March 25, Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

The reading for Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday are Mark 11.1-11 or John 12.12-16; Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29; Isaiah 50.4-9; Psalm 31.916 Philippians 2.1-11; Mark 14.1-15.47 or Mark 15.1-47.

There is little to be said about these passages that has not be said a zillion times.  The decision to squeeze the reading for Palm Sunday and the Passion into a single Sunday was necessitated by certain cultural realities (e.g. fewer and fewer people following the traditional Triduum {Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, & Easter morning}) required the compression of the Passion story into Palm Sunday or risk a liturgical leap from the triumphal entry to the triumphal resurrection without any mention of the agony and bloody sweat of the Cross.  Sadly, I sometimes fear it does not work as we hope.  No matter our liturgical jujitsu, many miss the connection of the agonizing stories of Holy Week to the life of faith and instead experience and incorporate into their faith narrative the bookends of ascending triumph (Hosanna in the highest and He is risen).  There is, in this scenario, no pain or sacrifice associated with faith and religion becomes a series of motivational homilets designed to affirm our triumphal status in the world.  I worry about this.

It is only through realizing the agony and the bloody sweat of the Cross that I can God reaching to me in the moments of my own despair or hopelessness:

Psalm 31.9-24

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbours,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord,
for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled
that speak insolently against the righteous
with pride and contempt.

21 Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm,
‘I am driven far from your sight.’
But you heard my supplications
when I cried out to you for help.

23 Love the Lord, all you his saints.
The Lord preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.

I pray you embrace the fullness of Holy Week and all of the liturgical offerings available to you wherever you are.

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Sunday, March 11, the fourth Sunday of Lent

Numbers 21:4-9 From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Instant gratification, often rendered as “I want what I want and I want it now!” (or words/actions of that sort) are not new.  The ancient people, following Moses on that long journey out of Egypt and slavery to the Promised Land and freedom, were quick to start complaining about the inconveniences of the journey.  God did not trifle with them, and they quickly realized that endurance and fortitude were required of them by God.  God did not abandon them, but there was a stiff price to their whining.  While it has been a long time since I have considered wrapping a bronze snake around a pole (a very ancient symbol of the medical and healing arts) to convey the wonder of God’s abundant grace despite our complaints and brokenness, I frequently remind myself and my congregation that God’s does not invite us into a relationship of convenience, immediate gratification, power, or privilege.  Rather, God invites us into the long slough of being patient in serving our God and God’s whole creation.  Sometimes that may involve suffering and sacrifice; but, God will never abandon us in whatever wilderness we may find ourselves. 

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures forever.

2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.

3 He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

17 Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.

18 They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.

19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.

20 He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.

21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.

22 Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

Ephesians 2:1-10 You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

In Greek, the first seven verses of this passage are one sentence.  The core subject and predicate are contained in verses 4 & 5 in bold above:  God makes us alive through the revelation contained in the full story of Jesus the Christ.  Verses 1-3 reveal the “dark side” and verses 6-10 reveal the consequences of God’s actions in the Incarnation.  All that is left is for us to choose which path we follow; the path of darkness or the path of light, of death or life.  Also, contained in this passage is the proposition illuminated by Martin Luther in the 16th Century, “salvation by grace through faith,” underlined above.  This is a core value of Pauline theology.  While free will allows us to say “Yes” or “No” to God, God achieves our salvific restoration by God’s grace in response to our faith affirmation, not our own meritorious works.  Still, Paul will argue in other places that if we have faith we cannot help but manifest good works that reveal the faith.  This too is a core part of his theology.  

John 3:14-21 Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

This portion of Chapter 3 of John is preceded by a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Nicodemus’s, a Pharisee, faith tends to be informed by what he would think of as “objective evidence.”  He wants Jesus to provide evidence of his special nature.  In a famous passage, Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” in order to fully realize and understand the Kingdom of God.  Of course, this kind of invitation to a deeper experience of faith confounds our Pharisee.  Jesus then points back to the passage from Numbers about Moses raising the snake on the pole (remember, this was to offer a means of healing to those who had disparaged God and were going to die from a snake bite) suggesting that the “son of man” (a messianic allusion) must likewise be lifted up in order to provide God’s people a pathway to redemption (healing) and “eternal life” (the idea of unity/union with God).   Jesus then makes the very famous declaration of John 3.16. “For God so loved the world . . . “Verses 17-21 provide the consequence of God’s saving act in Jesus and tracks closely with the Pauline teaching we see in the Ephesians passage above. 

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9.1-8   God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

From a theological perspective, “covenant,” in this passage, is a declaration of God establishing an eternal, transcendent relationship between God and humanity through Noah.  Not only humanity, but all creation.  Specifically, this covenant is a declaration of God’s purpose of salvation for the whole of creation.  God provides a symbol of this covenant and declares the everlasting nature of it.  In a way, this is a prelude to the covenantal relationship to be established between God and Moses (representing the people chosen by God).  This passage from Genesis does not offer a response from the Noah.  In this instance, then, the covenant is simply a declaration of God’s intent and purpose for creation following the flood story.  What is yet to be developed is how the people who hear this story of the God of creation will respond to the invitation into covenant.  Consequently, it is important and essential to understand that “covenant” implies a relationship, fellowship, connection between distinct “sides.”  It is not a quid pro quo relationship as in a contract (you give me five dollars and I will give you a meal); rather, it is a commitment to interaction (relationship, fellowship, connection).  In the context of our Abrahamic tradition (i.e. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), there is a salvific (e.g. salvation) aspect to this covenant—God wants to save creation and we should respond by following God).   For the fullest realization of the implication of covenant, we must look to the Abrahamic saga (Genesis 12-17) and Mosaic saga (Genesis 19-24).  These two essential stories of the Covenant set the stage for our exploration of the “New Covenant” as described in the Story of Jesus.

Psalm 25.1-9

1 Peter 3.18-22  Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you– not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 This is a Christological affirmation of the role of Jesus in the revelation of this “new covenant.”  “Christ also suffered for sins . . .” so that we might, despite our brokenness, realize the intent of God’s saving purpose.  It is of high importance to the early Christians to understand Jesus as an extension of God’s ancient covenant and as a means to realize salvation.  The writer of 1 Peter is making this connection through the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism.  Just as God affirmed and maintained the Abrahamic covenant through the waters of the flood, so too do we realize the affirmation of the covenant, now expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through baptism.

Mark 1.9-15  In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 Three quick stories in this brief passage from Mark – – no one ever accuses Mark of being a teller of long stories.  Regardless of all other renditions in Matthew, Luke, or John, Mark is just giving us the barest of information about Jesus.  John, John, John and then Jesus comes out from Nazareth without introduction and is baptized and God through the Spirit declares “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Done.

The “Spirit,” apparently the Holy Spirit “drives him out into the wilderness” where Satan tempts him.  One cannot help but think Jesus may have been wondering, “With friends like these . . .”  This lasts two verses, after which we discover John arrested and removed from the scene and now Jesus in Galilee proclaiming John’s message.  There are no wasted words in Mark’s Gospel.  The parting declaration of this pericope, Jesus saying, “time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near, repent, and believe in the good news.”  Maybe this is where we are to begin as we step into the season of Lent.

Last Sunday after Epiphany

2 Kings 2.1-12: This moment of transfer of authority from Elijah to Elisha is of worthwhile significance in the Old Testament Canon.  Among other reasons, it simply illustrates the continuity of God’s revelation in this prophetic tradition.  Even as Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (i.e. his authority, power, relationship with God), much of the story of Elijah is repeated (doubled) in the Elisha cycle of stories.  Whatever the details of the story, the continuity of authority and importance passing from Elijah to Elisha is essential to the narrative of God’s revelation.

Psalm 50.1-6: This psalm is unique in that it is an admonishment from God.  While most psalms appear to be songs sung to God, Psalm 50 appears to be a prophetic admonition from God to God’s people.  It is a psalm of judgement and warning.  Still hope and redemption is possible; the people must turn back to God.

2 Corinthians 4.3-6: This description of the work of the disciple of Jesus seems concerned with the incapacity of some to understand the gospel.  It seems they believe it possible for some to be distracted by the illusions of the world, preventing them from seeing the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”  Regardless, they are quite definite in their proclamation of the Gospel of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  They are equally certain of their understanding of God’s revelation that flows through them.

Mark 9.2-9: This version of the Transfiguration story involving Jesus, Elijah, and Moses is a great story of the New Testament extending the illustration of the transfer of authority we heard in today’s Old Testament reading.  Jesus, who becomes “dazzling white” is surrounded by the Jewish authority figures of Moses and Elijah.  Peter sees this and affirms the magnitude of the three characters presence in this scene.   But it is not Moses or Elijah who proclaim the transfer of authority to Jesus.  Instead, it is God who declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Again, we see the importance of the transfer of authority in God’s narrative of revelation.

4th Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18.15-20: This passage is a declaration of God’s prophetic tradition.  God’s prophet is not an inherited position, it is not a popularly elected position, it is not a position for which one prepares and is appointed, nor is it a dynastic position.  God’s prophet is “chosen.”  God will “raise up for them a prophet like (Moses) from among them; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything I command.”  Jewish tradition suggests this passage is an affirmation of a never-ending prophetic presence throughout the ages.  Christian tradition sees this passage pointing to a single messianic prophet, Jesus.  The passage from Deuteronomy ends with an admonition to pay attention to the voice of the prophet as well as a means of recognizing false prophets/prophecy.  The language of the Torah is always intriguing and this passage certainly does not let us down.

Psalm 111

1 Corinthians 8.1-13: This is an extraordinary Pauline passage.  Paul rightly asserts that since idols are really empty expressions of religiosity and point to nothing, there is no real individual harm in eating meat offered to idols.  HOWEVER, since not everyone is so understanding, my individual license in eating such meat may cause confusion to someone who is more immature or struggling in faith.  Knowledge and understanding is a wonderful thing asserts Paul.  Yet compassion, concern, and love for those who may yet not understand fully the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus is more important than knowledge and understanding.  God will know us by our love, not our wisdom and sophistication.  Therefore, Paul reminds us, be sensitive to our brothers and sisters and refrain from doing things that may confuse them.

Mark 1.21-28:  Once again we have a healing miracle of Jesus.  We should all be aware of the deep concern Jesus has with human wellness.  While in Jesus time it may have been his prayer and command that healed the sick and the possessed, in our time it is access to the resources of good nutrition, living wage, and healthcare that helps each individual be well.  As Jesus was concerned about everyone’s wellness, so too should we be concerned with the societal and economic challenges to wellness.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3.1-5, 10–If you enjoy giant fish stories, Jonah is the book for you.  Sunday’s reading is nearing the end of the story.  God sent Jonah on a mission to pronounce a judgement on Nineveh.  Jonah did not want to do this and attempted to flee.  It is in this book we learn of the giant fish that swallows Jonah up and delivers him to the shores of Ninevah.  God again tells Jonah to pronounce judgement on Ninevah.  He relents and pronounces judgement.  The king and people of Ninevah repent, and God decides not to destroy them.  What we don’t hear in today’s reading is how angry this made Jonah.  “All I have been through to pronounce judgement on the people, and now, because they repent, you show mercy.”    There are some very paradoxical issues going on here.

Psalm 62.7-14–An affirmation of the steadfast love of God.

1 Corinthians 7.29–31–Again, Paul is suggesting an end of time or at least a transformation of human reality.  Paul, as always, is encouraging the people to change and begin to look forward to God’s new creation.

Mark 1.14-20–Jesus is inviting people to join him in realizing the fullness of the Kingdom of God, “. . . come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”  In this first chapter, as people respond to Jesus’s radical invitation, we learn of the earliest disciples joining Jesus.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

1 Samuel 3.1-10—With humor as the life skill of the month, this lesson from the First Book of Samuel in the Old Testament counts as a paradoxically humorous story.  Samuel is the son of Hannah and Elkanah.  Otherwise barren, Hannah visits the Temple at Shiloh to pray for a child.  God hears her prayers and grants her petition.  However, Hannah must offer her son, who she names Samuel, to be a servant of the Temple.  When he is a very young child, she takes him to the Temple and dedicates him to the service of God.  Today’s story picks up when Samuel is a young boy living at the Temple and serving Eli, the Temple priest.  One night Samuel hears his name called out.  Thinking it is old and blind Eli calling him, he replies, “Here I am,” and he gets up and goes to find out what Eli needs.  Eli has not called him and sends him back to bed.  Three times this happens before Eli realizes it is God calling Samuel.  Eli tells Samuel to go back to bed and if he is called again he should reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”   Of course, he is called again.  So begins Samuel’s call to relationship and purpose with God.

Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17  God, you know me, every part of me.

1 Corinthians 6.12-20–Paul is dealing with the conundrum of law, faith, and sin.  In an exaggerated expression of the question,  Paul states, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.  All things are lawful for me, but not I will not be dominated by anything.”  Paul continues the argument by suggesting that just because you can does not mean you should.  Moreover, the damage done by making bad choices can be severe.  Paul asserts that faith empowers one to choose faithfully.  His argument is based upon his theology of the resurrection that affirms that just as God raised Jesus from the destruction of death, so too, God will raise the Body of Christ–us–to faithfulness.

John 1.43-51–It is hard to ignore the irony of Nathanael’s comment this week, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Apparently Nazareth is thought to be a backwater, backward place having a reputation for uselessness.  How could anything desirable come from such a place.  Of course, Nathanael has his “head turned around” (in a good way, not an Exorcist way) and he realizes even the “Son of God” can come from Nazareth.  Perhaps we might consider this a lesson in prejudice and bias.  To be sure, it is in the quick shorthand of a Gospel narrative, without any supporting justification for such a dramatic change.  Still, the underlying point is God acts where and how God chooses to act.  Sometimes in Nazareth.  Sometimes in Haiti.  Sometimes El Salvadore.  Sometimes Africa.