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.

The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna

Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ / Corpus Christi, 6-18-17

Deut 8:2-3, 14b-16a, Ps: 147:12-15,19-20, 1Corinth 10:16-17, John 6:51-58

             The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna

We started our readings today in Deuteronomy, when God fed the people with the miracle of manna as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.  God had told Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven” for you.  According to Exodus 16, manna was a daily reminder of the promise of God’s goodness.  Manna had never been seen before, never appeared on the Sabbath, was present for 40 years, and then stopped forever when the Israelites were able to eat produce in the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12).

Ps 78:24 reads, “Man ate the bread of the angels; God sent them food in abundance.” Wisdom 16:20 reads, “You nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven.”  This manna was recognized as holy, and a jar of manna was kept in the Temple’s most holy place with Ark of the Covenant.

It won’t surprise you that there were many Jewish Traditions about manna. One was that manna was kept in the Heavenly Temple where God dwells.  They believed that manna was an eternal reality, existing long before it “rained down” on the Israelites. Another Tradition said when the Messiah came, he would be a “new Moses” and manna would return to earth; the miracle of manna would again occur between the coming of the Messiah and the final resurrection of the dead/ the final judgment.  That, in fact, is the period of time we live in, and Jesus gave us the new manna.

Why am I telling you Jewish Traditions that are found in rabbinic writings from the first and second century? Well, here’s an idea for you: the whole context of Jesus’ bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John is centered on the Jewish hopes for the coming of a New Moses and the return of the manna from heaven.

Chapter 6 of John starts with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, like Moses, provides all the bread (and more) the hungry crowd could eat.  The people “get” the symbolism and prepare to “take (Jesus) by force and make him king”, which fits their political interpretation of the role of Messiah.  They call out, “This is indeed the prophet (Moses) who is (prophesized) to come into the world!”  They pursue Jesus and demand a sign, saying that “Moses gave (the people) bread from heaven…give us this bread always”.

So Jesus responds, “I AM the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they (later) died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I give… is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)

Many of his followers were horrified! Jews in Jesus’ time had good reason to doubt.  Jews were directly forbidden to drink blood in the Law (Lev 17:11), because it contained the very essence of life, and to never eat the flesh of another human.  What Jesus said truly offended them, and they left him and returned to their former way of life.  They thought they understood, but they did not believe him.   Peter emphatically says he & the apostles believe, but not so much that they understand.  No one understood until Easter.

This is the point in the Gospel at which our lectionary stops, as do most homilies. However, it is also the point at which Jesus begins an explanation.  Obviously, Jesus is talking about the Last Supper – the elements of the Mass, and we have to return to the discussion of “manna”.  Once again, John uses “bookends.”  Jesus starts this part of the discourse with “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness” (6:48) and ends it with “This is the bread that comes down from heaven.  Unlike your ancestors, who ate and still died; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (6:58) Manna is the teaching vehicle.  This is how it works: OT/ NT, prefiguration/ fulfillment, foreshadowing/clarity.   Just as Moses was a great father of the faith/ Jesus was the Son of God. If the old manna was “food of the angels”, then the new manna couldn’t be just bread…and wine, but the food of eternity for all people.

John’s Gospel provides us 2 keys to understanding. 1st key: Jesus says, “What if… you were to see (me) ascending to where (I) was before?”  Would it change your mind? Remember that Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2); that he was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12); and referred to himself as God by saying “I AM” (John 8) –when Moses asked God his name, God said, “I AM” (Exodus 3).  He had come from heaven and was divine.  God.  The discussion has changed from human to divine.

2nd Key- equally important-Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh (a Greek expression meaning earthly things, not meat) is of no avail.” (John 6: 63) What you see & touch on earth can’t create life.  Instead, he was talking about his risen body and blood; his resurrected body is Spirit, the Spirit of Life.  His body then was no longer bound by earthly time, form, or space, as we know from the post-resurrection appearances.  We are no longer talking about daily earthly events.  We moved to the rhelm of eternity.

The Spirit came with the appearance of the familiar, yet fully divine. Jesus links his resurrection to our resurrection when he says, “(They) who eat my flesh and drink my blood (meaning the fullness and very essence of the eternal God who created life) have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). Jesus said, “God is Spirit” in John 4:24, and now says, “It is the Spirit that gives life”.  Bread feeds our cells and allows us to live on earth; the manna of the Mass feeds us for eternal life.

I was thinking as I wrote this that if I showed my cell phone to the disciples, they wouldn’t have understood it. We have difficulty understanding the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Thinking of eternity in the mystical sense is more than tough for us.  Yet, I can’t describe what I feel when I kiss the altar nor can I count the number of people who have believed in the Eucharist thru the years.  Even Melchizedek, in the time of Abraham, already seemed to have this “bread & wine” ritual.  I know this: it must be from God.  As you receive today, focus on that fullness of life, the resurrected Christ in these elements, and know that he is able to bring you, pure and made whole, into the presence of God. It is God’s gift to you, so come in faith and give thanks.

When Differences Bring Understanding

Pentecost 6-4-17 Acts 2:1-11, Ps: 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13, John 20:19-23

When Differences Bring Understanding

St. John’s description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is very different from St. Luke’s. Luke waits 50 days after Easter, until the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which celebrated God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  John, on the other hand, tells of the gift of the Spirit occurring on the evening of Easter day.  How do we know that?  Well, verse 18 of John, Chapter 20, was Mary Magdalene coming directly to the apostles from the empty tomb, announcing that she had seen…and talked with… the Risen Christ.  Our reading today starts with verse 19, the very next verse: “On the evening of that first day of the week ( Easter)..”

John used this same expression, “that day”, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, promised the disciples, “The Father will give you another Advocate…the Spirit of Truth…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in You.”  John’s community understood that Easter was “that day”.

Consequently, John’s community was highly centered on the Eucharist, which almost immediately became the custom of the disciples on the first day of the week.  And here in our Gospel, is the risen Jesus himself, on the first day of the week, with his disciples, just as he is with us in our Eucharist and in the Spirit.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is seeing his disciples for the first time since they abandoned him at his arrest in Gethsemane.  They have a lot to answer for.  They deserved to be fired, have their reputations blackened for life. What does Jesus say?  “Peace to you.”  Then he reveals himself by showing his hands and his side.  He literally opens himself up to them.  It seems to be in part self-identification. We might call his wounds his “credentials” to minister to all who suffer.  Next, he repeats “Peace to you.”  Upon hearing him and seeing him, then the disciples rejoiced and believed He was risen from the dead.

“Peace to you” is a Hebrew phrase which meant that something sacred was about to be revealed.   It is not just, “Hey Guys, relax.”  No.  It is a declaration of peace, a proclamation, an announcement. The risen Jesus brings them peace, gives them peace.  (You know: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.)  Having prepared them to open themselves to the Spirit, he breathed on them.  This takes us right back to Genesis 2, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life.  It is as if the Spirit “re-creates” the disciples.

Early on, the breath of Holy people was presumed to have supernatural and healing powers. In fact, an early Patriarch of Alexandria filled a skin bag, like a balloon, with his breath, and sent it off to Ethiopia to ordain a Bishop.  Here in John, this breath, a sign of creation, is linked with the power to forgive sin, becoming a sign of restoration and fullness of life.

The differences between Luke’s and John’s Gospels can’t be reconciled. We have no chronological historical documents which focus on the exact time line. Besides, much of our scripture was written not with the intent of keeping a play-by-play, but with a much more important goal – that is- to explain the revelations of God to the generations to come.

These revelations are given in a way to help us understand, they help us make sense of what happened, in ways that are not bound by the swing of a clock pendulum, but by the movement of the Spirit in the heart and soul. Our job is to attend carefully and embrace the mystery.

Perhaps the best way for us to really enter into the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to talk about it in ways that we have experienced and with issues that we face. The Holy Spirit has been called “the love that God and Jesus have for each other”.  The Spirit brings closeness.  Think about the image found in Luke’s Pentecost of everyone in Jerusalem hearing the Good News in their own language.  We view that as being able to draw close and talk with someone we had never been able to communicate with before.  The barrier of language is removed, and we can share with a “foreigner” the truths we base our lives on.  We can listen intently to them, hearing them speak from their innermost self.  We are then drawn to love the very human-ness of each other, without stumbling over the clutter of culture or social customs.

What if this Spirit who is Love gave us the ability to listen to people we dislike, those people who drive us nuts, and the people we can’t talk to without getting into an argument. What if suddenly, with the Spirit, we could hear what they were saying, really saying, and suddenly realize that is so very much like what we, too, are really trying to say.  What if we wanted to share our time with them, what if our faith suddenly felt big enough to embrace someone else’s understanding?

This week, Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, offered the use of their chapel to a Jewish congregation who had lost their synagogue, saying, “Let’s loose the keys to the church to the community.”  Wouldn’t that be the sense of Pentecost?

In John’s Gospel, immediate after saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus brings up forgiveness. Without the Holy Spirit, the “power” to forgive sins – or not forgive – seems enticing.  But with the Holy Spirit, suddenly the thought comes – “When I offer forgiveness, the sin is gone, forgiven.  What if all the pain and hurt between me and that sibling I haven’t spoken to in years is gone?  What if my estranged friend and I could once again enjoy each other’s company?

What if then, we shed some of our defenses, let some perceived insult or meanness be forgotten, what if we felt the person who formerly had annoyed us was, in fact, really of great value. Wouldn’t that be the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Let me end by quoting Pope Francis. “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to ‘God’s Surprises’?  Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit?  Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness set before us?”

 

Promises and Blessings, Now and Then

4th Sunday of Easter 5-7-17, Acts 2:14a, 36-41,  Ps: 23:1-6, 1 Peter 2:20b-45,  John 10:1-10

Promises and Blessings, Now and Then

Last Sunday we read the Emmaus story, in which Jesus walks with two disciples. They do not recognize him, but “he interpreted to them (the parts which) referred to him in all the scriptures.” Later they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Today our situation is the similar. I cannot tell you how many years I heard Peter’s Pentecost homily with my eyes glazing over as I wondered where those scripture quotations came from, what they meant, and how they were relevant. Without interpretation, our readings do not come to us full of meaning and context.

This interpretation is complicated by our readings jumping around in the scriptures during the Easter Season. If we read the text of the New Testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” straight thru, we would have already read of the Ascension. We would have read also about the after-Easter period of prayer for apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and the other women who had been part of Jesus’ ministry. Then The Spirit came at Pentecost, the very day that Peter proclaims his homily. We read part of his homily last week and part today.

When he begins, Peter quotes the Old Testament book of Joel. The prophet Joel uses a terrifying invasion of locusts as a visual starting place for his teaching. He compares the arrival of the locusts to the last days of the world, also called “the coming of the Lord”. Basically, he’s saying that the locusts will destroy all the crops and the nation will starve to death if God doesn’t save them. This could be the “end of their days”- a euphemism for death. So, says Joel, why don’t you humble yourselves before God, cast aside your senseless reliance on yourself, shed your false pride, and admit your frailty and powerlessness, for your only hope is to call out for God’s grace and mercy. And the people do just that.

God responds to them, promising to remove the locusts, restore the crops and give them all the food they can eat. In addition, (God is always lavish in blessing us) God promises to pour out his Spirit on the people, even down to the lowliest servants, and rescue (save) “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” in the last days. God says, “For on Mount Zion, (the temple hill in Jerusalem)…in Jerusalem there will be survivors- whom the Lord shall call.” This pouring out of God’s Spirit and call from God (remember Pentecost was also an auditory experience), foretold in Joel, is happening as Peter speaks from the temple hill in Jerusalem!

Peter tells the Joel story to create these parallels between Joel’s day and Pentecost. Peter began by saying, “let the whole house of Israel know for certain” (“the whole house of Israel” refers to those who are saved in the Last Days) “that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.  The people of Joel’s day were saved by humbling themselves and calling on the Lord’s mercy. Now something new has happened.   Now Jesus is “Lord”, God. In other words, the people hearing Peter must humble themselves and call on the mercy of Jesus to forgive them for their sins, including the crucifixion.   How do the people call on the Lord Jesus’ mercy? They must be baptized in Jesus’ name and receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

But Peter isn’t done yet. He says, “For the Promise is made to you …and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” Who are the ones “far off”? That’s us, the Gentiles. What is “the Promise”? Think; who was the “father of faith” that God made all those promises to? You know, “as countless as the stars in the sky”. Abraham was promised in Genesis 22:18, “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” How do they find blessing? The blessing, according to both Luke (Acts) and Paul (in Galatians 3: 2-9), is in baptism & the gift of the Spirit.

Peter still has more to say. The passage in the 1st Letter of St. Peter, that is our 2nd reading, is a pretty clear interpretation of the “Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 thru 53. That is obvious because Peter quotes verse 53:12 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” What is Peter’s goal here? The Jews taught that this was about the prophet Isaiah, as a witness to all the nations. Peter interprets it as about Jesus, who came to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah was the warm-up band, not the main attraction. Jesus is the sinless servant, who willingly suffered for the sins of the people, who saves them – us- from just punishment for sin. This is the source of Christian teaching that the sufferings of Jesus healed us, he gave his life for us and accomplished God’s will. Jesus bore our guilt and won pardon for our offenses. Peter says, (We) “had gone astray like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of (our) souls.”

Finally, our Gospel is primarily an interpretation of Ezekiel 34, (well worth reading, hint, hint) although there are certainly many other scriptural references to shepherds. That is too much to cover today, but I want to make just one point about shepherds. Usually, the Jewish priesthood and religious leaders are targeted as the “Bad” shepherds. But in that same 1st Peter 2:9 we find, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own, so that you may announce the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not just priests and leaders, but each and every one of us has a responsibility to examine our words and behaviors in the light of God’s truth. Part of doing that is to take very seriously our scriptures along with our Catholic Tradition, with a capital T, so we have a fuller grasp of the gifts and grace God has lavished on us, who were once “far off”, now drawing ever nearer to the Lord of all.

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.