The Weed Problem

16th Sunday, 7-23-17

Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-44

 

It couldn’t wait any longer. My hair had grown out, and was on the verge of going completely wild.  It was time to go see my favorite stylist.  She’s in her thirties, rather conservative in her dress and behavior.  We don’t discuss religion or politics.  Somehow though, she slipped single sentence into our carefully benign conversation about her brother who was a heroin addict, and now in prison.  “We won’t go into that”, she said softly.

But suddenly, with great need to tell the story, she was sharing with me the details of her brother’s descent into darkness. Nice guy with the usual amount of youthful immortality and desire for a social group.  He was a highly trained and skillful pastry chef. Tried drugs along with most the other people he worked with.  Arrest. Rehab. Overdose…. 2nd Arrest…retraining to be away from the drug infestation in the food industry.  One semester away from a Master’s Degree.  Slipped.  Needed money, sold drugs, used drugs, arrested and convicted for his third felony drug charge.  Now he must attend classes every day for 18 months in prison.  Then be in impatient rehab for 3 years.  Then half-way house for 2 more years and find employment.  Then parole, never allowed a single bad drug test or one missed appointment.  Failure means a 25 year prison sentence – losing most of his adult life.

If Jesus was here today, he might tell this sad story instead of using an agricultural example of wheat and weeds. Weeds, Jesus said, were planted by the evil one.   Illegal drugs are, no pun intended, one of the weeds of our time.  When evil entered our world, the problem was not just with one woman and one man and one tree with apples on it.  The problem was that people began to disobey, to choose badly, to do what was wrong while still knowing and wanting what was right.  Drugs, those fiercely invasive and destructive weeds, make the apple incident look like forgetting to pay the electric bill on time and facing a small late charge.

Oddly enough, self monitoring has never worked well.  We ignore or excuse our own bad behavior and loudly proclaim and condemn the wrong others do. We spend billions on weapons and guns and rockets and ammunition to kill and destroy, and yet manage to find reasons, which I don’t quite get, why God should bless us for this.  Politicians and press of all stripes work to convince us who is an enemy and who is our friend.  Most of us, in return, say we have too little time to verify their statements and moan about our “helplessness” in changing things.

Maybe you have had the same experiences as I have. I watch the evening news or read a newspaper or an on-line news article and wonder.   I wish I could stop this insanity.  I wish I could stop Christianity from being an excuse or even a silent bystander to this evil.  I wish I could make my own little life clean and pure or even brave enough to make changes in my own little garden of weeds growing in my heart.  I would get right in there with a hoe, I would yank those weeds out so fast, that garden would be clean and I would plant good seed to feed the needy!  But that is not reality.  That is a fantasy that leads right back to where we started, for evil is still here, with weeds and drugs and lots of other bad things that look pretty desirable sometimes.

What does this parable suggest we do? Well, Jesus, like the wise man who sowed the wheat, seems amazingly patient with us weedy-garden-hearted people.  Don’t tear out the weeds, for if you do, you will damage the crop that you rely on for food.  Be gentle as possible with those who are struggling with evil. Start with yourself and forgive yourself for the times a little meanness comes out of your mouth, or a little greed seizes your check book.  Then move onto the addicts.  It takes money, it takes –dare I say it- health insurance to get help with addictions, it takes lots of dedicated practitioners, of which we have far too few.  It takes employers with zero tolerance for drugs in the work place but willingness to employ those who are rebuilding their lives.  It takes treatment facilities, maybe in our own neighborhoods.  In short it takes a commitment to focus on re-building a gentler world, and we need to love and forgive our selves and our churches and our society for pretending the causes of addiction can be fixed by just saying “no”.

Where to start? By proclaiming the love and faithfulness of God, the forgiveness of God? There is enormous power in the Gospel and the Christian story.  By the courage to realize our own wheat crops aren’t in very good shape, either?  By acknowledging that there is no us (holy) and them (evil)?  By admitting that judgmental assumptions are bad behavior?  If I read this Gospel correctly, the harvesters are God’s angels, and they will sort the good and the bad correctly.  Good news: we can take judging people off our to-do list!  Yes!

I learned a hard lesson once, many years ago.  I had a minor car accident, and was unable to get my car back on the road.  I had been ill, and I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment.   I was stuck and had no resources to help myself.  Who helped me?  A young immigrant man who spoke no English, who had no job, who I had seen loitering around a business of bad reputation- he helped me.  I would not have spoken to him in other circumstances.  For all I know, he was an angle, sent by God to open my eyes.  It made me think of Jesus, close to death on the cross, offering eternal life to the men on either side of him, who admitted to “deserving” their terrible death.  And I knew then that I too am capable of the bitingly sarcastic response of the one who jeered Jesus.

So, what’s the take-away? First, I am so very proud of everyone who has been part of the effort to supply food for the children at our local Elementary School.  I get tingles down my spine when I think of the extra effort the fine people of Holy Trinity made to supply treats for the end-of-school-celebration there in June.  I smile when I remember the gift cards you purchased to reward the children.  Well Done.  Those kids may live in weedy circumstances, and you offered them love without judgment.

Last, there are those who will never choose God, it would seem. I might be wrong about that.  I suspect I’m pretty blind to my own weedy-ness at times. But I think that most people would like to live good lives. I’m sure the power of Love is always and drastically underrated.  I am absolutely positive that God is always ready to forgive us for being weedy, either a little or a lot, and that Love, not Round-up herbicide, is the way of God.

Lessons from Creation

15th Sunday Ord Time, 7-16-17 Isaiah 55: 10-11, Ps 65, 10-14, Romans8:18-23, Matt13: 1-23

 

I first read today’s scriptures sitting at my desk, which overlooks a beautiful green open space, with trees and wild flowers, and chirping birds. It felt like heaven was close by.

Our 1st reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah.  I find these readings to have much more meaning if I read the whole chapter.  You might label this chapter “an invitation to grace”. God starts by offering water to the thirsty. Then God offers food to the hungry, those with no money to buy food, those facing starvation. Plentiful, rich food is offered, food which satisfies.  Next God says, “Come to me, that you may have life.”  The symbolism has faded away and we have arrived at the heart of the message.  Come to God for the food of mercy, for God is always ready to forgive. Isaiah says, “Like the heavens are far above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways.”

We understand about rain freely coming down from the sky to water the earth; mercy rains on us in the same way. Anyone who has seen a drought understands the life-giving impact of rain, changing dried clumps of earth into a growing field and producing the crops that give food. In the creation story, God’s Word was the source of earth and sky and sea. Now God’s Word comes to us, comes to us like rain and gives us life. God’s wisdom grows in our hearts.

Our Psalm is a very similar message; it begins with praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy. We are overcome by our human failures; it is God who pardons them. It is God who set the mountains in place.  God sends the rain, makes the crops grow; God fills the meadows with flowers. We can do none of those things.

Many of us now are so removed from agriculture and food production that we can easily forget about all this. In our Gospel, Jesus taught people who lived fully at the mercy of the rain and the fields and the flocks. But like us, somehow they managed to hear but not listen and look but not see. They too refused to change, to listen to God’s Word, or to be healed with God’s wisdom.

Jesus described some people as the dry, hard packed dirt of a busy road, where the seed of God’s Word fell. The seed could not break thru to put down roots and grow, and the birds came and ate the seeds.

Other people were described as thin soil on rocky ground, where the seed sprouted but had too little nourishment to flourish. Such people have nothing to ground their lives; they pay any attention only to the crisis of the day. Still other people are described as thorny ground; they are worried about things they cannot control, and put all their efforts into gaining wealth and power, crowding out the seeds of virtue and wisdom. But those who treasure God’s Word, they are like good soil, will grow a large crop of blessings and have a full harvest of eternal life.  It’s a beautiful parable of possibility and choice.

St. Paul takes a different approach to the images of creation.  His goal is to instill hope in us.  He acknowledges that suffering is part of this life.  He speaks to those who are disheartened and discouraged.  He tells us that the worst suffering is a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life.  He understands failure, and shares our frustration with our inability to be the strong and faithful people we want to be.

Creation was put under human control by God, and therefore it fell from glory along with Adam & Eve when evil entered the world. Paul uses expressions like “subjected to futility, and “slavery to decay” to describe creation now.  But the entire creation, Paul wrote, has been groaning as if in the labor pains of “childbirth”.  We have the Holy Spirit as a “down payment” on our redemption, so we, along with creation, also groan as we wait for our final adoption as children of God.  The Spirit, too, Paul adds two verses later, “intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.”  Paul makes our universe sound like a giant Labor & Delivery Unit!  Suffering, he says, is not a threat to our salvation, but a sign that “birth” is close at hand.  Our second birth, our “delivery” as believers comes in the form of resurrection.

This is a reminder that we live in a time of “already”, since Christ has already come. At the same time, we live in the time of “not yet” as we still await the return of Christ.  In 2nd Peter, we find this: “With the Lord 1 day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like 1 day. The Lord does not delay, but he is patient, not wishing that any should perish.”

So we found four lessons in creation; what do we do with them?

1. God rains down mercy and grace on us all.  With these two gifts, God will create new and eternal lives for us.  Since mercy is forgiveness, we must make amends then move on.  Grace is generosity and love for all, creating new paths after failure.  We accept grace and mercy; we offer grace and mercy to each other.

  1. God created a beautiful and fruitful world for us. God does what we can’t, and we should praise God for his goodness and the abundance he gives us. So, let’s take time to marvel in God’s power and the mysteries of nature. Take time to be thankful.
  2. We can be blind and deaf to God’s goodness. We must choose if we will receive that abundant goodness. The Word of God has immeasurable power in our lives, transforming power, available to all who nurture that Word which God sows freely. Bible study (reading God’s word), prayer (talking with God) and meditation (listening to God) change us.
  3. Hope and comfort is found in all that God created. Suffering and a sense of futility will pass. The Spirit is with us, and we will soon enough know the glorious freedom of being children of God. So, focus on what is right and good.  Spend your time on things that are positive, generous and loving.  Seek out God.

It occurred to me that if each day, we took time to focus on these 4 lessons, our lives would become more righteous. That isn’t just something that Saints do, but something that we all can  do.  It simply means that we develop a right and good relationship with God.  We become more closely aligned with God and our lives look and feel like we reflect God’s ways.  Let me challenge you with this: try for the next week to take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to review these 4 lessons, and really act them out.  See what happens.

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.

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Isaiah 50:4-7; Ps: 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matthew26:14 – 27:66

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Shortly before Christ died, He uttered those famous words which have been preserved in Aramaic: “ Ele, Ele, Lama Sabachthane”, or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening words of Psalm 22, but unfortunately not one of the verses we read today from that Psalm.  At the crucifixion, they are a quotation, not a question or a statement.  Why does Jesus quote the 22nd Psalm?

Now we are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 are poetic songs, written about the Messiah, the Savior, who was to come.  In Jesus’ day, everyone who worshiped the God of Israel had learned the 22nd Psalm by heart.  So anyone listening to Jesus while he was on the cross knew exactly the verses that followed.  Let’s look at them.

Verse 6 of Ps 22: “To you they cried out and they escaped, in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” God has always hears our cries.

Verse 7: “But I am a worm, hardly human.” Think about the physical condition of Christ at this point.  Matthew 27: 26 “…after having Jesus scourged, Pilot delivered Him to be crucified.”  What does scourged mean?  The Romans used whips with pieces of sharp metal at the ends.  It cut and tore the flesh, leaving the body cut to the bone, bleeding profusely.  A person rarely survived this.  The soldiers who scourged him took no pity on him.  He would have looked hardly human after being scourged.  He would have been soaked in scarlet blood, and looked like the worms that were crushed to make scarlet dye for fabric.

Verse 8: “All who see me mock me… they curl their lips and jeer.” We read Matthew 27:29, “(The soldiers) mocked him…and they spat on him, and beat him on the head.”

Verse 9: “You relied on the Lord- let him deliver you.” In Matt 27:43: “(The chief priests say) He trusts in God, let him deliver him.”   Remember what Jesus told Peter in the Garden, Matt 26: 53 “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  (That would be 72,000 angles.)

Verse 12: “There is no one to help.” In Mark 14:50, in the Garden, when Jesus was arrested, Mark tells us that all the disciples left him and fled.

Verse 14: “Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.” Jesus was dying from loss of blood, and he could no longer lift him self up to breathe, as if his bones were no longer hard.

Verse 15: “My strength has dried up…” Even as Jesus carried his cross to the crucifixion site, he lost his strength and Simon of Cyrene had to carry it. (Matt 27:32)

Verse 16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” In Luke (24: 39), The Risen Christ shows his pierced hands and feet to the disciples.

Verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The soldiers do this in John’s Gospel (19:24)

But then, we come to verse 20, the Psalmist says, “Lord, do not stay far off, come quickly to help me.” Gone is the idea of abandonment!  Instead there is a firm certainty in the faithfulness of God. This continues in verse 25: “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch; did not turn away, but heard me when I cried out.  Verse 27: “…those who seek the Lord will offer praise.  May your hearts enjoy life forever!”  Not only is God faithful, but eternally faithful.  And finally, the last verse, verse 32: “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn  (us), his righteousness; ‘He (The Lord) has done it’.”  By the way, the Psalm’s Hebrew phrase “He has done it” is best translated into the Aramaic idiom of “It is finished.”

It makes no difference if you see this Psalm as the prophecy of King David and his description of the Messiah coming true down to the smallest detail, or if you see the Gospel writers, convinced without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, telling the events of the Passion in the familiar words of the prophecy. Either way, the Gospels have accomplished their goal: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

Well, we’re back to the first verse of the Psalm, then. Did Jesus mean that God had turned his back on him, abandoned him?  No.  Jesus was teaching the faithfulness of God from the Cross! Jesus was saying, “Look at me!  You know the Psalm.  Believe this promise of God’s faithfulness; God is near to you always.  God never turns his back on us, no matter what was done or how long the list of sin.  To say otherwise denies the love of God.”

St. Paul said it so well: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers; not height nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 35-39)

 

 

 

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.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17

Exodus 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed.  The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery.  Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food.  God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed.  Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.

But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation.  Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.

But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him.  No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.

By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.”  Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed.  Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace.  Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection.  Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.

St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus.  Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.

And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman.  At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert.  She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have.  She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship.  Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude.  No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community.  No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil.  She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.

Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”  These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites.  She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water.  She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”

Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.

Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself.  Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul.  I don’t know what happened.  She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.

I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:

  1. God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places.  Love can provide enormous freedom.   Status quo and expectations can be jails.
  2. God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us.  God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look.  God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
  3. The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
  4. People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up.  All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal.  Lent can happen at any time.