First Sunday After Christmas, Year A: John 1:1-18: Hope

You can see all the lectionary readings for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

John’s gospel and Christmas story is very different from the other Gospels. It takes a more theological approach.

It’s beautiful and hard to paraphrase, so I’m going to quote it here:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1: 1-18, NRSV

John’s callbacks to Genesis tie Jesus to God from the beginning of time, influencing our creeds and notions of the Trinity.

It’s comforting to think of the Word becoming flesh and living among us. It is also comforting to think of the light shining in the darkness. The darkness does not overcome it. Again, the darkness does not overcome it.

Life can be hard in this world. It can be hard in so many ways, with disease, war, injustice, famine, poverty, inequality. We follow Jesus, perfect example of God’s love among us, and we strive to bring the light and love to the rest of a hurting world. Sometimes it seems there is no hope for this dark world, but God is there. Even when we struggle to find meaning and hope, God is there and love will win. We must continue to strive and live with love and hope.

First Sunday of Advent, Year A: Matthew 24:36-44: Be Ready

You can see all the lectionary readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

The scripture readings in advent can be frightening, but they are all reminders that even when terrible things are happening, God is in charge. We need to follow him and be faithful, sharing the love and light of God to a broken and hurting world.

In today’s passage, Jesus is speaking about the signs of distress that are going on his time in Israel and it all sounds dark and painful. He talks about how it looks as though things are falling apart but promises that soon the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus) will arrive and then God’s power will win. He reminds his followers that when they see the signs of disruption they can know that God is very near (as God always is, but perhaps even more so when we are in distress). He reminds us to be alert so we can be ready on that day. 

When things are dark, we are to be light, as Jesus is a light to the world.

Proper 27, Year C: Luke 20: 27-38: Life After Death

You can see all the lectionary readings for Proper 27, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

This week I preached the sermon at church, so I’m putting it here.

Let me take you back to this week in 2013. At that time, I was the church school coordinator here at Grace and I was basically preparing our curriculum week-by-week to go along with the lectionary readings. I would email the teachers–usually, I would paraphrase the Gospel reading for the week and then give ideas about how we might teach to that week’s readings. 

For this particular passage that year, I started off by writing, “This week’s lesson is a tricky one. I have been wondering how to teach this one since I laid out the yearlong curriculum in August.” Yes, I do like to plan ahead. Then I endeavored to come up with a good lesson for it and requested that Father Owen respond with any further explanation he might have. 

Naturally, when I realized this was what I had to preach about, I went searching for an email from him about this from that time. Unfortunately, if I had one, I didn’t save it. So, let’s see what we can do with it and I hope this little honest opening from me helps us all appreciate how great Father Owen’s sermons are week after week—no matter the subject.

The first thing that popped into my head when reading this gospel passage is how people are continually fascinated with the afterlife. There are endless books and stories about it. There are psychics making a living off connecting people with their dead loved ones (some of them are likely sincere in considering themselves psychic, but I suspect many have learned parlor tricks and how to read people and are just performing for money). 

I was at a local event last year all about ghost-hunting in Rockland County. A psychic performed for the crowd and people seemed to believe she was connecting them to their family members in the afterlife, but I was very skeptical. I tend to be skeptical and a fact-checker, so she wasn’t able to convince me that she was doing anything other than clever guesswork and showmanship.  

In spite of my tendency to skepticism, I have to admit I do enjoy watching ghost-hunting shows and I’ve heard some fascinating ghost stories from people I know. I may not believe all of them, but I can’t deny someone’s personal experience, nor can I deny the painful grief that often leads people to seek solace from ghost stories and psychics. 

In today’s world, people continue to find stories of the afterlife compelling—whether from a ghost-hunting television show or accounts of near-death experiences. Some of these stories come from various branches of Christianity and others are from other religions or from popular culture. People the world over want to know what comes next and they’re hungry for information on eternal life. 

Now let’s dive into the Gospel. First, we should look at the context. Jesus has been teaching in the temple area and the people are loving it. Throngs of people are listening and the leaders are feeling threatened. 

So, first some leading Pharisees send someone to try to trip him up by asking him a tricky political question—thinking his answer would get him in trouble with either the Romans or the people, but Jesus gives them a clever response. (That’s the one where Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”) I’m just glad I didn’t have to preach about taxes today. 

Next, the Sadducees approach Jesus with their own tricky question. Now there are a few things to know about the Sadducees to understand the motives behind this weird question. 

First, they rejected the idea of life after death. Second, their entire theology was restricted to the Torah (the first 5 books in our Bible). Third, they were collaborators with the Roman Empire, colluding to keep the people in line and themselves in power and wealth. They were defenders of the status quo, both politically and religiously. 

Perhaps the Sadducees want to pigeonhole Jesus. The Pharisees, another prominent sect of this time that I mentioned before, do believe in Resurrection. The Sadducee questioners may be testing whether they can dismiss Jesus as just another Pharisee and therefore not a radical threat to them.  As aristocratic city folk, they may look down on Jesus as a rustic small-towner with dumb ideas.

As I said—the Sadducees followed only the written Torah and they reference Moses in their question. They expect Jesus can’t answer them based on the Torah because Moses didn’t write about anything they thought Jesus could reference in this case. 

But Jesus finds an answer in the Torah. In the third chapter of Exodus, God speaks from the burning bush and refers to the fathers of the Israelites in the present tense. To God, they are all still living. Death is indeed an end, but not the end of everything because God is eternal.

The question is meant to be ridiculous and the Sadducees are presenting it as ridiculous to belittle the idea of resurrection, but it’s also not without some consequence for real people. 

For example, my own grandmother (we called her Granny) had four husbands in her time—first she had her seven children with my own Grandpa James.

Then after his death, she married my other Grandpa Lawrence (there was this whole weird thing where my mother’s mother briefly married my father’s father—I know it may seem weird, but things in Texas can be weird). Then it turns out they did not get along at all and they got that marriage annulled. 

Later Granny married Uncle Pete—not my real uncle but that’s what the family called him, and then when Uncle Pete died she married a guy the family called Brother Bowlen—I think he was called Brother because my family was Assembly of God and they tend to call their fellow churchgoers “brothers and sisters”. 

And look, I can relate the story of the several husbands of my Granny in a humorous way—I have a lot of funny stories about growing up in rural Texas and I can tell them with a full-on Texas accent. I don’t always have a strong accent, but it lingers in certain words or when I talk to my momma on the phone.

But here’s the thing–my granny was a widow more than once, and the Bible has a lot to say about how we should care for widows and orphans and the poor. That’s what’s behind this quirky question about a woman widowed seven times. 

She was remarried because in that patriarchal society there were few other options for a woman to afford to live. She required a husband or grown sons to provide for her. The same was true in Texas for much of the last century. 

There’s a harsh reality behind this somewhat silly question, but the rich and powerful Sadducees aren’t concerned about the real lives of widows in need. They are just trying to score points off a rustic rabbi.

Because they have already made up their minds about resurrection, the Sadducees aren’t asking this question in fairness. They are looking to trip Jesus up. They hope to find a way to ridicule him. Jesus does not respond as expected (as usual—it’s part of what I love about these passages where people question Jesus). In a similar passage in Mark, he expresses more outright frustration, but that is not included here. 

Jesus uses this as an occasion to teach, which was so much of what his ministry was about. He teaches us about the love of God even when a question is asked insincerely. He emphasizes that heaven and earth are not the same. There’s also a certain beautiful equality in the idea that we will all be like children of God—from the poorest and lowliest to the richest and most powerful.

The language Jesus uses, that in the resurrection we will be like angels, like children of God, is not super concrete but it’s imaginative and evocative. It requires imagination and we can entertain the possibilities of a complete transformation. Other passages in the New Testament use various metaphors to describe that transformation. 

Paul writes that “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” In First John, it’s written that “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” I love that. In Second Thessalonians (one of our other readings for today) the author says we are called to “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All these resurrection metaphors are tantalizingly vague. 

Jesus doesn’t answer all our questions. The rest of the Bible doesn’t answer all our questions. There’s a lot of mystery in our faith, and that’s ok. I think it’s rather beautiful. There are variations of Christianity that claim to have all the answers. There are cults out there that claim to know an exact date when Jesus will return (and they will adjust those dates when they come and go without incident). 

That is not our faith. I know it would be comforting in some ways to have more clear-cut answers, to know precise details about eternal life. But all the answers provided, like in this very short passage, are vague and not greatly detailed. It may not be so satisfying but it is hopeful and it’s about trusting God. Our faith is one of mystery, but also one of hope. The hope is not in knowing specifics, but in knowing Jesus. 

We may not know the details of resurrection, but we have a God whose love abides for us beyond death. For those who have died, for those saints we celebrated last week on All Saints’ Day, for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, God’s love is eternal. We trust in a God who transcends time, and whose love endures forever. 

I love the idea of a transcendent and eternal God, but I don’t want to live with my head in the clouds, dreaming of what might be. I just want to know how I should live now. And how should we then respond to this beautiful mystery, to Jesus and these glimpses of hope and eternity? Are we living like those who abide in the transcendent and eternal love of God? Do we love like we are the children of that loving God? 

Marcus Borg once wrote that “an emphasis on the afterlife focuses our attention on the next world rather than on this world. Most of the Bible, on the other hand, focuses our attention on our lives in this world and the transformation of this world.” Let us do our best to transform ourselves and this world.

Palm Sunday, Year C: Psalm 31:9-16: Hope From Despair

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, Year B by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Psalms.

One of my favorite readings of this Palm Sunday is the psalm I read for the 8am service at our church:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; *
my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.

For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.

I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.

For I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
fear is all around; *
they put their heads together against me;
they plot to take my life.

But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. *
I have said, “You are my God.

My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.

Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me.”

Psalm 31: 9-16

I read here that “the psalmist “begins by singing the blues.” I love that, particularly because I’ve been learning to play some blues tunes on the piano lately. Indeed, this psalm is full of heartwrenching despair with phrases like “fear is all around” and “I am as useless as a broken pot”. We’ve all had those dark nights of the soul. But the psalm ends with the uplift of hope in God’s love.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C: Luke 1:39-45, (46-55): Hope and Trust

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Mary travels to another town to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth feels her unborn baby leap up inside her at Mary’s voice and she is filled with the Holy Spirit.

She proclaims to Mary that she is blessed more than any other woman and that God has blessed her baby. She tells Mary that her baby jumped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. She says, “Great blessings are yours because you believed what the Lord said to you! You believed this would happen.”

This is Mary’s response–her Magnificat (song of praise.

“I praise the Lord with all my heart.
    I am very happy because God is my Savior.
I am not important,
    but he has shown his care for me, his lowly servant.
From now until the end of time,
    people will remember how much God blessed me.
Yes, the Powerful One has done great things for me.
    His name is very holy.
He always gives mercy
    to those who worship him.
He reached out his arm and showed his power.
    He scattered those who are proud and think great things about themselves.
He brought down rulers from their thrones
    and raised up the humble people.
He filled the hungry with good things,
    but he sent the rich away with nothing.
God has helped Israel—the people he chose to serve him.
    He did not forget his promise to give us his mercy.
He has done what he promised to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and his children forever.”

Luke 1:46-55 (Easy-to-read version)

Mary has obviously come to terms with the big news the angel Gabriel brought her. She is young and inexperienced; she has every reason to be terrified, but she is full of hope and trust that God knows what he is doing. She knows she is blessed and she celebrates the blessing and the hope that comes with it.

Proper 9, Year A: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30: Rest for the Weary

Source: iStockphoto.com

Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic – Source: iStockphoto.com

It took me longer than expected to get back to blogging, so I am a few weeks behind. Only a couple days after my son spent more time than expected in the hospital, I fell and dislocated my elbow pretty badly. I am only this week able to type with both hands again.

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 9, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

In today’s gospel, Jesus responds to comparisons of his ministry to John the Baptist’s ministry. John had been an ascetic, living very simply, subsisting on very little and living like the extremely poor people of the time. Jesus was more celebratory, and was called, “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. John was ministering in a time of waiting for the Messiah, and the wait was meant abstaining and preparing. Jesus’ ministry is more celebratory, because he is the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah.

He goes on to say that God has hidden things from the wise and revealed them to children. I think what he’s talking about here is that many of the learned people in his society rejected his message and him, but that the poor and marginalized people followed him. This was a great part of how Jesus ended up being criminalized by the powers-that-be. He was too influential over masses of people and preaching a dangerous philosophy of the last shall be first and love and hope. The powerful do not want the people under their feet to have that much hope.

Then we have one of Jesus’ most famous and beautiful sayings:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Hope for the hopeless. Rest for the weary. Jesus gives it.

 

 

Easter 7, Year A: Acts 1:6-14: Jesus Ascends

Jesus Ascends

Jesus Ascends – Source: iStockphoto.com/KimsCreativeHub. I have chosen to discuss only the First Lesson reading from the book of Acts.

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the First Lesson reading from the book of Acts.

In the Acts story, we learn about Christ’s ascension.  It’s a lovely way to end the Easter season and lead up to Pentecost next week.

The apostles were together with Jesus and they asked him if it was now time for him to give the people of Israel a kingdom again.  Jesus told them only the Father knew dates and times and it wasn’t for them to know, but then he promised them the Holy Spirit would come and give them power and that they would carry his message around the world.

Then after he said that, he was lifted up into the sky. As they watched, he went into a cloud and they couldn’t see him anymore.  I think this is a beautiful image of him the risen Lord now rising away from them.  While they stared at the now empty sky, two men in white suddenly appeared and said, “Men from Galilee, why are you standing here looking into the sky? You saw Jesus carried away from you into heaven. He will come back in the same way you saw him go.” They can’t spend life staring at the sky but need to get on with things (I know some people who are so obsessed with Jesus’ return that it seems they are always looking into the sky instead of getting on with things).

The story goes on to say that they went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and were all together with other followers, constantly praying.

As I said above, I think it’s helpful this week to close out the Easter season—review what happened on Good Friday and then on Easter, review the stories of how Jesus visited people for 40 days before ascending to Heaven.  Then next week is Pentecost, when he sent the Holy Spirit to be with his followers and the Spirit continues with us today.  Though he is in Heaven, Jesus is with us all the time and the Holy Spirit guides us (as it says in our creed).

 

Easter 3, Year A: Luke 24:13-35: On the Road to Emmaus

Man in cloak tearing bread into two

Man in Cloak Tearing Bread in Two – Source: iStockphoto.com/fotograv

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the Gospel reading.

This week’s Gospel lesson occurs shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.  Two of his followers are going along a road to a town called Emmaus.  It’s 7 miles away—a long walk by modern standards, probably not too bad back then.  These two men are talking about what has occurred in Jerusalem.  While they’re walking along and talking, Jesus comes up and joins them on their walk.  The scripture says, “But the two men were not allowed to recognize Jesus” so I guess they just think he’s some random dude.  He asks them what they’re talking about and they stop.  It says they looked very sad.  One named Cleopas says, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has just happened there.”

Jesus said, “What are you talking about?”

They tell him all about Jesus, how amazing he was, but how he was killed on a cross.  They say, “We were hoping that he would be the one to free Israel. But then all this happened.” Then they go on to tell him that some women told them that Jesus’ body was not in his tomb and that they’d seen angels who told them Jesus was alive.  Then they say that they went to the tomb and it was indeed empty, but they didn’t find Jesus.

Then Jesus tells them they are foolish and that they haven’t believed the prophets. He says, “The prophets said the Messiah must suffer these things before he begins his time of glory.”  And he goes on to explain everything about him that was in the Jewish scriptures.

Finally, they come near to Emmaus.  Jesus acts like he is going to keep going but the men beg him to stay as it’s getting dark.  So, he goes to stay with them.  As they’re eating supper, Jesus takes some bread and gives thanks and then breaks it and gives it to them.  I like this part:

 “Just then the men were allowed to recognize him. But when they saw who he was, he disappeared. They said to each other, “When he talked to us on the road, it felt like a fire burning in us. How exciting it was when he explained to us the true meaning of the Scriptures!”

So, then they go straight back to Jerusalem to find the followers of Jesus who tell them Jesus has indeed risen, and the two men tell the other followers of their experience talking and sharing bread with Jesus.

It’s kind of mysterious and interesting how they men at first were “not allowed” to recognize Jesus and then they saw who he was as he broke bread—much like he broke it at the last supper, or how we break it today during our Eucharist.

This reminds me of the previous story of Mary Magdalene we read on Easter Sunday, who at first does not recognize Jesus outside his tomb.  And just as it moved me that she turned toward him and knew him upon hearing her name, I am moved by this story—the men see Jesus for who he is in the simple act of him giving thanks and breaking bread.

This week I want to think about being on the road of life, a journey with Jesus by my side, but I hope I can recognize him day-to-day and see what he sees.

Year A: Easter Sunday: John 20:1-18

Jesus Tomb in Holy land

This is a picture of a first century ancient tomb with the stone rolled aside in Israel. This is similar to the type Jesus would have been buried in. Source: iStock.com/lokibaho

You can see all the lectionary readings for Easter Sunday by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of John.

Jesus has been dead since Friday. It’s now Sunday morning and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. She’s surprised to see the stone has been moved away from the opening of the tomb. She runs to Peter and John and tells them someone has taken Jesus out of the tomb. It seems she’s afraid the authorities or someone else has moved him for some nefarious purpose.

Peter and John (John always refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved” or in this case “the other follower” rather than saying it’s himself) run to the tomb. John got there first and looked into the tomb, where he saw the burial cloths left there, but didn’t go in. Peter did go in and saw the burial cloths including the one that had been on Jesus’ head—and it appeared to be folded neatly and laid aside. John then came in behind him and when he saw it, he knew that Jesus had risen from the dead (though the scripture specifies they didn’t know before this that it would happen).

Then the men went home, but Mary stayed there, crying outside the tomb. Then she looked into the tomb and saw two angels where Jesus’ body had been. One can only imagine how shocking that would be. They were sitting where Jesus’ head and feet would be. They asked her why she was crying and she responded that someone had taken away the body of her Lord (she was apparently not like John in immediately deciding Jesus had risen).

Then she turned around and Jesus was there, but somehow she didn’t know it was Jesus. This happens other times in the stories of the risen Jesus, such as the story of the road to Emmaus (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2024:13-35 ) . Perhaps Jesus was in some way enough different to be harder to recognize at first, or perhaps God made it so people didn’t recognize him until he wanted them to, or perhaps it was a consequence of her grief and how she wouldn’t expect to find the one she was grieving for alive. I think perhaps she just wasn’t paying attention to him very well through her own tears. I don’t know. Jesus asked her why she was crying and who she was looking for. She thought he was an official for the garden and she asked him where he’d taken Jesus so she could go get him. Then he simply said, “Mary.” She turned toward him and said “Rabboni,” which means “Teacher”. It’s such a beautiful moment. He simply says her name and she knows him, her beloved teacher. It makes me cry every time to read that he says her name and she knows him. Oh, to know Jesus so well that he will call us by name and we will know him.

Jesus tells her not to hold onto him (we can imagine her clinging to him, desperate he not leave again) and tells her he will be going back to the Father. He instructs her to go to his followers and tell them, “I am going back to my Father and your Father. I am going back to my God and your God.” So she runs to the other followers to tell them the Good News of Easter.

I love this story so much, the confusion and grief turned to hope and joy. The simple calling of Mary’s name as she turns to Jesus. This is the kind of story I turn to in any crisis of faith. I turn to it and pray that Jesus will call my name in the darkness. This is the joy and hope of Easter, the wondrous cornerstone of our faith, the love of God for us, even in our darkness.  Hallelujah, He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!