths as well. Beyond death of a loved one, we face the death of a dream, a hope, an idea or a relationship.  We usually would rather struggle to deny the possibility of a death than to face it or accept it.

Jesus accepted his death as inevitable. While in the garden of Gethsemane he prayed it might not happen he knew it as a real possibility. And he prayed “thy will be done.” He understood that the power of love is longer lasting and greater than the power of death.

It seems to me that one of the most significant questions we have to ask ourselves as individual Christians and as a faith community is “Are we willing to die?” Not do we want to die, but are we able to risk death as a possibility. If we answer “No” it indicates we are not ready or able to risk failure and death. If we cannot risk death we are not ready for, nor can we expect any possibility of resurrection.

Jesus said that those who try to save their life will lose it.  He understood that we only fully live when we can risk of the possibility of failure and death. Through death come the limitless possibilities of resurrection – and new life.  Resurrection is a given not just to Jesus and not just after our physical death – it is God’s gift that we can experience new life many times in our life if we are willing to risk death in order to live abundantly.   Alleluia.

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Good Friday Reflection

There are days when it might be possible to imagine that we are basically good people and that our society is much more humane and compassionate than during the time the Gospels were written. It might even be possible for us to feel confident that things are mostly all right between ourselves and God, and that we are doing all we can to make our world a better place.

But not today.

Today cannot be one of those days because we are called upon to struggle with the stark reality of the cross. Good Friday is often a difficult day for Christians. On Palm Sunday we were waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”! Today, the atmosphere is somber. We are much fewer in number than we were on Sunday. We gather in the shadow of death, perhaps already longing for Easter morning with the church bright decorated and celebrating life. We are tired of listening to the thundering cries for repentance that have been a staple of our Lenten readings

On Good Friday, a few people gather in our churches to mourn and pray and listen to a terrible story of betrayal and death. Even on this side of Jesus’ resurrection, knowing how it all turns out, we need to consider how this could have happened. To recognize that it happened because powerful people wanted Jesus to die, and because most ordinary people turned silently away from what was taking place.  People turned away. People like us.

And that is part of  the difficulty. We look upon Jesus as the Lord of life, the one ever willing to give, to care, to love, to show us a better way, the way to the reign of God. The one who offered and invited others to share his vision, his way of living.  Good Friday was a day that both ordinary and powerful folks, people like us, took back the love and compassion that might have been in them, and by voice or inaction said it was quite all right that Jesus be executed like a common criminal. And that’s exactly what happened.

From the moment of his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane by the forces of power, to the time when the crowds roared for the release of Barabbas, to the moment of his death, Jesus was abandoned to his fate by everyone.  It has been said that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. And over the ages humanity has become very good at doing nothing…

No matter how much we wish that this terrible drama of Good Friday were just a tragic play, the fact is that Jesus, who embodied all that is good, and right, and compassionate, was betrayed, beaten, spat upon, humiliated, paraded publicly through the city as entertainment to the masses, and then finally, nailed to a piece of wood and left to suffer a slow, agonizing death. What depravity humanity possesses that a political system could so turn on this rabbi and healer using an illegal trial, political pressure, false charges, and fear to control the citizenry?

I suspect most of us think that “I could never do such a thing to another human being” but the painful truth is that we are all participants in this story. It is a truth too great for some of us to contemplate. Our response is to simply decide not to think about it. We turn away from the cross and direct our gaze longingly at the empty tomb. But we must look, look at the cross and at ourselves in order to understand the power of resurrection.

It is easy to turn away and blame others  –  criminals, politicians, and religious fanatics who betray and destroy life. How simple it is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and feel the indignation that we all experience when we hear about a great evil or injustice that has been done. And yet every day each one of us, in our own little way, gives quiet assent to the persons and policies that bring despair and death to humankind.  There is a prayer of confession that says “we repent of the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf”. There was and is evil done by our government, by corporate America, by the powerful wanting to maintain the status quo or bend it to their benefit that, unless we intentionally stand against it, is essentially done in our name and on our behalf.

Like the crowd that tormented and mocked Jesus or simply stood silently as he staggered through the Via Dolorosa on the way to his death, all of us play our roles. We do not encourage evil, we simply do nothing because we are afraid, because we don’t want to be unpleasant, or stir up trouble. Or we may just be tired and despondent, ground down into indifference by a lifetime of witnessing the tragedy and injustice in the world. Beaten down, just like the Jewish population of Jesus’ time, held captive by Roman rule. After all, who in our present day does not despair at the thought of the kind of atrocities our species has shown itself to be capable of inflicting on others. How can we not flinch when we think of Dachau, Hiroshima, Columbine, The World Trade Center, Abu Ghraib, or the Sudan? And we react “But what can I do?” And we turn away because we believe we are powerless, just like the ones lining the road as Jesus walked by, carrying his cross.

Our own silence to evil condemns us. We want to be done with this bloody business of Good Friday, so we avert our eyes from the misery laid out before us. But for our own sake we must look, because it is in contemplating the death of Jesus that we can begin to learn about true compassion and love.

We know that Jesus did not have to walk this awful road. It was an act of his own choosing, his choosing to witness to the power of love over all else.

At the last moment of his life Jesus cried out, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” and if the events of Good Friday teach us anything, it is that we now know what love means. We can apply this lesson to our own lives and the lives of those around us.

We know how the story will end. Jesus will rise from the dead, overcoming the cross, death, and the grave. He has gone on before us, and will return for us on the last day. But while we hope in the resurrection, we still live under the reality of the cross. The condition of the world testifies to this awful truth, and the brokenness of our own lives gives further witness. God is still being crucified day by day, still suffering on the periphery, still on the receiving end of human evil and callousness in places as far away as Darfur and as close as Louisville. Our salvation is a gift of God, but our responsibility for overcoming evil lies within ourselves, now liberated by God’s grace.

Today, we come face to face with the profound knowledge of the nature of God and the disquieting disclosure of the nature of human beings. We are an Easter people in hope, but a Good Friday people in the reality of our human condition. We are given hope, but that hope is offered only by entering into a consciousness of the cross and all it discloses. Of intentionally choosing to live in a different way that opposes evil where we find it and that makes no peace with oppression. This is a way that we may tangibly take up our cross and follow where Jesus has led the way…

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Palm Sunday Parades

There were two processions that day. The first included Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor escorted by the roman legions that arrived every year in Jerusalem to strengthen the garrison there to prevent any uprisings during the celebration of Passover. Passover was the yearly celebration of freedom and escape from oppression and the Romans would not want it to get out of hand. Entering the city of Jerusalem the legions announced the coming of the governor and cleared the rabble out of the road. It was an expression of political power, military might, and the culture of inducing fear into the populace in order to control their actions and maintain their acquiescence.

The second procession was in counterpoint to the first – it included a man riding on a donkey while the poor and the marginalized threw branches on the road ahead of him calling him “Son of David.”  There were no soldiers, nor might nor any display of power. It was so different from that first procession – it was almost comical except that it drew heavily on the symbolism of the Old Testament – the entry of Kings such as Saul & David. The priests and temple officials were not laughing.  They began to plot in earnest how to trap Jesus – how to end his ability to inspire and inflame the outcasts and nobodies. They understood the second procession was more dangerous for them than the first. And the beginnings of the dynamics of this week we call Holy week that would lead to Golgotha began.

As the week progressed the plan came together and they were able to arrest this rabbi. And by shrewd manipulation of facts they led the populace to go along with their plan of destruction. They even got the Roman Governor to find Jesus deserving of death – if only to protect his status and power.

Two processions… one of which we are part is the second.  We are the followers of the one who was considered dangerous and anti-establishment; we tread in the tradition of the one who pointed out that the way of God is not the way of power, military might, money, or privilege. Christianity is still counter-cultural even today.

And the mandate of the Gospel continues to be for us to follow where Jesus has led the way and to place ourselves before power, principalities, authorities and rulers to witness to the power of love even in the face of evil and death. The words of Jesus echo through the centuries to us “take up your cross and follow me.”

Don

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The 10 Commandments & Jesus

Over recent decades we have heard of a number of controversies about the public display of the 10 commandments. Lawsuits were filed and courts have weighed in. Private citizens and public officials applauded the decisions, or have decried them and predicted the ruin of our society unless these are returned to a place of prominence in public buildings, courts, and schools. There is a great deal of emotion and energy behind these discussions. But what is rarely discussed is the 10 Commandments themselves and Jesus’ teaching in regard to them.

The context of the passage in Exodus in which Moses received them is familiar. He leads the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. In the wilderness they camp at the foot of the mountain. Many religions regard mountain tops as sacred site or thin places. Moses goes to the top of the mountain and after a long time on the mountain brings down tablets on which these laws were written.

Many of us have seen the movie like the Ten Commandments and think of them as large stone tablets several feet high and quite thick. In reality that is a modern visualization. The tablets of that time would have been clay tablets written in tiny cuneiform or early Hebrew letter, tablets that could be easily held in the hand.

No matter the size of the tablets the Ten Commandments provided an ethical and moral base for the development of Judaism. But they did not develop in a vacuum. One of the earliest codes, that of Hammurabi (a king who reigned in Babylonia) is estimated to have originated between 1792 and 1750 B.C.). The Ten Commandments, (also known as The Decalogue), are estimated to have originated around 1446 B.C. The Ten Commandments thus came after the Law Code of Hammurabi.

We should not assume that because the Code of Hammurabi was first, that the10 Commandments borrow from them. We should recall the Code of Hammurabi focused exclusively on criminal and civil laws and meted out what in the present we see as harsh, and sometimes brutal, punishments. The Law of Moses covers more than a legal code; it speaks of sin and of our responsibility to God as well as to society and to others.

Both Hammurabi and Moses recorded laws which were unique to their times. Hammurabi claimed to receive his code from the Babylonian god of justice, Shamash. Moses received the Law atop Mount Sinai from the God of the Israelites.

The difference in the time frame between them allows the evolution of what constituted just punishment for crime. Often cited is what is referred to as the Lex Talionis. In Leviticus it is phrased, “And a man who injures his countryman – as he has done, so it shall be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. To us that may seem like retaliation but in the ethical development of humanity it was a reform – it was a more reasonable punishment than more severe injury or death. Here is the beginning of the reform and reframing of punishments to ones that fit the crime – that produce something better resembling justice if not restoration and redemption.

The commandments themselves are fairly familiar to us:
The first four speak to a proper relationship with God, the rest address relationships within the covenant community of Israel.
The first re-enforces that it was this God of Israel who brought the people out of slavery. And so there shall be “no other God’s before me.”

Notice that in these early stages of the development of Judaism it does not deny the fact that other people worship other Gods… but for Israel there are to be no God’s to which one has a greater or equal allegiance.

The second commandment is “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them…”

This commandment forbids the making of idols or objects that put themselves in God’s place in our lives. We are reminded of the story of the Exodus where the people make an image of a golden calf.

The third commandment forbids taking the name of the Lord in vain… In the ancient near east most cultures used oaths and incantations using the name of the god to “harness” or bend divine power to serve human interests. Thus this is as applicable today as it was in the Sinai several millennia ago.

The Fourth Commandment is about observing the Sabbath. It is about cessation from work for a day. It would seem that for the people of Israel rest was written into the very nature of their living. Rest allowed time to develop a deeper relationship with the creator.

The remaining commandments offer specific prohibitions that regulate relationships. It begins with the family “Honor your father and your mother…”
One thing we may miss is that this commandment in that patriarchal society actually elevates the status of women… as equal partners with men in relationship to children. It also created the probability of a flow of tradition between generations.

The sixth is you shall do no murder. This prohibits homicide, an upsetting of the social order. But doesn’t really address warfare, capital punishment or even revenge killing. These Jesus later addresses in the Gospel.

The seventh is “You shall not commit adultery…”
This is not so much about sexual purity as it is about family integrity and the legitimacy of children and inheritance. We should recall that a number of sexual activities outside of marriage are not forbidden nor addressed in this commandment. This too Jesus addressed and broadened in his teachings in the Gospels.

The 8th is “You shall not steal.”
This commandment guards the stability of the larger society by protecting private property. But it was understood not to preclude such things as the right of the poor to glean food in the corners of the field or pother measures that provided some small measure of we might call a social safety net for the poor.

The 9th reads You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
This is a defense against perjury in legal cases as well as a prohibition against more trivial lying about another. That this was an ongoing problem can be seen in the words and accusations of various Hebrew prophets

The 10th is You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

This helps focus the members of this covenant community beyond outward actions to inner thoughts that leads to rehearsing in thought an action that threatens the stability and integrity of the family or community.

It is important to note that these commandments are promulgated for those who are within the people of Israel – the covenant community. They did not apply to how one related to those not in the covenant community.

The ten commandments are a significant step forward in the moral and ethical development of the Judeo/Christian ethos. But it is a step and not the final destination.

In the Gospels when Jesus was asked about the most important of the commandments he did not respond with any one of these 10 commandments. He answered saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, all your mind and all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In this we see Jesus building on the foundation of the Ten Commandments – most of which are prohibitions of what not to do – and creating a framework that guides us in how we should act and relate to another – whether in the covenant community or not.

We honor the 10 Commandments as an important step in the religious, moral and ethical development but see them further developed and expanded in Jesus teaching.

We see the same thing happening in the Gospel this morning as Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem and observed the noise, the competition among the various vendors and the profit motive that drove them and the temple officials. It was a place that had forgotten its core purpose. His response was to overthrow their tables reminding them the temple was a place for encountering the creator not a marketplace for profiteering.

In his relationship with the apostles and disciples Jesus always invited them to grow in their understanding beyond a surface familiarity and to deepen their spiritual roots.

Jesus reinterpreted the Law – even the 10 Commandments – in ways that prove to be less focused on the negative, more open to interpretation and yet more restrictive of the ungodly attitudes and actions that a strict interpretation of the 10 commandments would allow.

If we want to know what it is God wants from us and wishes for us to do we need Jesus’s summary of the law – Love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself” – not the 10 Commandments.
And if we want to provide a place to display what it is that God requires of us, the place is to write Jesus’ teaching in our hearts and memories.

Lent is that time to be reminded of what mattered most to Jesus and to commit ourselves to follow in that way of life and action.

Don

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“Celebrating” a New Year?

There we were celebrating the first Sunday of the new church year – Advent 1 – and what are we hearing for lessons…

From Isaiah.. “we became like one who is unclean, we fade like a leaf and our iniquities take us away… you have hidden your face from us…”

The psalm asks “”How long will you be angry with us…. And pleads “restore us O God of hosts, and we shall be saved…”

Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians sounds hopeful…at least before we undestand the context.

Then we get to the Gospel from Mark talking about the end time, suffering, stars falling from heaven, and  suddenly the elect will be gathered from the four winds…

And we are told keep alert.  Keep awake… and ends with keep awake…

Doesn’t exactly sound like readings that are celebratory… doesn’t make us feel good or want to dance or even to enthusiastically praise God at the end of the reading.  What is going on here?

Let’s take a look. If we were to be transported to Jerusalem and meet Isaiah we would find ourselves among people coming back from exile to a city that is ruins.  They are confronting the reality of what has happened to them and to their city. This is part of a portion of Isaiah which is a lament.

Instead of simply blaming God for this tragic human condition, Isaiah admits that the people have a role in it too… faithlessness, hubris and pride have taken their toll, and says Isaiah “have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”

But all is not desolation for Isaiah almost immediately declares the hope for redemption  “…we are the clay and you are the potter” in essence saying form us – we are willing to change, to be formed, as we are all the work of God’s hand. Trust in God gives the confidence to face the future with hope. Isaiah ends with the declaration “We are all your people.”  He claims that identity. When we too claim that identity and open ourselves to God to form us aright we are given hope for the future.

In the second reading Paul writes to the Christians gathered in Corinth. They are waiting for the immanent return of Jesus to finish the work of God and bring in the reign of God where all will be as it is meant to be. We must remember that Paul is addressing a community that is a mess. Everything that could go wrong there has gone wrong among them. Yet Paul speaks positively – but with carefully chosen phrases. He gives thanks because the grace of God has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Yet he chooses not to judge them by tell them that they have utterly failed to express that grace in their community life.

He tells them they have been enriched by Christ. But he does not remind them of how they have misused or not used those gifts.

Think of the personal and professional gifts of every kind that exist within any community of faith. Paul notes the richness of gifts within the community as they wait for the return of Jesus, noting they lack no spiritual gift. What is lacking  among them is the willingness to nourish and to use their gifts in God’s service.

Paul reminds them that God is faithful and will “strengthen you to the end”. The promise of Christ’s presence among us is real and dependable. God is faithful – the implied question is how faithful are we?

You cannot get much farther from the seasonal preparation of Christmas lights and decorations than we get in the reading from the Gospel. It is almost frightening.

We must recall Advent plays two roles as a season. Advent marks the beginning of a new year commemorating Jesus birth, ministry, life death resurrection and teaching.  Advent leads us up to that yearly commemoration beginning with Jesus nativity.

Advent also looks beyond the child, matured to adulthood, crucified, brought to new life in and, who promised to return to bring all creation to its fulfillment in God.

Jesus in this Markan passage speaks in symbols, with images of clouds, angels and the gathering of humanity to indicate that time when God calls all creation (including us) to an accounting.

When this portion of the Gospel was written the Roman threats against Israel were becoming real, false messiahs were arising saying they were the second coming. The signs were all around the early followers. They were torn between giving themselves up to despair or reaching out for a flicker of hope. There are all manner of signs around us as well. We have to decide whether to give in to despair or to look for the hope in the midst of the signs.

This is usually seen as judgement. And most depictions of what we often think of as the last judgement (including last week’s separating sheep from goats… seem frightening or negative.What I see here is not threat but rather advice on how to wait for that time when all will become as God created it to be. It is telling us we need to spend our energies and time living responsibly in the present.

Nancy has spoken of how as a child this gospel was frightening because she knew she could not stay awake all the time… Jesus says three times to stay alert and awake… for what?

To stay alert to the fact that our life, as one who tries to follow Jesus, is lived knowing there is accountability for our actions and inactions, for our attitudes and ignorances, and for using or burying the gifts we have been given, in order to move us closer to what God created us to be.

We know neither the day or hour when we will be answerable. In Jesus parable the servants keep doing their work knowing that the master will at some point return they will give an account of their life and work.

Years ago a doctor by the name of James Moody published “Life After Life”a study of near death experiences. In most of them the person undergoing clinical death met a being of light who asked them something like “I gave you life what did you do with it…?

This is what I see our accountability will be like. Not ledges or tomes with entries of misdeeds, not anger nor bitterness. A simple question we answer by our reviewing our lives and actions. This is actually a question we can ask ourselves even now.  What have I done with that gifts I was given? What do I want to do with these gifts now and in the future?

 

Don

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