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April 15: New Life Through Healing

peter-kent-25193-unsplashMark 5: 21, 24b-34, Isaiah 41: 1-10

NOTICE:  In the very Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  In the male dominated culture of both Judaism and more so of Rome.  In a time when women were an expendable  commodity – this sick and dying woman commands Jesus’ attention in the middle of his journey to go heal the daughter or an important Jewish leader. Jesus isn’t just interested in saving little girls.  He is interested in saving old dried up women too. A message note for our country in which 10 million women and men experience abuse at the hand of a partner[i], in a world in which 830 women die of maternal mortality each day. [ii] And the healthcare gap for women of color in this country is deadly – cervical cancer twice that of white women, infant mortality twice that for infants of color – breast cancer 40% higher likelihood of death. It’s not economics – it’s race. Throw-away women….it’s still a thing.[iii]

Sometimes what looks like great courage or daring is simply desperation.  When we haven’t got anything to lose, we can and do take bold risks.  The woman in the story does this – we do it too.  Why not?  We’ve got no other options – we go for broke.

In the story of this woman in Mark, she has to act boldly to get attention. How else could she act?  There is no man to ask for help on her behalf in the story.  She was ill enough, and her ailment was the kind of thing that would exclude her from going out in public. She had seen doctors – for years.  She had experienced great suffering. She is bleeding to death. She is powerless to heal herself. There were no other options except this amazing man, Jesus.  So she reached out, just to touch the fringe of his garment – believing that here was the presence of God that could heal her. She goes for broke and touches the hem, the very outermost edge of his clothing.

Any of us who have struggled for years to get a diagnosis and treatment that would help can find ourselves in this story. For our family, one such struggle began when our daughter Carol was eleven.  She was weak and tired, and had trouble keeping up with normal activity.  She was hospitalized several times, had lots of tests, and it took a long time to find out what the sources of her problems were.  Finally the doctors told us that she had an impaired immune system which caused her to catch everything that came along – and that her liver was failing. There was no recommended course of treatment because the two problems interacted. They couldn’t do a liver transplant because her immune system was weak. They couldn’t do drug therapies for her immune system because her liver couldn’t break down the drugs. They basically told us that they could monitor her decline and do everything to make her comfortable – but that she wouldn’t live to her thirteenth birthday.  We heard about a remarkable physician whose methods were very “outside the box,” but who was willing to treat her.  It’s a long story and much of what he did is outside of traditional medical practice, although he was indeed a medical doctor. And the insurance didn’t cover much of it since it was either diagnostic or experimental.  But we went for broke. Of course we did. It wasn’t great courage or daring, it wasn’t that we were familiar with functional medicine at that point or that we had more than a cursory understanding of the therapies this doctor used.  It was that we had no other options. We were desperate enough to try anything.

We are, all of us, walking wounded. We carry a lot of wounds. We are a wounded people. And we don’t really want to talk about them, so they continue to wound us and others. “Hurt people hurt people.” And we have quite a collections of hurts in our arsenal.

Yes, this is hard.  We are more comfortable covering up the places that we hurt until we can almost – but not quite – forget about them entirely.  Unexpected things will remind us and we may find ourselves weeping at incongruous moments as something touched that not-quite-healed place in us.

Some of them are personal, individual wounds.  Perhaps things we have pushed to the back of our memory shelves for many years, but that have never really healed.

— They may be physical wounds that have healed up on the surface, but the scars remind us of the deeper wounding. Our physical scars tell our story, whether we want them to or not.

— We also carry emotional or psychological wounds that have held us back from reaching our full potential by causing us self-doubt or even encouraging self-sabotage.  We may be so accustomed to the negative self-talk that we aren’t even aware of it, often with echoes from past emotional abuse, “You aren’t good enough. You can’t do that.”

We hurt others in our woundedness, acting out of our own hurt.  We carry a lot of wounds.

Some wounds are institutional.  Churches and communities are injured by episodes from the past that do similar damage to the institution or community that we experience in our personal wounds.

–Congregations are wounded by pastoral leaders with boundary transgressions with finances or personal relationships. Those make it hard to trust and damage future pastoral relationships with clergy who are innocent of those betrayals.

–Divisions in congregations over social issues create a fear of being honest about what we believe. Even in the church we seem to have forgotten how to practice civil discourse and disagree in love.

In a workshop yesterday focusing on the health and wellbeing of clergy, there was a lot of conversation around the hurt carried by pastors due to the behaviors of congregations: unreasonable expectations, wanting all subsequent pastors to be like a past beloved pastor, unwillingness to consider the needs of pastors’ families, expecting pastors to be constantly available and tend for every expressed desire. And many of the hurt passed along to pastors came from personal or institutional woundedness.  We all carry a lot of wounds.  We all carry wounds – and if we don’t open them up to heal a bit past the surface, they will continue hurting us and others.

Jesus cares. God cares. FOR ALL. It comes through in this story very clearly.  When he felt power leave him, he turned around to find the person of faith who had touched him – not to rebuke her, but to commend her. Jesus encouraged the new life growing in her. In ALL.

This story points us to some teaching truths that may help us to heal.  Jesus wanted to help the people around him. It wasn’t that his clothes were magic or that the woman had some power of her own, but the presence of God brings healing. The life of Jesus, everywhere he went, the people he encountered, brought healing – brought new life. And this new life is for ALL. Just in this one chapter of Mark, Jesus heals a gentile wrestling with demons, the daughter of Jairus – a leader in the synagogue – and a woman who has been ill for a very long time. Jesus brings God’s healing, life-giving presence to a woman excluded from her family and community and unable to participate in normal life for many years because she matters to God. God cares for us all. And not just the physical healing.  He speaks to her to encourage her – to acknowledge this woman who has been relegated to the shadows of life.  “Your faith has made you well.” Affirmation – your faith is strong.  Your actions and your faith have brought you healing. You are strong.

It is perhaps the first century equivalent of Aibileen’s affirmation of a chubby toddler giving her the positive identity she needs to carry her through life, “You is kind. You is strong. You is important.”[iv]

Healing isn’t guaranteed. Nor is it immediate.  It is a process – and there are different kinds of healing.  And ultimately – the death rate is 100%.  The rest is details – important details, but details. So — Sometimes healing means letting go. Sometimes it means hanging on. Sometimes it means living stronger and sometimes it means dying here to find healing in death. The only constant seems to be the presence and power of God – which can make us stronger. And our fellowship with God does NOT end in death.

“Sooner or later, life breaks us all, but many become strong in the broken places.”    Ernest Hemmingway.

Sozo= salvation, wholeness.  Sozo= Tomake well. NOT the usual term for physical healing. Has theological tones. Shalom. This is the word Jesus uses in his blessing of the woman in the story – perhaps his blessing for us as well.  May your life be lived in meaningful relationships, with shelter to help keep you safe, daily bread, peace in your spirit, and fullness in your life.  Where you were an outcast, I name you daughter.  Be saved, whole and well. A blessing FOR ALL.

For all of us, God wants new life.  It can only happen if our wounds are healed. We can’t push them to the back of our memory closets or lightly cover them with bandages.  They need deep healing that only happens with the presence of God working in our lives.

Faith and wellness are mysteries. But that God wants them for us, yearns to help us find them so we are renewed and restored – that is no mystery at all.


[i] https://ncadv.org/statistics
[ii] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs348/en/
[iii] http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/healthcare/322874-for-women-of-color-the-healthcare-gap-is-real-and-deadly
[iv] The Help. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMD0XtQqfkg
Photo by Peter ᴳᴱᴼ Kent on Unsplash
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Easter Sunday: Being Saved, Becoming New

ryan-yao-540529-unsplash

Job 19: 23-27a, I Corinthians 15: 1-11, and Mark 16: 1-8

Running into the house after church, a little boy couldn’t wait to share what he had learned in Sunday school that morning. “Did you know that they tried to kill Jesus?” he asked his mother.
“Where did you hear that?” she replied.
“I heard the preacher talking about it in church.”
“Well, what do you think about that?”
“Some people tried to kill Jesus; but he sure fooled them, didn’t he?”[i]

Perhaps the best April Fool’s joke ever: Easter is the joke God played on the powers of the world and the forces of evil.  God limited death on Easter. Easter means that the powers of this world do not have the last word – YES! And that is wonderful!  But there is more to the meaning of Easter than just the vindication of Jesus with God raising him to life after the world’s powers put him to death. … It’s more than just a reversal of what the power of the world decided would be his fate. (Dramatic pause) …How we see Jesus affects how we understand the Christian faith, and Easter is at the heart of it.  If there were no Easter, Jesus would just have been another Jew executed by the Roman Empire because they thought he was a threat during a century that was extremely bloody by anyone’s standards.  Easter makes things different. Easter shapes how we see Jesus – and for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it affects what we think the Christian life is all about.

 What makes Easter so important? God is in charge. Vindication.

In the midst of the different gospel stories, Paul’s claims about the resurrected Jesus without any stories, and the interesting apocalyptic imagery – what does Easter really mean?  Why is it important?  This event has much deeper meanings than just a resurrection of a body or an empty tomb.The meanings behind the stories are more important, and offer us more help and insight than perhaps the stories themselves.[ii]

  • God vindicated Jesus. The tomb could not hold Jesus. The powers of the world tried to shut him down, and God raised him up and set him loose in the world.  Easter is God’s “yes” overturning the “no” of the powers of the world that executed him. Easter is not about the afterlife, or we would have some kind of description of heaven.  Easter is not about happy endings to the story either, or Jesus being alive again would be enough.  (J. is not among the dead…)
  • Promise of Jesus’ presence with the disciples. The disciples would see Jesus —  they have to go back to the beginning again.  (Galilee)  It’s not just that Jesus was raised to life with God – Jesus came back to the disciples. The mission isn’t finished!  We’ll talk more about that later.
  • God is God. No matter what. In the midst of trouble and tragedy, God is God. That important truth is why we read Job this morning.  You know a bit about this teaching story. Job’s life includes a full panoply of disasters.  And yet, Job sings this hymn of praise to God from his ash heap while scraping his oozing sores. His situation is beyond hopeless, and yet he sings, “I know that my Redeemer lives…” with confidence in God redeeming him, God having the victory, even if it is so far off that he can’t see it.  God is Job’s Redeemer, valuing him no matter what has happened or is happening. It is a foretaste of the Easter story, where hope lives because no matter the circumstances – God is the Redeemer. God is still God. And death is not the end.

Fear and death are overturned.  We don’t have to live in our fear.  This is a really big deal because we are a fearful people.  The fact that most of the things we worry about don’t ever come to pass doesn’t seem to slow down our worrying at all.  The experts say 85% of the things we worry about don’t ever happen. [iii] We still worry.  Some of it is a natural human tendency.  Some of us name worrying as a part of our identity, “I’m a worrier.” Science has now shown that worrying actually takes away our health and vitality.  The stress caused by worrying “causes serious problems.  The stress hormones that worry dumps into your brain have been linked to shrinking brain masslowering your IQ, being prone to heart disease, cancer and premature aging, predicting martial problems, family dysfunction and clinical depression, and making seniors more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.”[iv] But if God overturned even death, what are we worries about?

Jesus in Gethsemane said:  Your will God, not mine – his trust was not in the outcome of the story, but in God who held him despite the outcome.  As Michael Williams explains in Spoken Into Being, “My trust is not in the outcome of the story but in the One who accompanies me through the story, no matter the outcome. Trusting in the divine presence is not an insurance policy against tragedy.  It is, however, the assurance that we do not walk through tragedy alone, but are accompanied by a God who knows loss and grief and knows us better than we know ourselves.”[v]

   Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through The One who loved[s] us.–Desmond Tutu

So yes! God overturns death on Easter!  Nothing is impossible with God! God is God no matter what else is going on in the world – and we are ultimately in God’s hands — no matter what happens. 

US. Being Saved is a continuing process.  It’s not a 1-shot deal.  That’s lucky for us – since we don’t seem to be ALL-SAVED just yet.  We may be a little saved, for some of us even “rather more than less saved,” (wiggle hand  back and forth) but none of us have reached spiritual perfection. We’re not “DONE” in this being saved process.

This is why Jesus keeps showing up with the disciples – they aren’t completely ready for this either. They are still being saved – just like us.  So he shows up especially at times when they are having a meal together.  In their time, perhaps in ours too, eating together was one of the best ways to show forgiveness and reconciliation.  So Jesus is revealed, disclosed really, in Emmaus at the breaking of the bread.  And Peter knows he is forgiven when Jesus is on the beach cooking breakfast – and then Peter is given a job to do.

Jesus kept appearing to the disciples – and especially Peter, who denied him – is so they knew that they were forgiven.  And now being recruited to continue the mission of Jesus in the world. The disciples who fled, denied him, hid – THOSE disciples are the very ones Jesus wanted to meet him in Galilee where they could start again. And they DID!  Jesus wasn’t finished with them yet. They learned and are re-commissioned and with Jesus’ presence with them, they continued his ministry – doing the things that he had done.

  • Just as God keeps working on us. And In us. Easter two thousand years ago may have broken through what we thought we knew about life and the world with something very different. (We call it resurrection.) But God isn’t done – God is still doing this. The presence of the Living Christ still surprises us – is still disclosed in unexpected moments. Often in the breaking of bread. Often in acts of reconciliation. Surprising us with moments of God’s presence in the midst of our grief. Easter continues to burst into our lives where we had thought death had the last world.  And comes in our moments of fear and confusion, upsetting how we think the world words, using unaccustomed words – and unexpected messengers, just as on that Easter so long ago.

Will Willimon tells a story about visiting a man as he lay close to death. He asked the man if he was fearful, and the man said, “No.  I’m not fearful because of my faith in Jesus.”  Willimon replied that “We all have hope that our future is in God’s hands,” but the man corrected him emphatically. “Well, I’m not hopeful because of what I believe about the future….I’m hopeful because of what I’ve experienced in the past…I look back over my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I’ve turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed, and got lost. And time and again, he found a way to get to me, showed up and got me, looked for me when I wasn’t looking for him.  I don’t think he’ll let something like my dying defeat his love for me” .[vi]  All his life, he was being saved.  All our lives, WE are being saved. We aren’t perfect – far from it. We aren’t dedicated enough, selfless enough, wise enough yet…so God is still working on us — we are being saved.  Continually. Still.

You see, God’s kingdom is still the endgame – and we aren’t there yet.  It’s all about the mission.  God’s mission is unstoppable – and we are forgiven and invited to take a part .  God’s not done – and we aren’t “done” yet either.

Becoming New – an invitation. US.

Easter reveals God’s purpose of LIFE – new life – and nothing, not power politics, not religious institutions, and not even death will be allowed to stand in the way of what God wants to do for us. Easter reminds us that God is about the business of making all things new. We too can be new.

CONTRA. That’s VERY good news! Despite the sorrow and pain and all the things that are wrong in the world – despite the fact that even those of us who have pledged our lives to follow Jesus mess up with frightening regularity,  and our tendency to lose God in the midst of the activity of our lives – God is still inviting us to come and be new.  Even in the midst of the dying that is a daily experience for many of us – God is inviting us to new life. . Easter life can break into the world again!

But  — full disclosure here — the new life to which we are invited does involve some dying. After all, new life begins with the story of a cross.  God reminds us in Easter that dying to our old ways of being is a part of experiencing new life.  We are dying and being raised with the one who was crucified by the rulers of the world. This transformation doesn’t come without a loss – a cost. But, we are also reminded, this is not an ultimate cost – what we gain is FAR greater than what we lose!

We are invited to come and be made new, transformed, reborn into a new way of life – into God’s dream of the kingdom – and it’s possible. It’s REAL. It is even happening now unseen, like the seeds that begin to sprout before they break the surface of the soil.  Death doesn’t have the last word – new life is here among us. Easter life is breaking into the world again!

All of these Easter stories, not just the ones of Easter morning, and especially  the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and later to Paul, help us understand that God is still at work through Jesus making us new.  Our becoming new is a process, just as being saved is a process.  It doesn’t happen all at once. It is like gradual unfolding of a blossom.  And were we begin, what we look like now, is nothing like the end of the story.

Paul says that the resurrection reveals a whole new order “as different as a grubby dead seed from the glory of a flowering plant.”[vii] Easter wasn’t just an unusual day two thousand years ago. It is still breaking in to our world with the presence of Jesus.  Come and hear the stories, as we consider their meanings for our lives.  Come hear stories of Forgiveness and new purpose, stories of healing, of growth, of new relationships – of new life in many ways! Imagine this: God inviting us to a part of “Becoming the New Creation!” Part of the NEW ORDER! New life began as God broke through the normal boundaries of death to raise Jesus to life again, to do something wondrously new!

And it continues – Jesus is alive – and in ministry NOW through disciples forgiven and called again. God’s never-ending story of new life, new opportunities, new growth to help us reflect the one we follow and help the world reflect God’s kingdom dream.  The words echo down through time and find fresh voices today, “Go and tell. Tell the story of lives made new.”

 

As Ellsworth Kalas said, “Easter is not simply a holiday to be celebrated with church attendance and a festive dinner; it is a new power let loose in our world that enables us – to the degree that we are willing – to live a new kind of life.  Why?  Because the very power that raised Christ from the dead now dwells in us”[viii]  —  saving us, helping us to become new.

Friends, God is God – and despite the look of things, still at work to bring about new life. Easter reminds us that fear and death are overturned – new life, unexpected, surprising live is let loose among us. The presence of Jesus is among us, and disclosed when we share a meal, when we forgive each other, when we act to serve others. And God is working in us to make us new as we are forgiven and claimed as the new generation of disciples empowered to carry out Jesus’ mission.


[i] Michael E. Williams, p, 25-26
[ii] See Jim Fleming, “The Context of Holy Week,” and the NINE theories of the meaning of the Life/Death/Resurrection of Jesus.
[iii] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/don-joseph-goewey-/85-of-what-we-worry-about_b_8028368.html
[iv] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/don-joseph-goewey-/85-of-what-we-worry-about_b_8028368.html
[v] Michael E. Williams, Spoken Into Being, 84.
[vi] William H. Willimon, Undone by Easter,” 48.
[vii] David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ,” 58.
[viii] Ellsworth Kalas, “Easter from the Back Side,” 67.
Photo by: Ryan Yao from www.unsplash.com

Palm Sunday 2018 – A Tale of Two Parades!

tim-mossholder-603227-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Luke 19: 28-48

On the day we call Palm Sunday, there were actually two parades into the city of Jerusalem. It was a spring day, at the start of the week of Passover, the most holy week for Jews in what was probably the year 30. Parades at Passover were not unusual in Jerusalem, the city of David. Jerusalem, a city of around 100,000 inhabitants would double during Passover – with 100,000 people coming as pilgrims to the city.  Some stayed in rented lodgings or with relatives, but thee were also tent cities all around the area of Bethphage and Bethany, which were on the route from Jericho to Jerusalem, the route the pilgrims would take singing their psalms on the way.  Passover, the celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery under Egypt, was also the time that Jews looked for the Messiah, “a new David” to come and deliver them again.  They expected the Messiah to throw out the Romans and rule over the nation in a new era of Justice and Peace.  Of the five attempted revolts against Rome in Jerusalem, the four that can be precisely dated were during the time of Passover. The time of the fifth is uncertain, but it was likely during Passover.  Something about celebrating deliverance from the hand of the oppressor by God seemed to remind the Jews that God’s purpose was freedom.  Passover was the ideal time to lead a protest against Rome. On the day we call Palm Sunday, there were two parades.[i]

Pilate’s parade
From the west, coming up from Caesarea Maritima, the new coastal city, sixty miles west of Jerusalem, where they lived in more pleasant circumstances, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area of Judah, entered Jerusalem leading an imperial force of cavalry and foot soldiers. Here is how John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe it in their book, The Last Week.

            Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.[ii]

If you’ve seen any of the old movies about the Roman Empire it’s easy to picture this:   Ben Hur, The Robe, Sparticus,The Fall of the Roman Empire…. Big production scenes with light flashing off the shiny armor of a whole legion, 5000 soldiers dressed in red, gold and shiny armor, in full Technicolor.

It was a show of power. Yes. A military parade to show the inhabitants and visitors to Jerusalem that Pilate and the Romans were a force to be reckoned with and not get ideas about trying to overthrow him.  They came to hold the fort in Jerusalem during the Holy Days when things got  twitchy. Pilate and Company came to reinforce the Roman garrison that stayed year-round in the Fotress Antonia, which overlooked the Temple and its Courts. Any rebellion, however small, would be met with a show of force.  That’s the purpose of military parades.

But it was also a clashing theological system.  The official rhetoric of the Roman Empire was that the Emperor was the Son of God. It started with Augustus Caesar, who claimed to be the son of the god Apollo to his mother, Atia. He ruled 31 BCE to 14 CE. After he died, there were claims that he was seen ascending into heaven to take his place with the gods. Tiberius Caesar, who ruled 14-37 CE during the time of Jesus public ministry, claimed these titles of “son of God,” “lord,” “savior,” and the one who brought “peace on earth.”[iii]

From the west came the Imperial Parade, with swords and armor shining in the sun, red and gold banners waving, and Pilate on a war horse in full regalia as Roman governor. Designed to impress the residents and guests of Jerusalem with the power of Rome.  It was quite a sight.

Jesus
From the East, coming down from Bethany and Bethphage, was a pre-arranged counterprocession, a political demonstration full of symbols and prophetic connections.  The Jews were aware of the prophecies of Zechariah that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem as a humble king, riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9.9)

 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jersualem, and the battle bow shall be cut off and he shall command peace to the nations. Zech 9.10

An alternative vision, this king. And all the stories of his ministry preceded him.  This was not a Messiah of power, not like the Maccabees and Zealots anticipated who would come at the head of an army. This was a Messiah who gave life.  The Romans were almost as afraid of Lazarus as of Jesus – for this Jesus brought a man back to life who had been dead, or so the stories said. [iv] Think about it – a power that they don’t have.  If you let that information get out, it’s liable to get you killed.

Palms:  symbols of Jewish nationalism.  (1 Macc 13:51, 2 Macc 10:7) – symbol used on coins for Jews because they wouldn’t use a coin with the image of Caesar on it. Palms were protest signs of the day. The people wanted to drive out Pilate and regain their independence as a nation. The Psalms they were singing were about restoring the throne of David. And chanting:  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus was lauded in the previous chapter as the “Son of David.” (18:38-39) [v] Son of David versus the claims that Caesar was the Son of God. That kind of thing is liable to get you killed.

Parade Pattern: a Type scene.

Parades followed a certain pattern.

  • Escort of the leader by army or citizens
  • Hymns and acclamation – either paid cheers or Hallel psalms/ Psalms of ascent
  • Symbols of authority (Donkey, cloaks, palm branches)
  • Ritual of appropriation of power or a sacrifice – at the site of the Temple (Key to the city kind of thing)[vi]

According to the pattern, once Jesus had entered the city he headed for the Temple. Remember that part of Jesus’ message was forgiveness.  He told people their sins were forgiven.  That sounds okay to us – but in his day, the Temple system of sacrifice held the monopoly on the forgiveness of sins.  John the Baptist was a threat for the same reason. He baptized people for the forgiveness of sins – a denial of forgiveness as a function of the Temple. And yes, he was killed.

Accusations: Forgiveness. One of the accusations against Jesus was that he forgave sins – an exclusive function of the Temple.  He challenged the authority of the religious establishment. And that kind of thing is liable to get you killed.

Coded language.  Jesus’ message was about the KINGDOM OF GOD and THE WAY to find it. Hodos=way. “The messenger will prepare the way… Prepare the way of the lord… the Kingdom of God has come near.” Political and religious metaphors that challenge the status quo. That kind of thing is liable to get you killed.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the pattern of the ceremony was the one used to welcome a king – but all of the scriptural prophecies and symbols were for peace.  This parade was a prophetic sign and fulfillment, a kind of parable of God’s subversive activity and declaration that this man, Jesus, was a different kind of king. Not a warrior like David, who travelled with at least a small army, but a teacher and healer who came humbly on a donkey.

COLLABORATION. Which parade draws you?  We all WANT to be drawn to Jesus. We know that’s the right answer.  But the truth for most of us is not that simple. We are caught up in various degrees of bondage and collaboration with the powers that be.  We are all wrapped up in the expectations of the systems that we live within. “Life-style conformers,” David Buttrick calls us, “held captive by cultural norms.”[vii]

CAROL’S TRIP TO GUATEMALA.  Living out of a backpack. Freedom. Didn’t want to come home.

Right?  There is very little room in our overfull an ordered lives for the power-challenging, values-upsetting subversive message of Jesus. We are caught up in some many systems that the evil is unclear.  We feel trapped by a cultural value on the freedom to own guns even while we watch more children killed in our own country than soldiers in the military since 9-11. The more we talk about racism, the more we realize that we have to tackle the SYTEMS that hold it in place – because no white man was ever killed in his back yard because his talking on a cell phone was perceived as a threat. And we watch Congress pass budgets with billions of dollars for arms that seem to require another war to justify – so we have this sneaky suspicion that there will probably be one – while tax cuts for the wealthy become the reason to cut Social Security and Medicare. Trapped by the powers in systems of evil. Caught up in the bondage of systems we can’t control.

Let’s be clear: Jesus, then and now, is leading a resistance movement. Resistance to religious authorities, to social expectations and to the government.

RELIGION.Jesus was challenging the Domination system that put the religious authorities in collaboration with the ruling government.[viii] He talked about obedience to God not arbitrated by the religious leadership.

PEOPLE. Nor does Jesus seem particularly concerned with the expectations of the people.  He appears to have been extremely intentional in which religious symbols and prophecies he was connected to in his entrance into Jerusalem.  He never pretended to be the military leader the zealots wanted. He was the king who came in the way of peace. Nor did he choose his companions to gain approval – he was rather indiscriminate in who hung around him. He is the king of  a rather ragtag bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans, blind men, harlots, demoniacs, cripples, women.  The clothing hastily flung on the road before him was tattered shawls, torn over-garments, and sweat-stained shirts. This is a king of peasants.

GOVERNMENT. Let’s also notice that he did not bow to the power of the government. Imperial power did not impress him.  He claimed his own identity in contrast to the claims of Rome.

His actos of appropriation of the city were to weep over it for not seeing the ways of peace, and to enter the Temple to drive out the merchants who exploited the poor for the profit of the Temple and themselves. He speaks to the city in the words of a prophetic warning. Not the kind of behavior likely to win him a key to the city. Actually, that kind of thing is liable to get you killed.  He ended his life executed by the government because they saw him as a threat.

Just as Jesus is a different kind of king – so this is a different kind of kingdom.

He stood up against the power of religion and the power of the government and told then that their domination system was illegitimate in the eyes of God and that God’s coming kingdom was one where the hungry were fed, the disabled were made whole, the children and women were welcomed, and the criminals were given a new life. He criticized their whole system of what it meant to be loyal to God.

Jesus said that God wanted peace for Jerusalem.  What would bring peace?

…repentance

…sharing coats

…fair taxes

…an end of military oppression

…good news for the poor

…a place at the table for outcasts

…sight for the blind

…end of subjugation of women and people of other races

…responsible handling of wealth and property so that all had enough

…reevaluation of what is holy to God

It was a vision of community that offered justice on earth.  It offered new beginnings and times of repentance when anyone and everyone could turn their lives around.  And a world of peace rather than military power. [ix]

Before we decide to follow, you need to know.  The powers of the world still do not take kindly to this image of a world of peace and justice.  On April 4, 1968 another man with a dream of God’s kingdom was killed.  And in Chicago, beginning April 5, the “Holy Week Uprising” swept the west side of the city.  The cross here at the center is made of bricks from burned out buildings from those fires.

The world doesn’t take kindly to people of peace – and speaking against injustice can still get you killed. 

Two parades entered Jerusalem on that Sunday.  From the west: the power and glory of Rome.  From the East: “a fool king riding on a donkey”[x]. Be careful here – it matters what parade we follow.  This Jesus is going to confront the powers of religion and Rome. Following him means walking “THE WAY,” complete with conflict with authority and the serious risks inherent with doing that. Following Jesus just could get you killed.  But it could also show you the way to die to an old life and begin a new one.

[i] John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week. P. 5.  Hereafter, TLW.

[ii] TLW, 3.

[iii] TLW, 3.

[iv] TLW 3-4.

[v] Jim Fleming.

[vi] Jim Fleming

[vii] David Buttrick,  Preaching Jesus Christ, 32.

[viii] TLW, 18-20.

[ix] New Interpreters Bible, Luke, 370-4.

[x] David Buttrick, PJC,.

Lent V: Just Breathe

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2 Kings 4 and Acts 20 (Eutychus)

We DO get hooked on watching sports.  And not just former basketball players watching March Madness tournament games, either.  There’s excitement – all that energy!  When the Olympics come around, we all watch. We learn the names of athletes who have become world class without any fanfare, and cheer them on when they burst through the gates, and cross finish lines as if they were from our neighborhood.  For some of us, we envy them.  For some of us, we remember past athletic glory.  For all of us they seem to embody a greater intensity of life, more energy, vitality.  It draws us.

God’s purpose is to give us life…

“In the Beginning…”  It begins with the story of creation in Genesis 1 – in verse 2 the spirit of God breathes across the waters and then later, God gives all green plants for food to all creatures with the breath of life in them– or in Genesis 2 verse 7 God creates a human creature from clay and breathes into their nostrils. And so it begins – story after story in the Bible of God working to give life to creation, and to the human beings God loves.  And in many of these stories we learn, there is no life without breath.

There are a few stories in the Bible with people who are revived after they are not breathing.  Today we heard two of them. In Acts 20, Paul has come to Troas on his journey to Jerusalem.  The new faith community gathered together to have a meal together and hear Paul.  And Paul spoke until midnight about Jesus being present with the followers even after his death.  It was likely the only time the church community would have had a chance to speak with Paul directly and they wanted to get as much as possible out of it. You’-ti-kus (Eutychus), a young man who had been there in the room filled with lamps, perhaps a bit stuffy, and been listening to a long-winded preacher, however compelling, well past bedtime —  fell asleep and feel three stories onto the ground below.  Paul ran down the stairs, threw himself on the young man and held him and his breath returned.  Paul went back upstairs and ate again and then left.

This story has images and symbols of resurrection and new life woven through it.  Paul is telling about the living presence of Jesus after his death.

— The community is gathered for Koinõnia —  the sharing of WORD and TABLE.  The “breaking of the bread” was how Jesus’ presence is often recognized.

— This meeting is also in an UPPER ROOM, as were several significant meals with Jesus.

Combination of preaching/teaching and miracle= resurrection.  Paul was teaching, resuscitate him, and then runs back upstairs to finish his teaching.  Miracle and message run together a bit.  The miracle of the Risen Jesus is actually the definition of the Good News or The WORD.

We are supposed to understand in this story that God’s purpose is to give life – to all people. God is the life-giver.

  • God’s life-giving impulses go even beyond Oxygen. Although we know we need oxygen.  Bad things happen to our bodies if we don’t have sufficient oxygen.
  • If the air is too thin – as high on a mountain, we labor to breathe and may need breathing assistance. Mountain climbers have to prepare their lungs for the decreased oxygen – and often carry an emergency supply of oxygen just in case they need it.
  • If we have asthma or other respiratory diseases, we have to keep regular checks on our breath capacity through peak flow meters, asthma action plans, and checks of our blood oxygen.
  • Yawning is our body’s defense to bring in more oxygen to our cells and eliminate more Carbon dioxide. It may be because when we are bored or tired, we don’t breathe as deeply as we usually do.  We need more oxygen, which prompts us to yawn, and the oxygen helps to cleanse our blood and energize our minds.  Some of us just need more oxygen and it has nothing to do with being tired or bored.

God is a need beyond Oxygen.  We need God similarly to the way we need oxygen.  Breath of Life – Ruach – divine breath or wind – gives life.  A reminder of not just our dependence on God, but the continual nature of our dependence on God.  Like oxygen, God-breathing is not a 1-shot deal.

This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me

This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me

And I I’m desperate for you
And I I’m lost without you

This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me

This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me

And I I’m desperate for you
And I I’m lost without you

I’m lost without you
I’m desperate for you[i]

Poets and songwriters are a lot of help on this…because they help connect us with our intuitive centers.

”Breathe of heaven…”

Breath of heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
For you are holy
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven[ii]

We DEPEND on God’s in-breathing, living presence – if only we could realize it.  We need God’s living presence even as we need oxygen.  Life depends on it.

How do we find the living presence of God?

There’s a clue in 2 Kings. Our story in 2 Kings is of a strong woman of great faith.  She met Elisha, perceived that he was a prophet, a man of God, and prepared a room for his use any time he had need of it.  When he asked her what he could do for her in return, she shared that she longed for a son.  She has a son – and when he had a killer headache, literally, she ran for Elisha.  His staff and servant were not enough – she would not let go until the prophet had seen her son. Persistence is a virtue.

Shalom. But notice—even in the midst of her tragedy, when people ask her what’s happening, she says, “It’s alright. Shalom – peace is here.”  Why is that?  It’s not immediately obvious why she says everything is alright when her son lays dead.

“It’s alright,” she says.
“Even so, it’s alright.”

“Even in the face of death, God is with us.”

And we may have experienced this a bit ourselves.  In the life or death moments, we know things are alright.  When we sit at the bedside of a loved one as their spirit hovers between this life and the next – we can sometimes feel the SHALOM,  the alrightness of their passing.

Empty to be filled. Perhaps some of the truth of shalom comes from the feeling of emptiness.  Often, after a long vigil or a long illness, we have nothing left.  And then – just then – God breathes into us when we have nothing left.

If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, ‘This is not dead’,
And fill thee with Himself instead….  (Pause)

(With sadness) But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, ‘This is enow Unto itself – ’twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.’   Sir Thomas Browne

Or in Psalm 1:  Like trees planted by streams of living water, the faithful yield their fruit in season and do not wither.  WHY?  They are planted by living water.  You see, God’s purpose is to give life, even abundant life, even given continually like the air we breathe. We need God’s living presence to become spiritually alive – and to remain spiritually alive. It’s continual – not a 1 shot deal. It only comes to us out of God’s great love for us. But maybe we need to make room in our lives for God’s living presence. To breathe – just breathe.

Breathe, just breathe
Come and rest at my feet
And be, just be
Chaos calls but all you really need

Is to take it in, fill your lungs
The peace of God that overcomes
Just breathe (just breathe)
let your weary spirit rest
Lay down what’s good and find what’s best
Just breathe (just breathe)

Just breathe, just breathe
Come and rest at my feet
And be, just be
Chaos calls but all you really need
Is to just breathe
Just breathe[iii]

[i]  Songwriters: Liam Howe / Tahliah Barnett / Timmaz Zolleyn  (Some repetitions removed)

[ii] Songwriters: Chris Eaton / Amy Lee Grant. Breath of Heaven lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC

[iii] Songwriters: Jonathan Lindley Smith / Jonny Diaz / Tony Wood

Breathe lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Essential Music Publishing, Capitol Christian Music Group

Lent IV: When the Tempest Roars

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Matthew 8:23-27

Really, all it takes is ONE really big storm and experiencing the terror that comes with it – the sense that our lives are entirely beyond our control.  JUST ONE – and it changes how we view life – that life is less something that we control, and more of a gift.

Storms of Life. It isn’t really possible to read this story about the boat tossed in the wind and waves without drawing parallels to the storms in our own lives. We all experience storms.  We all understand this story at that level.

In this story, the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Jesus is in the boat, but sleeping.  A sudden storm comes up and it is whipping them around and they are terrified.  A seismos=earthquake, a great shaking. Jesus is sleeping through the whole thing and their lives seem at risk.  So they wake him up to complain.  After all, if you are travelling with Jesus, you should ask for help when you need it, right?  And remember that the church of Matthew’s day – roughly 80-90 AD — was experiencing persecution, alienation from family, and poverty.  This cry to be saved from the storms of life was real.

Life storms can be circumstances beyond our control – losing a job, a health crisis, a sudden death – and they throw all of our plans up for grabs. These storms may cause us to question God’s goodness – or even God‘s existence. If God really cared, then surely God would stop these things from happening! We pray for healing, for relief, for an end to the storm.  In some of these storms, even our very survival seems at risk. These are real, individual storms in our lives.  We name them and pray about them – but Jesus seems to be sleeping..

But there are storms threatening us too beyond our individual lives. Our nation is in jeopardy. The world seems to teeter on the brink of a whole variety of disasters. The profits from war have made the waging of war a political demand.  All over the world, wars rage, people are displaced, children are left orphaned and nations experience political and economic collapse right along with the falling building and bombed infrastructure. There are so many refugees worldwide that there are not enough places to put them.  The war in their own countries drives them out but there is no place to go.  And Jesus seems to be sleeping.

Our schools are invaded with increasing regularity by assailants – home-grown terrorists with assault rifles shooting at our children.  Our teens are crying out for someone to care that they live in fear, that their lives are threatened for no reason.  Our politicians have a hard time hearing them over those campaign contributions from the gun lobby KA-CHING– and Jesus seems to be sleeping.

We want to cry out like the disciples in the boat, “Don’t you care if we drown?”

— Don’t you care that the rich keep getting richer and the middle class is struggling to hold on to their homes?  Don’t you care that folks making $20,000 pay higher rates of property tax than those with incomes over $100,000?

— Don’t you care that we had to turn away a record 29 people from our PADS shelter this week on a cold night when it dropped to 24 degrees?  When there are empty buildings and large houses, why can’t we find places to house folks who need shelter?

— Don’t you care that we waste literally tons of food each year while many of our children are going to sleep at night while their tummies are growling with hunger pains?

— Don’t you care that our water is contaminated and giving our children life-changing issues from memory loss to eye-hand coordination, while public safety regulations are loosened or eliminated to put higher profits in corporate pockets and there is little accountability for those people who knowingly caused such tragedy?[i]

Jesus, don’t you care about us?  Friends, there is a bad storm breaking over us.  Can somebody please wake up Jesus?

It’s just one of those things about Jesus – he rarely behaves the way that we expect or want. Jesus tried to offer them a few words of warning before they got in the boat. A big “STORM WARNING AHEAD” moment. 

In this story, the disciples wake him up – and straight off he rebukes them for having just a little bit of faith.  THEN he calms the storm.

But First, he rebukes them for only having a little faith —  why would this matter?  After all, the storm is still raging – tossing that boat like a salad.  Crying out for help seems like the sensible thing to do – we wonder why Jesus takes issue with that. I guess that means that Jesus would rebuke us too for crying out in the midst of our storms – perhaps our calling out means that our faith is also too small.

The disciples seem to have real ground to be a bit ticked off here.  After all, Jesus told them to get in the boat in the first place. They were doing EXACTLY what Jesus said to do.  You would think there would be rewards for obedience – instead of dangerous waters ahead.

Part of what the writer of Matthew is trying to tell us is that following Jesus means stormy seas ahead. IF we follow Jesus – THEN there will be storms – scary big ones.  The earlier verses in this chapter put the storm in context:  the first Son of Man saying where Jesus talks about his rejection by those he came to serve.  THEN we meet someone who wants to follow Jesus, but wants to bury his father first – a duty expected by the religious community, the culture and pretty much everybody.  But Jesus says, “Follow me and leave the dead to bury the dead.”  That’s one of the things all scholars agree Jesus must actually have said because no one would attribute something that harsh to Jesus unless he actually HAD said it! Following Jesus means turning one’s back on family sometimes – this is not the easy road. “Come follow me and I will show you trouble, rejection, and alienation from your family, friends and community. — And oh yeah, some scary wild storms.”  This storm does NOT, after all, represent the “storms of life,” – it represents the stormy experience of Jesus followers. The Christian community is not only NOT immune from storms – they live in the middle of scary BIG ones!

So perhaps their faith wasn’t as strong as it needed to be to face those storms.  Big storms require BIG faith. Greek=  seismos – earthquake. Jesus is trying to give us a clue – there are BIG storms ahead if we choose to be a part of the Jesus followers or the church.  We will need BIG faith.  Somehow, we are left with the sense that Jesus thought that the disciples SHOULD HAVE KNOWN that they would be in scary situations, SHOULD NOT have awakened him, and should not have been afraid of the storm, even though it was swamping their boat. Having BIG faith might mean not being anxious even when their lives appear to be threatened. Hard to do. VERY hard to do. For the Matthean church – they heard that yes, they were “in the same boat” as the disciples who followed Jesus in his lifetime.  It’s just one of those things about Jesus – he rarely behaves the way that we expect or want.  And he expects a LOT of his followers.

So when life is scary, how do we find the life-giving water?  When we are in the middle of a storm and getting out of it alive seems doubtful, where is there life-giving water?  If the storm is not the point –

Jesus calming the storm after all doesn’t help us a whole lot – although it does offer a few clues.  The disciples apparently weren’t thinking of the implications of having Jesus in the boat with them. NO – it didn’t make the storm any less.  But they weren’t alone. Jesus was in the boat with them.

Rembrandt’s picture, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is useful to us as we try to figure this out.  You can almost feel the wind and the sea spray looking at the picture.  It draws us in with the disciples fighting to control the boat and afraid for their lives.  And Jesus is sleeping.  Apparently for Jesus, the storms didn’t matter because of the peace he felt in his trust of God.  It is out of this peace that he asks, “Why are you so afraid?”  This is the same thing that St Paul meant when he said in Romans 14:8  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. WHETHER we live or die is irrelevant – we belong to the Lord and can trust in that relationship.  Jesus is with us.

If we can set aside our worries about surviving the storm, we can focus on who is in the boat with us. Jesus is with us.  Yes, Jesus has power over the storms that toss us around, even threatening our lives – but that isn’t the point. Jesus didn’t come to earth to calm the storms. He came to help us find God. AND Jesus is WITH us.  Maybe the disciples faith was meager because they didn’t really understand who was in the boat with them. BUT we do.

Stacey. When Louisiana flooded, one of the members of Irving Park UMC loaded up her Subaru with laundry detergent, bleach, bottled water and cleaning supplies donated by the congregation and friends, and went to help.  She had a sister there and was determined to go.  For the time that she was gone – several weeks – she posted updates on Facebook with what was needed and how to get it there.  She met the UMCOR crews working in the area and saw our relief dollars in action.  Her sister’s house had water damage halfway up the second floor.  The kitchen was completely destroyed.  She tore out plaster and hauled appliances…and found Jesus.  The neighbors went door to door each day checking on each other, making sure that everyone had eaten that day, and that there was water to drink. When folks working on their own house got back to bare framing, and needed to wait a week for the wood to dry –  they worked on someone else’s house.  She said that the UMCOR folks came through in Jeeps with cases of water and food, hygiene kits and cleaning supplies on a daily route. They also carried a medic for treating on-the-job injuries.  It was hard work – but they knew that Jesus was on the team.  They didn’t lose hope because they helped each other and Jesus was on the team.

Life-giving water, is really Jesus. Jesus is the water of life.  Jesus is with us in the boat, in the storms, in the floods, cleaning up the messes of our lives. That’s the life. That’s the hope.

Yes, there are storms in our lives. There will be more. On a personal level, on a global level – there will be storms. As the church, we are guaranteed storms. Even in times when it seems like Jesus is sleeping, let us remember that Jesus is in the boat with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

[i] https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/31/health/iyw-flint-water-crisis-two-years-later/index.html

Lent III: Showers of Blessing

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Isaiah 45: 5-8 and Matthew 11: 25-30

This morning I invite you all to participate in the message through honest reflection.  Let your mind wander to your own situation as we explore this text together.  Jot down your thoughts.  You may want to re-visit parts of the message, which will be connected to the web page as a blog under the Lenten series.  Instead of focusing on listening, focus on responding this morning.  You see, many of us are weary and heavy-laden as shared in the Matthew text.  Or, using our water analogy – dried out, withered away.  We are shy of the life-giving water that we need to be fully and vitally alive.

Sometimes things just don’t go the way we want them too.  We can either be defensive and try to make excuses – or we can acknowledge it and try to understand it.  That’s where this section of Mathew begins.  Failure of the Galilee mission.  Jesus acts and speaks – and they just don’t get it. Not John. Not the disciples. Not the crowds.

Just before the reading we did this morning, Jesus was at work in Galilee.  It did not go well. Chapter 11 begins with John, who had baptized Jesus, from prison sending his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Hey, are you the Messiah we’ve been looking for or should we be looking for somebody else?”  Jesus’ response was to tell them to go back to John and report on what they sawThe blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

Then Jesus praises John as a prophet, and complains to the crowd…

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.

Jesus has sparkling water and it doesn’t taste right to them.

So Jesus denounces the towns where he had taught and done miracles because they were so fixed on what they expected from God that they coldn’t see what was happening in front of them!

2Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

ONLY after this, does today’s text happen.  Jesus interprets what happened to the crowd – the disciples are not around for this.

God’s truth has been hidden from the wise and learned and given to the unruly and unwise children.  You see, the learned and wise had lots of expectations – and Jesus didn’t meet them. The issues is pretentiousness – human beings presume to understand God. Our presumptions about God misinform us. But before we get too smug about knowing more than the religious experts of Jesus’ time – we don’t. We make the same mistakes.

We’re no different.  We fail on a regular basis to comprehend God’s messengers and understand God’s purposes.  We too expect God to act and work in the ways that we would – or that we want.  WHY, do you suppose?

Here’s your reflection moment:  How and why do we often misperceive the presence and purpose of God in the world around us?  Where CAN we see God at work? Where do we hear God calling us to do something?  WHAT is God calling us to do?  We have a problem – can we identify what it is?

“Listen UP!” is the next part of the passage. The statement about Jesus comes from the Q tradition – claiming Jesus as the revealer of God’s hidden truths. This is in contrast to the WISDOM tradition.  Jesus is claiming to be, not the messenger of Sophia/wisdom, but the personification of Divine Wisdom. He is claiming to be the beloved Son of God, the wisdom made flesh as LOGOS.

This gives impact to why everyone should listen to Jesus, right?  He is the Wisdom of God.  Jesus reveals God.  For all of us who think we understand God, Jesus is a challenge.

Just think about how this has been messed up through time.  We have tended to split God’s character into the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed by Jesus.  God of the Old Testament = BAD.  Jesus=Good.  Okay, it’s been a while since I had logic classes – but how does that work?  Either God’s nature is changing – which most of the time we reject.  We would claim that God is eternal.  OR We are talking about a seriously confused God – or Jesus doesn’t actually reveal God.

And the common way of reconciling this is to keep God as the bad GUY in the story.  God was ready to condemn we sinful little people to some kind of hell, which isn’t actually in the Bible – and decided to punish God’s perfect and sinless son instead. How messed up is that?

What if….God always was the loving caring, healing God we see revealed in Jesus and human being projected all that other mess on God?  Does that make more sense?  Jesus says that no one knows God except Jesus and those who see God through Jesus. We need to understand who is speaking to us in order the understand the words of invitation.  Do we get it yet?  “Listen UP!”  There’s more to come…

The Invitation to come to Jesus is an invitation to let go of the things that are tying us up in knots. This phrase is unique to the gospel of Matthew, the most Jewish context of the four gospels. Jews of Jesus’ day  — and even later in Matthew’s day — would have understood this as an invitation to struggle free of the bondage of the law.  In Ecclesiasticus 5: 25-27 WISDOM – SOPHIA says, “Come, take my yoke, and find for yourself rest.”

That is the understanding in which they would have heard Jesus’ words. The BURDEN of the law was something that they could leave behind.

Perfectionism. Drivenness. Workaholism. They are our burden. Stop and reflect a moment….What ties you up in knots?

YOKE. In the Bible, a yoke is a symbol of servanthood and obedience. What is the yoke of Christ that makes living easier?  Following Jesus,  is yoked in a life of love and forgiveness.  Christ’s YOKE enables us to look at our lives differently – and to look beyond them, beyond our immediate realities, to a sense of God’s active presence in the world.

THE REST Jesus promises is deliverance from the artificial burdens of life.  To LEARN is the path of discipleship – to follow Jesus and learn and listen.

Imagine:  You are tired. World-weary.  And you go to a special spa.  A beautiful setting – where there are pools of hot springs, spectacular vistas where you soak up the view.  Salt pools where you soak and are revitalized by the minerals.  Like soaking in the Dead Sea, where the salts are so rich that you can buy them for detoxification purposes – or the Tea Tree Lake in Australia where women go to give birth and absorb the healing waters.  Imagine standing under a waterfall with the weight and force of healing water pounding out the stress, headaches, and loneliness – showers of blessing.  And maybe floating ….soaking in those things you need most.

This is Jesus’ promise.  To be yoked with Jesus doesn’t mean that life gets easier – but it does mean something.  Remember who issues the invitation — What does it mean for you?

Who gets it?  The burdened -those seeking a different way, those who are humble -not thinking that they know it all, the world-weary- ready to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Those who will try the sparkling water, stand under the waterfall, and look to experience the presence of a loving God in new ways. You see, sometimes that healing rain is a matter of perspective.  Do we bundle up when the showers come – or use an umbrella for balance as we swing on a lamppost or two, splash joyously in the puddles, grin under the rush of a downspout, and sing and dance in the rain – soaking up the blessings of God.

Lent II: Enter the Water

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II Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15 (Naaman) and Matthew 14: 22-33 (Peter and Jesus walk on water)

The children line up all along the edge, feet dangling, faces a variety of expressions.  Some were eager, hardly able to wait for the moment that the instructor would tell them to enter the water.  Others were looking anxiously for their parents, afraid of the moment when they would hear the whistle to enter the water.  And, of course, every variety of expression in-between: boredom, quiet anticipation, resignation. And then the whistle blew, and the children jumped, slid or tentatively edged into the water.

Afraid, afraid of being afraid, afraid to admit being afraid, and afraid it wouldn’t work.

Meet Naaman. A great man, highly regarded by the king, and a valiant warrior – but with leprosy. Naaman is afraid – very afraid.  He is afraid of his problem – and afraid of admitting that he is afraid.  Warriors aren’t supposed to be afraid, after all. And he is afraid to believe that a solution might be possible. Naaman had a problem. A serious problem – as serious as it got in those days.  Hanson’s disease – Leprosy – a bacterial disease that affected skin, nerves, and respiratory system was a death sentence in Naaman’s day.  And Naaman was an important person.  He was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. A mighty and powerful man – and he was afraid. Afraid of the disease – but probably also afraid of the way it would destroy his career, and the social stigma it carried.

A thin hope. One of the captives of raids into Samaria was a girl who served his wife. For a man as great as Naaman to listen to a captured slave girl shows how desperate he was.  Just a sliver of hope that she might be right – that there was a prophet in Israel capable of curing him – had him running to his king, the king of Aram to see what might be done.

Power talks.  One king to another, the king of Aram writes to the king of Samaria, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, probably Jehoram, about Naaman.  In Aram, they assume that kings have authority over prophets. They don’t understand. But the king of Samaria does – and is afraid.  HE can’t cure leprosy – only God can.  And Elisha isn’t a tame prophet – the king doesn’t even think of ordering Elisha to heal.  Healing is, after all, a gift from God – not something you can count on by influence, prayer or gifts. And if Naaman is disappointed, Samaria might feel the force of that disappointment – after all, he defeated them the last time there was a war. While the king of Israel is debating how to approach Elisha, Elisha’s messenger arrives saying, “Send him to me.”  Phew – relief on the king’s part.

Naaman’s fear. Poor Naaman.  Not only is he afflicted with leprosy – he is a fish out of water here.  He shows up outside Elisha’s house with his whole entourage and rich gifts. Elisha doesn’t follow expectations.  Naaman presents himself at the prophet’s house– surely that’s his part.  He is a great and important person, after all.  But Elisha doesn’t appear before him, doesn’t cry out to God, utter some mumbo jumbo or do some bit of religious ritual to heal him.  Instead, he just sends a message with instructions that Naaman should go wash in the Jordan River – seven times.  Now Naaman is insulted and angry – as well as afraid.  This is humiliating!  The prophet is rude.  Should he just leave in anger? Was the trip in vain?  Was he going to go all through this just to be mocked and accomplish nothing?  At this point in the story, Naaman is afraid on many counts.  He is afraid of the leprosy and its affect on his life.  He is afraid of humiliation if he follows this foreign prophet’s instructions and nothing happens.  He is afraid to believe, to hope, and have that hope destroyed. And he is afraid, this big warrior, of being afraid or admitting that he is afraid.  Poor Naaman.

Meet Peter.  Peter left his life behind to follow Jesus.  Peter sees that God is at work in Jesus in a special way.  He wants to follow Jesus, to be like Jesus, to do what Jesus does. 

That night, the sea got rough and the boat in which the disciples were riding was getting tossed around a lot.  They were afraid – so Jesus sent to their rescue.  Peter saw Jesus and called to him – if it’s really you, Lord, tell me to come to you.  “So come.”  And Peter got out of the boat and headed towards Jesus.  And began to sink – and Jesus reached out to him.

Let’s give Peter some credit here.  He wants to be with Jesus, to follow Jesus, so much that he wants to follow Jesus even when it doesn’t make sense. And yet, he falters.  Jesus notices – hard not to in this story.  But Jesus doesn’t really rebuke Peter.  He just gets him back to the boat and the storm calms down.  They get it – Jesus is the Son of God.

But let’s talk about this story:  Peter is willing to leave the relative safety of the boat to follow Jesus.  Even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.  Jesus offers a sense of the presence of God that is so important to Peter that he is willing to risk anything to be there. A scholarly side note – helpful to those who question – this is perhaps a post-Easter appearance that is misplaced in the narrative as occurring before Jesus’ death.  But that doesn’t matter much in Peter’s response. We know from his life that his passion to follow Jesus was even stronger after the resurrection.

We might go a long way for something we really believed in.  The church in Luo Shui village, in rural China, worships about 40 members each week. They have 70 members, but many are farmers and unable to attend regularly.

Very early every Sunday morning, Simei Tong sets out from her small house in the mountains. She walks for two hours, along narrow, winding pathways and village lanes, until she gets to the home of her blind friend, Zhou Maoying. Taking hold of her arm, she carefully guides her as they walk for another hour.  When they reach Luo Shui village where their little church is located, they have one more hurdle to overcome: they have to cross a stream by wobbling across a series of stepping stones. Their friend Yang Jinying, who also takes two hours to get to church, recently slipped and broke her arm while crossing the stream. Li Yue Ying, 47, makes her long journey to the church each week carrying her two-year-old niece, Li Si Ling, on her back. She says the journey is worth it because she is nourished in her faith through the Christian fellowship there. She became a Christian in 1998, through a friend, Wu Qiang Jin.  “I went to church because I was looking for comfort,” says Wu Xiu Ying, 58, who became a Christian in 1983. “I was in great distress because I was ill and couldn’t afford treatment. In church, people prayed for me and I immediately felt peaceful and released by God’s love for me.” If they are able to come, they walk the hours to gather in their community of faith – because there they have experienced life.  Of course they go.

In many rural parts of the world, people walk or bike for hours to get to church – because they hear in the stories of Jesus, words that give life – living water. When people find life in following Jesus, they’ll go anywhere, do anything, to keep following the one who is the life-bringer. Even try walking on water or something equally foolish.

So here we are, standing at the edge of the water. Trembling with uncertainty. Trembling with our own need for God – but uncertain about taking the next steps.  And yet, God is already here. God has already shown up, and wants to help us.

Few of us resemble Peter in this story.  Peter on a good day has the tenacity of a retriever – and this is a good day.  Tell a retriever to fetch a ball, and whoever was holding it is flat out of luck. Tell a retriever to find a stick, and it just could be attached to a branch that gets dragged to you despite the fact that it is half of a tree. Tell a retriever to fetch an errant toddler and temper tantrums will be irrelevant. This story has Peter on a retriever day.  He sees Jesus and storm, wind waves and a little thing like not being able to walk on water will not deter him. Peter sees Jesus.  Peter wants to go to Jesus – so Peter gets out of the boat. Peter wasn’t worried about pride or looking foolish – he just jumped in after Jesus.  One of God’s holy fools perhaps —  a man of faith, or one who had found what he was looking for and didn’t care about anything else.  Peter’s faith has nothing to do with walking on water – it is trust that Jesus is present, real and cares for him.

We may identify with Naaman.  He is definitely looking for help – he needs a miracle.  He’s come to the only miracle man around.  But what is relayed to him doesn’t make sense.  WHY did he travel all this way just to take a bath?  WHY this river when there are bigger, cleaner and better rivers in Damascus? Those of us with a fondness for reason and explanation will relate to Naaman.  Yes, he needs God’s help – but this doesn’t make any sense at all. For a while there its touch and go on whether or not he’s going to get in the river.  His entourage persuades him:  if this were a quest with something difficult, you’d do it in a heartbeat – so why not follow directions?

Of course, his pride is in the way too.  He’s important enough that he expected VIP treatment. He wanted to prophet to show up and tend to him personally.  He expected a show and is both disappointed and a bit insulted, to tell the truth.  Perhaps we can relate – we try to be humble, but it is hard – like the refrain of the old Mac Davis song,

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way …
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can…

And perhaps Naaman was a bit on the stubborn side.  Like a recalcitrant teenager who announces, “If you TELL me what to do it makes me less likely to actually do it.” So the instruction to “get in the Jordan and wash 7 times,” meets “I will if and when I feel like it.” Never mind that the instruction is what needs to happen for him to get well. Consider this: what if Naaman HADN’T gotten in the Jordan?  Is this a story about healing or a story about taking risks?  Both, perhaps. But they go together.  Healing doesn’t come without risks. Physical or spiritual – either way.  And life is different after a healing.  Better in some ways, yes, but always an adjustment.

And No – I haven’t forgotten the others in the boat. They experienced the same storm and waves as Peter.  They didn’t feel the need to jump out of the boat after Jesus. After all, Jesus came out to the boat to rescue them in the first place.  They stayed and waited – in relative safety. If we are honest, we might be most like the other disciples in the boat.  Not willing to fling ourselves in the water after Jesus, but willing to acknowledge that he is the Son of God once the storm dies down.  But that kind of faith doesn’t seem to cost much – perhaps isn’t worth as much either.

Regardless of how we identify ourselves with the characters in these stories, we need to remember that this story isn’t just about us – it is also about God.  Everyone in both stories experiences God responding to their needs – even the kings playing political chess in Aram and Samaria. God cares.  God offers a way of healing to a foreign commander regardless of political games. God’s prophets respond to needs – just not quite as expected. And Jesus appeared to the disciples to save them, to reassure them – those in the boat (which represents the church in the gospel of Matthew) and Peter.  Jesus tells them, “Take heart. I AM.  Do not be afraid.”  God shows up. Because of our needs. And answers them.

Here we are, trembling, as we stand at the edge of the water. Knowing that we are in need of God. Shall we enter? It doesn’t matter if we are afraid, or proud, have retriever tendencies or are reluctant to get out of the boat. All it takes is crying out, “Lord, help me!” For the God who WANTS to heal, to help, to save us is already here.