Building Houses & Keeping Promises

4th Sunday Advent 12-24-17

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Ps: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 

I raised my children in a small town in upstate New York.  The town promotes itself as “historic”, meaning that history is about all that’s left – no industry, and only a few stores.  When my middle son finished high school, a job as a janitor at the elementary school opened, and he saw that as his only chance for a steady job with benefits.  But God had not made this young man to be a janitor.  Not that I have anything but respect and admiration for school janitors, but it wasn’t the right job for him.  And that Christmas, my cousin gave him a miracle in the form of a Radio Shack TSR-80 home computer.  My son was re-born as a highly respected “IT guy”.

Our first reading today is about King David. One day, King David had a chance to take a breath from the large military campaigns which had made Israel safe from hostile neighbors.  David realized he was living in a “cedar palace” while the Ark of the Covenant and the place where the nation worshiped God was still in a tent, just as it had been since his ancestors fled Egypt.  He began to make plans to build a house for God.  But God had not meant David to be a house builder.  Not that God has anything but respect and admiration for builders, but that wasn’t the right job for David.

So God would take care of the building, by having one of David’s sons- Solomon- build a magnificent Temple.  God had another role for David.  It would be another sort of “house”.  My own father still used the term “house” to describe his lineage, his ancestors. God’s gift to King David was to be the beginning of long line of Kings, what we might call a “dynasty”, a traceable line of names and history, leading to the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of God’s people.  Matthew’s Gospel spells out those 28 generations from David to Jesus to make the point clear.

The other problem with David building a “house” or temple for God was that David had missed an important lesson about his relationship with God. David was thinking like a King who built loyalty with his staff and soldiers was by rewarding them with power and prestige.  God had no use for David’s rewards.  God reminds David that when the prophet Samuel anointed David as King, David was a young man who spent his days guarding sheep.  God had made David a King who guarded God’s people.  God was the reason for David’s military success.  God was the reason that Israel was enjoying peace.   God had been with David in every circumstance, in every location, in the fields and in the palace.  God is greater than any building; God is not defined by space or décor, by canvas or cedar.  Buildings weather and decay, but God’s blessings are eternal.

The Psalms, many of which were traditionally attributed to David, stress one of the other themes which build during Advent: the promises of God, specifically the fulfillment of God’s promises. Thru the centuries, those promises remain alive and, in God’s time, they are fulfilled and renewed.  Today’s Psalm says, “I will sing forever of the promises of the Lord…my mouth will proclaim (God’s) faithfulness.” (God) had made a covenant with…(David)..(God) will …establish David’s throne for all generations.”  The House of David remains with us today as Jesus our Lord and Savior.

The 2nd reading, from the Letter to the Church at Rome, frames this idea differently.   King David most likely thought of God’s promise of his dynasty, his lineage, in terms of an earthly throne.  The full implications were not known to him.  The Gospel of Jesus that Paul had been preaching is referred to here as a “mystery.” Saint Paul lived in a time when people were just beginning to sort out the message and full implications of the birth of Jesus, his life and teaching, his crucifixion and resurrection.  Believers were starting to made sense of how those promises had been fulfilled.  The mystery of God’s promises continues to open to each new generation and each new believer as they consider their own lives and their own relationship to God. We find that we are part of the promise – we live in a particular part of the revelation of the mystery. We have been woven into the very fiber of the building of the Kingdom.

The angel Gabriel brought to Mary a mystery that at first was troubling, even the cause of fear. It was a mystery that the child could be divine, yet born as a human child.  The child she would conceive by the power of God and the Holy Spirit will be given the “throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s child fulfilled the promise to King David.

Neither King David, nor St. Paul, nor Mary expected God to fulfill the promise in the way that it actually happened.  They each had their own expectations.  Yet each of them willingly moved forward in faith and trust. They struggled against fear and opposition, against seemingly unconquerable difficulties and, yes, danger…in the full knowledge that God was with them and that God’s plan, however mysterious or obscure, was best.  They were able to do that because they knew God kept his promises.

Christmas is a time of miracles and joy. Now we will once again experience the thrill of the gift of this ancient promise.  Even 2000+ years after the historical event, even before we fully grasp the how and where and why, we feel the thrill of something that changes our lives in that tiny child.  King David and St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary all chose to open their hearts, and their lives, to the mystery – to be personally part of a great miracle of love for every human being who has lived or will live.  As we move from Advent to Christmas, we enter a time when past, present and future come together.

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The Three Big O’s

Christ the King11-26-17

Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm: 23:1-6 1 Corinthians15:20-26, 28Matthew 25:31-46

I remember a Sunday school class, long ago. We were learning that God was omniscient, (all-knowing) omnipresent (everywhere), and omnipotent (all-powerful).  The teacher hoped to “wow” us with the words.  But we were the new generation – taught to ask questions & expecting answers.  So someone asked, “Does that mean God is in the garbage can?”  The questioner was not being rude or flippant; the question was honestly one for clarification. The poor teacher stuttered and stammered, and finally, hesitantly agreed that, “Yes”, everywhere was, indeed, everywhere, even undesirable places.

Now, I have some questions about “Christ the King”. “King” is a political title, masculine at that.  God is not a gendered being.  Jesus was not political.  In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world…”  Jesus’ authority is not of any geopolitical space. And wasn’t the original purpose of “Christ the King” in 1925 to emphasize that Jesus was entirely different and far superior to those dictators violently grabbing for power across Europe? Wasn’t this the church’s attempt to remind us that military rule is the antithesis of Jesus’ message to love God and neighbor, the only “rule” necessary?

Thomas Friedman, a well- known New York Times columnist, recently published his latest book, “ Thank you for being Late: an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.”  It’s a good read.  The title refers to a friend being late for a lunch date, and Mr. Friedman having unexpected time when he could sit and think about some of the changes in our culture.  The changes all seemed to revolve around technology altering the ways we relate to one another, market consumer goods, communicate, travel, view our world, and so on– and the increasingly rapid technological advances coming at us.  Some one (who knows, maybe the kid from my Sunday school class) asked him this sincere question, “Is God in cyberspace?”  Technology has expanded the universe beyond stars and galaxies. Like my teacher, Friedman didn’t know how to answer.  So he asked his Rabbi.

Rabbi Marx responded from two different perspectives. The 1st is the traditional view from the Jewish Scriptures:  God had Moses lead his people out of Egypt and he sent prophets to guide them.  The Psalms are full of praise of God for saving people from danger and despair; God is passionately engaged and present; God seeks us out.  But Marx says, (If you think) “God makes his presence felt through divine intervention, (well) he sure… isn’t in cyberspace, which is full of pornography, gambling, …all manner of hate speech, etc. ,etc.” He makes cyberspace sounds like a garbage can. But Marx, unlike the Psalmists, seems to deny that God would get his hands dirty when things go bad.

So, Rabbi Marx continues with the 2nd perspective, “The Jewish post-biblical view of God is that we make God present by our own choice and our own decisions; whether it’s a real room or a chat room, you have to bring Him there yourself by how you behave, by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.  In that view, we understand that from the first day of the world…(humankind) was responsible for making God’s presence manifest by what we do.  And the reason this issue is most acute in cyberspace is that no one else is in charge there.  There is no place in today’s world, where you encounter the freedom to choose that God gave us, more than in cyberspace – where we are all connected and no one is in charge.  So the answer is “No” – but God wants to be there.”

I like the emphasis on personal responsibility, but I wonder if this sad view of a God who shyly waits for us to invite him in finds its roots in the racist homicidal evil of the Nazis, who killed more than 6 million Jews, as well as the hope & faith of generations. Pollsters say that among today’s American Jews, twice as many people view God as an “impersonal force”, rather than the God who seeks a relationship with us and is always present.

So, as Catholic Christians, what do we do about “Christ the King”? We turn to Tradition and Scripture.  Our belief in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a good place to start.  Paul (1 Cor 3:16) says it plainly: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” I dare say, wherever I am, God is there, even in that garbage can of a nursing home in Glen Burnie. I shared the Spirit with people there and sometimes I met the Spirit in the rooms and the hallways.  People who “did not speak” said “Hail Mary’s” with me and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.  We can participate in the light and power of the Divine Spirit – and that Spirit is all spaces, cyber and otherwise. The church celebrates this indwelling in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Mass.

Jesus came to earth and was met with the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, he spoke boldly when tempted by Satan, he called out to Simon and Andrew when they were fisherman, he engaged the woman at the well, he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday against the advice of the disciples, he approached the men walking to Emmaus, he appeared to the apostles after his resurrection; he did not wait for them to come to him. The people (Mark 1: 27) recognized he spoke with a new kind of “authority”.  He told us, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20)  Jesus is not hesitant.  Jesus is present.

John 3:16 says,” For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  In Revelations, we find, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come.” It sounds like God has the future technological advances covered already.

So I conclude that not only is God omniscient, omnipresent & omnipotent, and therefore there is no worry about God’s authority in the universe, but we should focus on what we can control. That means we focus on our relationship with God and neighbor, and we share that in word and deed (like in today’s Gospel), keep the “garbage cans” of our lives clean, contribute to our society with integrity, and trust God for the rest.

100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.

Homily July 16, 2017 the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

15sun2I chose to have the short form of the gospel read today because most scholars agree that this was probably what was actually spoken by Jesus with the rest being added by the early church. The parable is one Jesus used to address for his followers the fact that he OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAreally at times had few followers and even some who would leave and go away. The picture he paints is a farmer who haphazardly spreads the seed in his field while planting and loses much of it in weeds and rocky ground and to birds and so forth. Yet Jesus says the farmer will get a return of sixty to a hundred fold on his seeds. To a farmer of his time, this would be almost a miraculous return as seven to ten fold would be considered a good return. Thus, Jesus is saying, the word of God is an active and enlightening and growing thing. Nothing can stop it and numbers of the early 15sun9 (2)disciples and the early church should not discourage or depress his followers. Amazingly he was right as we reach our own time, the word has spread around the world but unfortunately, we must ask has it reached the hundred fold that Christ said it could? Certainly, there will always be unbelievers who hear the word and move on. But truly, has the word gone out to all the world, to the far ends? Have we reached out to the hungry and suffering people in the world? Do we welcome the stranger seeking to enter our country or places where we live. The Word is alive and active, yet we need to listen and make ourselves live it out as a true follower. How each of us responds is how the word will grow.

Counting Hairs and Making Choices

12th Sunday in Ordinary time, 6-25-17;  Jeremiah 20: 10-13, Ps 69, Romans 5: 12-15, Matthew 10: 26-33

Counting Hairs and Making Choices

Our readings this morning start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was only 13 years old when God came to him and said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you….I set my words in your mouth.”

The call to be God’s prophet was a heavy burden for Jeremiah because the nation of Israel was worshiping idols, again.  God’s words were harsh, urging the people of Israel to repent of their sins and seek forgiveness. If that wasn’t enough, the vicious Babylonian army was coming.  The power of God was Israel’s only real defense against that army.   But then loud men with great influence appeared; they mocked Jeremiah and bragged that Israel could defeat Babylon.  They thought their positions and their power would be enhanced by silencing Jeremiah. So, Jeremiah was threatened and betrayed, he was put in the dungeon, left in a well, and had to flee to Egypt when Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians – all for doing God’s work, warning Israel and offering God’s forgiveness and protection.

Likewise, our Psalm today is a lament, a cry of anguish. It is the prayer of a man who is exhausted, an outcast from family& community, falsely accused, the butt of jokes & mean-spirited gossip.  He says, “More numerous than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.”

So it’s against this dark background that we turn to the Gospel of Matthew. We read from the 3rd section of Matthew, where Jesus commissions the 12 apostles and prepares to send them out to heal, drive out unclean spirits, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. After all, “apostle” means “one who is sent.”  Let’s look closely at this first commissioning.

It starts with “Fear no one.” In fact, Jesus says this 3 times in this one paragraph.  I have been told that “Fear not” and “Do not be afraid” are commands that occur more than 300 times in the Bible; and it is a command, not some silly attempt at providing comfort – like the “Now, this won’t hurt a bit” that you might hear in the dentist’s office.   The Lord is telling us not to let ourselves be afraid.  We can’t afford to be scared.  It just gets in the way of us doing whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing.   Fearlessness does not come from being patted on back. It means making a conscious decision not to indulge ourselves.

Everyone gets scared. It’s okay to feel scared.  There are some mean dudes out there.  But you can’t let it run your life.  If you’ll just mind the Lord on this one thing, you won’t need any courage. Just mind Him in this: “Do not be afraid!”

Next Jesus advises the apostles (and us) about the freedom of preaching the Good News. There is nothing secretive or hidden about the announcement of the Kingdom of God.  Of course, we must know and study the truth of Our Lord’s teachings.  You are so fortunate to have Bishop Ron with you, because he is so attentive to teaching the Word.  The truth Jesus taught can be preached from the housetops; it is timeless, besides, it brings hope into a world that is otherwise sad and scary.

The next verses can be accepted as truth from Jesus, because he showed us how to do it. The 2nd “do not be afraid” is about those who can kill the body but not the soul.  Surely we can testify to the life of the soul of Jesus after crucifixion.  The resurrection is our proof.  Oddly enough then, Jesus tells us to fear the one who can destroy both the soul and the body in Gahanna/hell.   But this is not “scary” fear – this is the “awe-some” fear that we have of God.  The awe that leaves us with our mouth gaping, our eyes big, our mind overwhelmed and stunned at the immensity, the power, the authority, the knowledge, and so many other  qualities we have no words for or the ability to grasp; the “fear-some” awe we should rightfully have for God and our desire to be in God’s kingdom.

Jesus gives us then a concrete example of why we should trust God with our very lives and souls, and claim the freedom to declare the Kingdom. Jesus describes God the Father as having such minute knowledge of his creation that he sees each tiny bird, a creature we would hardly assign any value.  Jesus says (in his 3rd “do not be afraid”) that we, even when we feel our most vulnerable and insignificant, we are worth much more than many sparrows.  Unlike the Psalm writer, who felt he had more enemies than he had hair, Jesus says God knows the count of the hairs on my head.  (God must love us more as we age, since the counting is easier.)   But we live in a world and a society that is quick to view some of God’s children as worthless throw-a-ways, and if we choose to be God’s people, we must remember our value, and the value of each life.

Finally, Jesus brings us to the importance of spreading the Good News and the Kingdom. By doing so, we are publicly acknowledging Jesus.  To declare his teachings from the housetops, we must believe those teachings.  When we publicly act out those teachings and are fearless by choice, we publicly acknowledge Jesus.  When we stand up for vulnerable and fragile people, and treat them with love, we publicly acknowledge Jesus.  Then Jesus will acknowledge us before God the Father.

So we have two examples of people from the Old Testament who lived out the commission of faith, suffering all kinds of abuse, but who never lost their faith in God’s goodness. Then we read how Jesus prepared his apostles for similar trials: to know and teach the Truth that Jesus taught; and to focus on the God who knows and loves us intimately instead of focusing on our fears. We live in times that could make us constantly fearful.  Many people are suffering greatly around the world as battles of greed and power are being fought with no respect to the innocent.  Religion is being used as a feeble cover for terrible and senseless violence.  We can work ourselves into a frenzy of fear, or we can accept this commissioning along with the apostles.  We can save our awe-filled fear for God alone and hold tight to the value God gives us.  We can let go of our fear for the cowards who try to act vicious and instead do what we were commanded to do- that is to live our lives publicly in the light of truth and love.

It is a very real choice.

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure & Finality

Easter Sunday 4-16-17, Acts 10:34,37-43, Psalm 118, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20: 1-9

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure and Finality

He is risen! He is risen indeed!  This is it -the highpoint- indeed the reason for the Christian faith.  After all, those who opposed Jesus’ message long ago saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a way to stop the growth of this strange renewal of the Jewish faith.  But his death was followed by resurrection, and everything changed.  It is a day of celebration, amazement, of remembering and claiming promises of life after death and a close, personal unity with God.

American Christians today struggle not against an oppressive Roman Empire, but against the promises and the amazement growing stale and feeling irrelevant; and this struggle occurs against a background of a chicks-and-bunnies-focused society – symbols of fertility borrowed, interestingly enough, from that same oppressive Roman Empire.

So, we must ask, “How do these readings apply to the world that awaits us as we leave here today? “How can our faith be faithfully and accurately interpreted into a hip-hop world?  It’s not always easy.  But for today, we can find 3 points of the Easter story that truly do make direct contact with our lives:  the fight against Futility, Failure, and Finality.

Futility is a widespread problem today. Research says close to 40% of Americans say they don’t think there is a God.  Instead people put their “faith” into clothes and cars and jobs and houses and social status – and substance abuse.  This approach to life is pretty futile.  According to the Center for Disease Control, the US suicide rate increased 24% during the last 15 years, with the rate of yearly increase doubling since 2006. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Heroin overdose deaths have increased 45% in 4 years.  It is called, “Death by Despair”- lives based in futility.

The Easter story is about a risen Jesus, who lives. But it is also about the personal decisions of people like Mary Magdalene and the disciples of Jesus who saw the truth of God, who witnessed healing and resurrection, who chose to believe, who learned their efforts were not futile, and who found value in their lives and their actions – beyond stuff & society.  They created a new cultural importance in the actions of individuals. This has opened a way of life that is filled with joy and certainty, even in the midst of hardship and suffering.  Life has become victorious over death.  We must live and share this truth!  Easter people show their joy, the goodness of life shines thru them. Even in difficult times, they can show love to the unlovable.

Then there is Failure. We, for the most part, live in a world where people don’t just fail, but they crash and burn, drowning in a sea of negativity on Facebook; they are crushed in the media.

Forgiveness and new beginnings are what the Easter story brings; Peter is not only reinstated as a disciple but in the Book of Acts he becomes a fearless and powerful preacher of the Word. The women at the tomb were broken and grieving; they had put their money, their reputation, and their lives into supporting Jesus, and thought it was all a failure.  Jesus and angels came to tell them otherwise. Jesus came to the scene of the disciples’ lackluster attempt to return to fishing and put the Spirit’s fire back into their hearts. Jesus picks them up, dusts them off and, by his presence, gives them new certainty and determination.

Easter people go way beyond the lukewarm, “Don’t worry about it,” and offer real forgiveness. They see pureness in the jumbled brokenness in people. The Easter church needs to be the place where failure can be embraced with forgiveness and love, where doubt and fear can accept truth, where our presence and support are available for those oppressed by failure.

Then there is finality. Jesus always left the door open for people.  He offered choices.  He did not reject people, but probed their motivations and offered alternatives.  Even after his resurrection and Ascension, he said he would return.  He did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort.  There is no end to God’s love.

Finality is one of the main reasons I am in ministry. To know that our lives are important to the One who created us – makes a difference.  Knowing that the transience of the material world is not to be feared, frees me to put my time and effort into people, not product.  I can find value in how life really is, without the glitter.  I find significance in the ritual of a holy, shared meal because time and finality do not exist in the realm of an Easter faith.  I don’t need my name engraved on a brass plaque, for my eternity will be found in union with God and in the love of God I share with God’s people.

The Easter church thinks in terms of eternity, so personality differences and petty disagreements shrink in importance. When we can keep in touch with Jesus’ humility, it becomes natural to treat others as more important than ourselves.  When we can operate out of that humility, our lives move people to want the faith we have and we get to share our joy with them.

In the weeks ahead, each of us will have opportunities to silence the fears of futility, failure and finality. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ lead you to bring hope, joy and love to all you meet.

Dry Bones or Live Bones?

5th Sunday Lent A, 4-2-17; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Dry Bones or Live Bones??

Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us.  Let’s start with Ezekiel.  As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture.  So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel.  The peasants were left, abandoned.

Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land.  He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen.  Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future.  He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding.  But the vision is more than just restoration.  It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones.  I’m sure you’ve heard the story.  Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’”  And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.

Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.

From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again.  The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land.  But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.

It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John.   At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness.  Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it.   There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death.  Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.

John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time.  At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.  Christians expected to live to see him return.  But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.

Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died.  For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused.  They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.

John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.

When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come sooner?”  But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.

Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her.  Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.

Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”

No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.

This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John.  It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge.  Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.

When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering?  Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services.  These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people.  But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.