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Archive for March, 2013

Surprise!

“[The women] found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?  [Jesus] is not here, but has risen.’ ”  Luke 24:2-5 (NRSV)

What do we expect when we go to a graveyard to visit the graves of loved ones?  Certainly not that the grave has been opened and the casket or urn empty!  Certainly not two dazzling figures telling us that the one we love has been raised from the dead.  We can’t picture it or even believe it could happen.

Why should the women who went to Jesus’ tomb on what we call Easter morning have any different a reaction?  Dead is dead – right?  They saw him buried, and they went to the tomb to do the loving thing:  anoint his body with burial oils, and wrap him lovingly so he could rest in peace.

Instead they are terrified by these two figures who show up and announce that Jesus was raised from the dead and not in the tomb.  Okay – so where’s the proof besides the empty tomb?  It’s just not comprehensible, especially when they saw him die and be placed in the tomb.  No wonder they were terrified.  No wonder the disciples thought they had gone crazy when they ran to tell them what they had seen and heard.

According to Luke, Peter was the only one to run to see if it was true, but he was as puzzled as they were (notice:  Peter didn’t have the appearance of the men in white!).  Jesus would appear later to the men and again on the road to Emmaus to Cleopas and his companion.  But the women were the first to know.

It’s interesting that after the arrest of Jesus, the men gradually distanced themselves until they were no longer around him, but the women showed up and stuck with him through the crucifixion and his burial and again when they went to care for him one more time after the Sabbath was over.

No matter how many ways or how many times Jesus had told all of them that he would be put to death and then raised from the dead after three days, they were still puzzled and surprised.  But before we go condemning the followers of Jesus, we have to stop to look at ourselves, too.  Wouldn’t we react the same way?  Wouldn’t we want to have more proof than just an empty tomb?

Many folks have questioned the resurrection, have asked for proof, demand a clear answer to the question, “Is Jesus really the Messiah?”  All I know is that faith isn’t about proof, clear answers, or concrete evidence.  Faith is believing without all that.  When everything else is stripped away, when we have reached the bottom of our “faith well,” when we have more doubts than anything, faith then “kicks in” or it doesn’t.  Doubt isn’t bad; in fact, it can strengthen our faith.

What we believe is that Jesus Christ was resurrected.  God conquered death, reconciled humanity to God’s own self through Jesus, and has given us forgiveness of sins and life eternal.  Thousands upon thousands of people past, present and future, have testified to the presence of Christ in their lives and the transforming work of God’s Holy Spirit. 

Believing isn’t always easy, and yet it is.  It is letting go of our need for proof from outside sources, and looking into the tombs of our hearts where there is a dark, cavernous space just waiting for Jesus to enter and live there.  It’s a journey, a process, a trusting in the things we can’t see, but somehow know are true.

So this Easter, we have a big surprise party waiting for us – again.  The party is for us – it’s a gift of life forever through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.  If we struggle to believe, we can try to relax and just let it happen.  Happy and Blessed Easter!  Surprise!

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Ominous Parade

“As [Jesus] rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to Praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.”  (Luke 19:35-36)

For many years I would cram the Palms liturgy which is more joyful and upbeat with the Passion narrative which takes us downhill quickly as Jesus entered Jerusalem, was arrested, tried and crucified.  I read somewhere this year that maybe it’s assuming people don’t really “get” the sacrifice Jesus made and the suffering he endured for us.  But maybe people actually “get it” much better than I think.  We often don’t see a great turn-out for the Holy Week services, and, as Christians, it always seemed like we, as pastors, need to “drive home” the point of Jesus suffering and death.  Anyway, I decided to do just the Palm and hope and pray that folks really paid attention to the events of Holy Week and maybe participate.

So I started out thinking this would be a joyful parade and celebration during worship, and yet I find myself feeling a sense of dread even as the parade runs through my mind.  Of course, we know the whole story, and Jesus’ disciples certainly didn’t at that point.  They probably believed that he was finally entering Jerusalem to gather his army and finally take over.  That was the idea of what the true Messiah would do, so it must have been exciting for them.  But this is an ominous parade.  There is our understanding of dreadful events to come, events that include betrayal, denial, humiliation, excruciating pain, unbelievable suffering for Jesus.

Somehow, the thought of setting up Easter/Spring flowers on the Saturday before Easter seems almost too happy if we think about what the disciples would have experienced following Jesus’ death and burial.  In most households the day after a death is quiet and reflective, trying to let things settle in a little.  Not so with us in the Christian Church – we are busy preparing to celebrate once again the joyful news that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Again, foreknowledge of the events helps us to know that in the midst of the darkest week of Jesus’ life, there is light, hope, life, reconciliation, forgiveness at the end of the week – more about that next week.

This Sunday we will wave our palm leaves and sing songs of “Hosanna to the King” or Son of David, but the cloud will hang over us.  The cloud will threaten our joy and lead us once again through the week that reminds us of God’s great love for us and the gift we have been given through Jesus, the Christ.  Sometimes we know that we have to go through tough experiences, such as surgery or loss or a medical procedure.  We don’t look forward to it, but we know we have to go through it in order to be healthier on the other side.  Maybe that’s a little like Palm Sunday with joyful entry into Jerusalem.  It’s an ominous parade, isn’t it?

Mary’s Ministries

Mary came in with a jar of every expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus; feet, and then wiped them with her hair.  The fragrance of the oils filled the house.”  John 12:3 (The Message)

Over the past few days, I have been reading commentaries on the passage from John 12:1-8 as I work on my sermon for this coming Sunday.  I’m amazed at the number of “takes” on this story:  educated people who see Mary’s motives in a variety of ways.  She is highly contrasted with Judas, and yet there are some who encourage us to see things from Judas’ point of view and not to vilify him.  I think that’s an important thing to remember – we need to keep in mind the whole picture of the culture of the day, the possible setting at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s house for their party.

For example, they would probably not have sat at what we consider a table.  It was probably a low bench type table with cushions surrounding it.  That would put a little different picture of Mary kneeling in front of Jesus to anoint his feet.  But I’m not really focusing so much on the background details as seeking to get a little better picture of Mary of Bethany according to this scripture lesson.

“The fragrance of the oils filled the house” is a reminder of the aromatic oils that were used in embalming.  Maybe they were in their house already because Martha and Mary had buried their brother not that much earlier, and Jesus raised him from the dead, so he is noted as being at the party.  We are familiar with Mary and Martha from Luke 10 where Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen and is, instead, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening.  Jesus told Martha that Mary had picked the better part, not saying that Martha was wrong, but saying that we need both balance and action in order to live fully, and we start with our relationship with God.

In the John passage, Mary has chosen to anoint Jesus’ feet which was a symbol of preparation for his death.  Mary showed a lot of courage in this story.  First, she mingled with the men, Jesus and his disciples and Lazarus (and whoever else might have been there) which wasn’t a normal thing for a woman to do.  Second, she touched Jesus openly and in an intimate way.  This was not acceptable in that culture – women did not touch any man including their husbands in public.  Third, she let her hair down – big no-no!  But Jesus saw beyond the societal expectations and convention and praised her for her act of love.

Isn’t every act of discipleship an act of love for Jesus?  We are called to follow Jesus, and when we do, what we do is a way of serving him and sharing his love with others.  Mary is giving back to Jesus which is what we do when we offer acts of love and kindness to others, even those whom we don’t know.

In today’s world, there is a lot of “stink” around, as well as a real lack of courage from those who are part of church communities.  We don’t seem to be bold enough to “get our hands full of oil” and anoint the world with God’s love.  The small courtesies, the times of “paying it forward,” the tolerance of differences, the ability to listen to another, for example, are all products of the love of God in Christ Jesus that beg to be exercised, experienced and shared.  So, may we spread the aroma of our discipleship one house, one church, one person, one congregation, one community at a time so the aroma fills the entire world.  God bless!

I Once Was Lost – Or Was I?

“. . . you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Luke 15:31b-32 (NRSV)

Whenever I read the parable of the Lost Son, I am reminded of the gospel song, “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton who was a slave runner until he was brought to his senses and realized that his work in transporting African slaves was wrong in God’s eyes.  He realized the error of his ways, repented, and eventually became a minister.  John Newton related to the prodigal son in the parable that Jesus told in Luke 15.

There are many people who have turned their lives around as they recognized the hand of God in their lives, and there are also many who have grown up in the church, thinking that they are Christians by virtue of being part of a church.  Maybe we all are a little of each.  When I was growing up, my family went to church without fail – no excuses, no matter how hard we kids tried to get out of it.  The only time we missed church was if we were sick, and Mom would stay home with us while everyone else went.  We never missed.  Did that make us Christians automatically?  No.

At some point in our lives, we must turn our lives around, confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and really believe it.  Those who have been lost understand that.  John Newton certainly did.  I suspect many of us become lost throughout our lives and find our way back.  Does God reject us?  No.  That’s one of the points of this parable.  Another point is that the other brother, who would be a lot like those of us who have been in the church all our lives, was resentful of the welcome and reinstatement of the younger brother.  We may not reject someone who has “left the fold” and returned, but what about those who have been long time members who see younger folks or new folks becoming more involved in church activities and committee and resent their “new” ideas.  The death of a church begins with resistance to change and the statement, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

The older brother complained because the younger brother had not only disrespected their father and squandered all the money he was given, but then he was allowed to resume his position in the family as a full-fledged son.  We really can’t blame him.  It’s not fair, and we understand that “not fair” thing, don’t we?

But let’s face it:  God isn’t fair.  God is love.  God offers unconditional love.  God gives grace.  God welcomes us home again when we have strayed.  God welcomes us every moment of every day through the chance to start over, to repent of our sins, and to receive forgiveness of sins.  So, maybe we are all the prodigal as well as the other son.  Are we ever the father in this parable?  Do we offer grace, unconditional love, and do we watch for the newcomer, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the lonely, the sick, the outcast?  Do we love them because they are God’s child?  Do we care for them because of that generous love of God that we have been given to share?  It’s something to think about.  God bless your day!

Making Choices

“Sir, let it (fig tree) alone for one more year, until I dig around and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”  Luke 13:8-9

The parable of the fig tree found in Luke 13:6-9 is an interesting and perhaps disturbing one.  The owner of a vineyard discovered that one of the fig trees was not bearing fruit and told the gardener to cut it down.  However, the gardener pleaded with the owner to give it one more chance – one year, actually.  He said he would pay special attention to it, watering, fertilizing, and digging to loosen the soil around it.  Apparently, that was the end of the parable, and since it was a hypothetical situation, we don’t know what the outcome would have been.

However, if we look beyond the outward story to the underlying meaning (there is always an underlying meaning to Jesus’ parables!), we can take this several ways.  IF the owner is supposed to represent God, I’m quite disturbed by the “cut and dried,” seemingly uncaring way of saying – just cut it down!  Does that mean that God would do that to us if we don’t bear fruit?  Does it mean that by not living out our calling to offer Christ to others and not making disciples, we would be cut off from God, just like that?

If Jesus is the gardener, the question arises, “Does Jesus have to plead with God to save us?”  As the gardener of our lives, would he need to tend to us and fertilize us and keep after us to do what we are called to do so we MIGHT become fruit-bearers?  Of course, we can also ask, “Are we the fig trees?”

There is much to consider here.  Maybe God is represented by the vineyard owner and Jesus is supposed to be the gardener, and we are the fig tree.  But somehow, I don’t picture God as that unfeeling or lacking in grace.  The section prior to this parable tells about folks who were worshiping at the altar in the Temple and were killed by Pilot, followed by Jesus’ reminding his listeners about a tower that fell on some people who were then killed.  Those who questioned Jesus wanted to know if they had sinned terribly and received God’s punishment for it.  In response, Jesus told the parable about the fig tree.  He told the questioners that they didn’t do anything to deserve their fate, and God did not bring punishment on them.

That tells me that God is NOT the vineyard owner in the parable.  Maybe God THROUGH Jesus is the gardener, and, if we push it just a little farther, maybe we, too become gardeners.  Bearing fruit takes time and effort.  It takes patience, love, and care.  There is nurturing involved.  The grace of God is not something that people can comprehend or understand easily, and mostly it takes time for them to even grasp that it is free and an act of love on God’s part.

My husband is a generous and caring man who loves to “pay it forward” as often as he can.  This morning, we went to breakfast at a bake shop, and while we were standing in line, the woman who was standing behind us greeted us.  Apparently she remembered us from other times we were in line, and she and my husband engaged in a friendly banter back and forth about his role as the “pay master” for buying our breakfast every morning.  When he arrived at the counter to order, he included her breakfast in our order, and she was amazed and so thankful.  She and I waited at the pick up counter, and she told me that her day had started really badly, but this was such a lovely way to move it a different direction.  We didn’t talk about witnessing or God’s grace, but she experienced a free gift of generosity and kindness.  Sometimes “paying it forward” is one of the nicest ways to make a statement about who we are, and if we encounter her more often, we may have the opportunity to treat her again and eventually engage her in more significant conversation.

We nurtured someone who, unbeknownst to us, had started her day in not so great a way but was able to hopefully turn it around so it would be a good day from then on.  This is only one way we nurture others who are complete strangers.  There are many more ways we can be the gardeners tending God’s gardens, and Jesus offers the teachings and the example for us as we seek to witness to our faith in this world.  In a society where God’s name is taken in vain quite often, we can be among those who make God’s grace and love the fertilizer to change the world – one person, one situation at a time.  Have a great day, and “pay it forward!”

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