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The exploitation of women and even young girls by those who profit from such behavior is a contemporary problem. The news has been full of stories of girls being used by men in prostitution rings right here in our county. We have had several members who have travelled abroad and seen this exploitation taking place in other countries. The news out of Cleveland this past week of young girls held captive for years by a 52 year old man is just another example of this. Today’s scripture passage in Acts reminds us this kind of despicable practice goes back a long ways.
Men in Philippi were using a slave girl to make a profit. We may be perplexed about this girl’s ability to tell fortunes, but we are not perplexed by what these men were doing. One commentator called them pimps. They were making money off this young woman’s ability to tell fortunes. The book of Acts makes it clear she was not in a healthy place. Rather, she was possessed by a spirit.
When these men saw their means of making a profit destroyed, they acted like many rich exploiters today. They went after those who threatened them. They were not upfront with their actions. They accused Paul and Silas of doing something illegal when that was not their primary beef with them.
The slave girl in this story is basically used as a prop to make a point. Paul doesn’t even talk to her directly. He heals her out of irritation. It is one of the most bizarre healing stories in the Bible. He says, in essence, “Shut up already” to the spirit in her. There does not seem to be any compassion for the girl herself. We never hear what became of her now that she could not make money for her owners. That is not the point the author of Acts is trying to convey.
The point Acts is trying to make is that in God’s Commonwealth exploitation is always wrong. It is wrong to take advantage of the poor or vulnerable for one’s own gain. But, beware of the rich who are exploiting people. If you counter them there might very well be a steep price to pay. Certainly having false charges brought against them, being stripped and flogged in public and then put in stocks that were a form of torture, in a dark cell, probably crawling with spiders and who knows what else, was a steep price Paul and Silas paid.
A sub point in this story has to do with being a slave. The slave girl says Paul and Silas are slaves of the Most High God. She has a point. We are all slaves to something or someone. We need to be careful which master we choose. Some choose to be a slave to their work, or their desire to be successful at any cost. Others choose to be slaves to their desire to make a lot of money. Still others choose to be a slave to trying to have the perfect thin body, or to be liked by everyone, maybe even to be slaves of their perfectionist tendencies.
To be a slave to those masters will not lead to a very satisfying life. It will not allow us the freedom those who are slaves of God experience. Look at the jailer in this story. He was a slave to the Roman justice system that said if prisoners escape, the jailer must die. He was more in jail to that system than Paul and Silas who were chained in stocks in the inner prison cell.
Paul and Silas might have been beaten and tortured in the stocks, but their spirits were free. They sang and prayed in the dark of that cell. They were not defined by that circumstance, or by those who meant them harm. When we are slaves or servants of God, we are defined first and foremost by our identity as children of God. That is what gives us worth. We don’t have to be slaves to any of our culture’s expectations. And when adversity hits, we don’t have to let those tough times define us or defeat our spirits.
The good news in this story is that God’s Spirit can set us free from all that holds us in bondage. The earthquake in this story is hard to believe if taken literally. How can there be such a strong quake that shakes the foundations of the prison, opens stocks and locked doors, but not injure anyone in the prison? That does not mean, however, we need to dismiss what Acts is saying.
Earthquakes in the New Testament are visual images of God’s presence that shakes up our world. Paul and Silas were already free spiritually, but this earthquake frees them physically. The jailer was not in prison physically before the earthquake, but he was in prison spiritually. Acts presents us with this irony: the jailer is freed by those in jail. Paul and Silas offer the jailer a new way of life. All he needs to do is believe on, or trust in Jesus and the God whom Jesus reveals.
We know the jailer is freed from his old way of life by what he does. He shows Paul and Silas great care by washing their wounds. They wash him, so to speak, in his baptism, but he washes them in an act of compassion. And then he brings them to his home and feeds them. He shows them hospitality in other words.
Compassion and hospitality are always the marks of ones who give their trust to God and have been freed by God’s Spirit. That is what it means to be a Christian. We need to remember those acts of compassion and hospitality displayed by the jailer were risky. He could easily get in trouble helping those the leaders opposed. Hospitality, in the Bible, is not a safe act of offering guests tea and cookies. It is a radical act of welcoming those polite society might ignore or oppose.
Some scholars think it was Jesus’ hospitality to tax collectors and sinners that most irritated the religious authorities in his day. It was what led them to want to silence him, and eventually kill him. Hospitality can be quite radical. We may want to think about the implications of that as we try to grow in hospitality with our newly remodeled kitchen next fall.
When I read this passage a few years ago, I wondered what the jailer did the next day. Did he continue to be a jailer, willing to torture prisoners the authorities sent to him? Could he be a Christian and at the same time an arm of the state requiring such actions? I suspect he might have tried to find another line of work.
That leads us all to ask how our experiencing the freedom we know in Christ has changed our priorities, our way of being in this world. How do we parent differently because of our faith? How do we do our jobs differently? If our company is asking us to do something questionable, do we just go along to get along? What priorities have we set in our retirements? What has our highest allegiance: our work, our hobbies or our relationships? How do our actions express what priority we have chosen?
One commentator sums up this text with these words: “The gospel is an earthquake of immeasurable magnitude. It shakes the foundations of human oppression for commercial gain, destroys the edifices of power and shame and glory, topples the social structures that enslave us, and frees us to seek the salvation for which we so fervently yearn.”
This is a full story in Acts. We move from economic injustice, to a healing out of irritation, to the true meaning of being free. It ends with compassion and hospitality being the marks of one who trusts in God. That’s a lot to chew on! Amen
This healing story in John lends itself to an old-fashioned three point sermon. It is certainly a story that can be read on many different levels. It has some wonderful details, some perplexing aspects, and a powerful message. Let’s dive in.
The first, and probably most obvious point is this: compassion trumps religious rules, no matter how well-meaning those rules are. The Sabbath rules were meant to make society more humane. Employers or owners of slaves were to give their workers a day off once a week. That is a great idea. It is one of the Ten Commandments. It is part of the center of Judaism.
The only trouble is the religious authorities started to get legalistic with that rule. It happens all the time, even today. One need only look at how our simple Book of Order in the Presbyterian Church grew ever larger as church leaders tried to nail down every possible situation with a rule to be followed.
John tells us that Jesus healed this lame man on the Sabbath. Jesus felt we should never let good religious laws be the cart that pulls the horse. When our religion acts that way it can become very controlling. Jesus showed us it is always time to work for wholeness, to be compassionate, to respond to need. The Sabbath should not be a time to prevent those actions.
Second point: this healing story is all about grace. Look carefully at this lame man who was healed. He makes no statement of faith in Jesus. He seems to believe only in that very bizarre superstition about the first one in the pool is healed when the water was stirred.
When he was asked if he wanted to be made well, he doesn’t answer directly but seems to whine about not being able to get to the pool. When Jesus heals him he does not say thank you. He shows no gratitude. Instead, when the religious authorities confront him about carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he tries to lay the blame for his actions on another. When he learns it is Jesus who healed him, he runs to the authorities and tells on him.
This man was a whiner, an ungrateful lout and a snitch, and yet he was healed. Grace trumps everything. John is making sure we know we don’t earn God’s love or healing. It is not about belief, about being a good or nice person. God’s love is for all of us, even people like you and me. That is good news.
Finally, we come to the third point in this three point sermon. This point is the most interesting, and possibly the most helpful and challenging. It surrounds Jesus’ question to the lame man, “Do you want to be made well?” At first glance it does seem to be a ridiculous question. Will Willimon comes up with what the man might have said. “Why yes, in thirty-eight years of lying here, waiting for the waters to be troubled, it has crossed my mind just once or twice!”
Jesus, however, was getting at something much deeper than being healed of lameness. He is asking if this man wants to be made whole, or saved in that sense. This will require the lame man to step out of the rut he has been in for thirty-eight years, the rut he calls his life and move into uncertain territory.
Sure his life has not been easy or fun. Living with outcastes, fighting to be the first into the pool, relying on the generosity of strangers who might throw him a little spare change, all of that was not great, but it was the life he knew. He knew what to expect. He had no responsibilities that a able-bodied person would have. It was his rut and it was hard to leave it for an uncertain future.
What is interesting is that John made a point of saying this man had been lame for thirty-eight years. Why be so specific? Could not he have just said for a long time? No, he wants to emphasize the number thirty-eight.
If we go back to Deuteronomy 2:14 we read that the Israelites were in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt for thirty-eight years. John was drawing our attention to this man’s personal wilderness experience. This man was very like the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. As you might recall they whined about their life, were ungrateful for the freedom they had been given, for the manna from heaven that saved them from starvation, and they tended to blame Moses for their problems. So, too, this man was an ungrateful whiner who blamed Jesus for his breaking the Sabbath laws.
All of this is interesting, but it also can be very challenging if we let it lead us into applying it to our lives. We all might ask ourselves: What wilderness do we find ourselves in? What rut are we trapped in that has become so familiar that it feels better than change?
It could be a bad habit like drinking too much or even alcoholism. It might be an unhealthy relationship or even an abusive one. It may be a poor self image because we constantly put ourselves down in our internal dialogue that fills our heads. Maybe it is not managing our money well, leading to impulse buying, debt, or not having enough to share with those who have so much less. For some it is excessive worrying or a chronic anxiety that takes all the fun out of living.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: Do we want to be made well? Do we want to change? Do we want the inconvenience of going in a different direction, leaving the comfort of tired ways of being that have become a rut? Until we can say yes to that, not much is going to change. It is like the alcoholic who needs to reach bottom before he/she can be made well.
The good news is that grace abounds. Once we can say yes to that fundamental question, the Spirit of God can make even us whole. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to get there all at once like that lame man who immediately sprang up and walked. It may take a few starts and stutters, but we can be made well.
As we take communion this day, we can answer yes, I want to be made whole. I want to get out of the rut I have dug for myself with the choices I have made. I will seek the help it will take to make changes that will lead to wholeness. May all those who long for a whole life say yes when we hear the Spirit whisper to us: Do you want to be made well?
This is a rich passage in the Gospel of John if you can stay away from all the snake pits and distractions. Let’s get some of them out of the way before we begin. First, some could use John’s references to “the Jews” to promote anti-Jewish feelings. Certainly there does seem to be a hint of that sentiment in this gospel. It was written during a time when Christians were in competition with the Jews in the early part of the second century. John probably did not have a high regard for the competition. When this gospel refers to “the Jews,” however, it is mostly referring to the Jewish leadership that opposed Jesus.
We need to remember that Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. It is absurd to pit Jesus against Jews in general. Still this gospel, especially, has been used by Christians against Jews down through history. We need to recognize that and counter it whenever we hear it being used in that way. I know if we had Jewish visitors to Newport, I would not be comfortable reading passages like this without a disclaimer.
Second, John seems to be saying that God picks some to be Jesus’ disciple and ignores others. Scholars tell us that we need to hear the whole gospel and not just generalize from this one account. John 3:16 reminds us that God loved the whole world, and not just some people.
One commentator says John is affirming that God chooses us before we choose God. God always takes the first step. We call that God’s “divine initiative and sovereignty.” God chooses all of us. It is up to us to respond and accept God’s grace. Any notion of a God that would choose some and reject others right from the start portrays a montrous God that would be hard to trust.
Finally some have used this passage to say that the Gospel of John is claiming Jesus and God are one in the sense that Jesus is really God. Does not verse 30 say, ” The Father and I are one”? Then they go on to say that Christianity must be better than other religions because our guy is God and the other founders are not.
We need to know that the Greek word translated “one” in verse 30 is not masculine but neuter. Jesus is not saying he and the Father are one person, in other words. Scholars say Jesus is saying that he and God are united in the work they do. This was not a metaphysical claim, but more a “claim to unity of purpose.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse, “I and the Father are of one heart and mind.” That captures the essence of this verse.
All of those explanations and disclaimers are pretty intellectual and may not be of interest to you. The real issue this passage raises for me is much more practical. The real issue is: Whose voice do we follow? In a world where there are numerous voices vying for our attention, it is absolutely critical whose voice takes precedence. If we choose to follow some other voice besides Jesus we can get lost. We might give our best energy to people or things that finally do not nurture us or give us the quality of life Jesus shows us.
If you want to hear Jesus’ voice you must first commit to being his disciple. Then when you hear his voice you will follow him. Apparently committing to him was not an easy choice in John’s day. In the verses right before our passage John says many of the religious authorities were divided. Some thought he was just plain nuts. They said he had a demon. Others said someone with a demon could not do the good things he did. There was no consensus.
When the authorities come to Jesus in our passage they confront him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” They want words. They want Jesus to accept the title of Messiah. Since Jesus did not accept the popular notion of what the Messiah would do, he doesn’t bite. He says, look at my works, not just what I have already said.
This call for Jesus to speak plainly reminds one commentator of some modern Christians who say we don’t need to wrestle with biblical texts. We just need to look for the plain meaning of the text. Let the Bible speak plainly. Don’t get bogged down in context, or ambiguity in the Bible, just read what it says literally and believe it.
It is interesting that John is pushing the superiority of works over words. Jesus says, don’t stop with words. Look at what I do and then decide. Don’t let theological affirmations be an end in itself. Don’t think being a Christian is just about believing the right things. Choose to become my disciple by looking at what I do and then you will hear my voice and follow.
When words become all important, we can get stuck in our heads. Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello tells a parable called “The Explorer.” It is about a man who leaves his village and goes on a huge adventure to the Amazon. When he returns the villagers are captivated by the stories of his trip. The explorer was frustrated trying to put into words all that he felt and experienced. How can one express with words how he felt when he heard the exotic night sounds of the Amazon, or the dangers of travelling down the rapids?
So the explorer tells his friends they must go on the same journey. To help them, he draws a map to help them get to where he went. DeMello says, “Immediately the villagers pounce on the map. They copy the map, so that everyone can have his or her own copy. They frame the map for their town hall and their homes. Regularly they study the map and discuss it often, until the villagers consider themselves experts on the Amazon-for do they not know the location of every waterfall and rapids, every turn and bend?”
Such a parable helps us see there is a huge difference between knowing a map of the Amazon, and knowing the Amazon from personal experience. So, too, we can know all the doctrines we want about Christianity; we can know all the right words to say; but until we choose to enter into a relationship with God, in Christ, such knowledge won’t change us much. It won’t help us change the world.
Do we want words about Jesus to argue over their meaning, or do we give our lives to a relationship with Jesus? Do we stay on safe ground, or do we choose to follow the one who got himself crucified? John says we won’t recognize Jesus’ voice until we choose to follow him. If we do not recognize his voice, or if we follow the wrong voice, we will not know the quality of life Jesus calls eternal life. If we follow Jesus we won’t perish. We won’t get lost. We won’t lose ourselves in the numbing routine many call life.
Herb O’Driscoll says it quite simply. “Our ability to hear (Jesus) and believe in him grows out of our relationship with him, and this relationship in turn grows out of our commitment to follow him.” Those sheep John mentions who don’t belong to Jesus’ flock are the ones who have made choices to follow another voice. It is not that Jesus rejects them. They have made choices that lead them to reject Jesus. They can’t recognize his voice. They follow other shephards.
At our session meeting this past week we talked about how hard it is to hear the voice of Jesus in our culture. Much of the world talks only about buying stuff, making money so we can go on nice trips, buy a new car, move to a larger house, be secure.
We decided the church should be a place to reinforce different values. It should be a place where we help each other hear the voice of the one we follow and then choose to live in a different manner than the dominant culture. If those of us who call ourselves Christians are not challenging all in our culture that is contrary to the values Jesus affirmed in his life and works, then maybe we really are not hearing his voice.
The bottom line is: Whose voice are you hearing and what chances are you taking to follow that voice? It could be taking a stand on gun control in uncomfortable discussions with extended family or neighbors who think we don’t need any restrictions on what type of guns we can have. It could mean speaking up when you hear a prejudicial slur whether that be against those of a different sexual orientation, race or gender. It might mean questioning our country’s quick jump to violent solutions to any threats we feel. Maybe it is writing your representatives about voting for a budget that reflects the values Jesus promoted. Maybe it is just trying to live more simply and giving more of our wealth away.
We follow the one that says, don’t worry about words. Look at my actions. Do my actions speak to a way of life to which you want to commit? If so, make a commitment to follow me and you will hear my voice.
Is. 65:17-25 and Luke 24:1-12
Both our scripture passages for Easter this year sound too good to be true. Isaiah talks about a world where the wolf andthe lamb feed together, where people won’t resolve their differences with war,and where God is so attentive that God will answer our deepest questions evenbefore we speak. Luke talks about an empty tomb and a dead man being raised to life. Both passages speak of outlandish hopes.
Are we to just accept them on faith? Are they promises we will experience in a literal way while we live?
This Easter one of thequestions we must ask ourselves is this: Is the resurrection an idle tale orgood news? When we read about the tomb being empty in Luke’s gospel, do we, like those early male disciples, think it is crazy talk? Or have we heard this
story so many times, we don’t even stop to think about it, but just accept it
as we did as children? Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Ho-hum. It must be Easter.
We won’t be able toanswer that question by trying to figure out what literally happened on thatfirst Easter. First off, the gospelsdon’t describe the actual resurrection.
They don’t give us a first hand account, a story of something that could
have been captured on an IPhone camera (even if they had one back then).
The gospels writers don’t even agree on the details. How many
angels were in the empty tomb: one or two? It depends on which gospel you read.
Which women were present? We geta variety of possibilities from each of the gospels. What did the angel, or angels, say to the women? Once again the accounts don’t all
Was Jesus’ resurrectedbody like the one he had while he walked this earth? In some cases it seems as if that is what the gospels are saying. But in other situations he isn’t recognized by friends and disciples who should have known him
by sight. After all he had only been gone three days. In some stories he can
walk through walls and locked doors. In others he just magically disappears from sight.
To try and reconcile all those discrepencies is beside the point.
It won’t help us even if we could. Even the empty tomb was no proof to those first disciples. To get lost in the differences is to miss the main points the gospels are affirming in their Easter stories. So, let’s get to those main points.
One of those points is captured in the angels’ question to the women in Luke’s gospel. “Why do you look for the living amongthe dead?” That simple question can be heard on so many levels. It is muchmore complicated than it would appear.
On the surface they are asking why look for a dead body of one who has been resurrected? Below the surface are more questions. Why look for new life in the tired old ways you have of doing things? Why do you cling to the dead past when God’s
Spirit is doing a new thing right in your midst? Why hold on to tired old theological assumptions that lead to exclusion, arrogance, and even injustice when new ways of
understanding timeless, old truths lead to a much more gracious and life-affirming faith journey?
Many of us are findingthat the life and freedom we are experiencing in our Christian faith comes from fresh new ways of seeing what God’s Spirit is doing. We have let go of the guilt the religion of our childhood fostered.
Some claim they are offering a fresh new approach to Christianity for our day, but they are only dressing up old ideas in new clothes, so to speak. They think bringing rock music into worship,or worshipping in rooms that look more like an auditorium than a worship space is doing something fresh and new, even radical. But when this is accompanied with expressing the gospel in paternalisticlanguage and exclusionary practices, it is hardly doing something new.
It’s not that old ways of understanding the faith are wrong or bad. But when those old ways cease to be helpful in living out the implications of discipleship in our day, they become more like tombs, than new life. We follow the one who said things like, “You have heard it said. . . But I say to you. . .” Jesus models what it means to listen to the Spiritgive new life to old concepts.
One commentator said one of the main points the resurrection is getting at is that life is no longer defined by death. Because in Jesus we see that death will not have the final word in our lives, we no longer live in fear of death. We don’t need to play it
safe all the time. We can learn to risk our security, our bank accounts, our reputations as we try to live gracious,courageous, and faithful lives confronting injustice, hate, and prejudice asdid Jesus.
Another commentator said that the empty tomb is all about experiencing presence in the midst of absence. It is a bit of a paradox, is it not? We have experienced this in other ways. Sometimes when the one we love is away on a trip, their presence is felt profoundly. Even after a death, that ultimate absence, many have talked about the presence of their loved one, however fleeting, beingexperienced in very touching ways.
Presence in absence.
The Bible gives us glimpses of this in many stories. Elijah hears God’s voice on the mountain in the sound of sheer silence. Henri Nouwen has said Jesus’ cry of absence from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. . .” has opened up God’s presence for many of us as the depths of God’s love is revealed in the depths of Jesus’ willingness to suffer for his beliefs.
So, too, the empty tomb is a reminder that God’s presence can be hiding in absence, God’s voice can be sensed in silence, God’s healing can be experienced in death. Easter calls us to embrace this mysterious paradox.
Tony Robinson has said Easter speaks to three things: mortality, justice and mystery. Certainly Easter is a source of hope for us as we deal with our mortality. Death
will not have the final word, as has been said.
Easter is also about justice. Robinson quotes theologian Harvey Cox. Cox “points out that how Jesus died has to be important, and that he did not die a natural death. ‘In the biblical texts Jesus is not just described as ‘dead’ but as ‘crucified.’ There is a difference. To restore a dead person to life might be seen to strike a blow against mortality. But to restore a crucified man to life means to strike an equally decisive blow against the system that caused his wrongful death.’”
In other words, resurrectionis God’s yes to Jesus’ way of confronting injustice, fear, and exclusion. At the same time it is God’s no to Rome’s tyrannical power and the religious authorities who abused their power, couchingit in religious jargon and rituals.
Easter is also aboutmystery. We will never fully understand the empty tomb. We will never fullygrasp how the resurrected Christ was experienced by those early disciples. We won’t come to conclusive decisions as to whether the resurrection was a bodily one, or something more profound and less obvious. Mystery calls us to trust, trust in the first witnesses, and ultimately trust in God who holds our lives in life and in
When we can accept that Easter can’t be fully explained to our rational minds, when we refuse to reducethe resurrection to something that could have been videotapped, when we embracethe mystery of this holy day, it can bring new life even to those places that
have been like a tomb, in our world, in our relationships, and in our
hearts. Happy Easter.
Many of you who have been coming to Newport for some time know we follow the lectionary here in our scripture readings on Sunday. The lectionary is a group of texts picked by a group of ecumenical schoars on a three year cycle: years A, B, and C. We are currently in year C, which started in Advent last December. It will go through Christ the King Sunday this coming November.
The Gospel readings are mostly in Matthew, Mark, and Luke during each year. Sometimes we get to read from John. That has led one scholar to write: “One of the drawbacks of the lectionary is that the three-year cycle tends to relegate the Gospel of John to the sidelines, hauling out his peculiarities mostly for special occasions. John is like the wacky uncle you can ignore most of the year, but shows up with a waxed mustache and a monocle for the holidays.” I love that image of John!
We are nearing the Easter season this fifth Sunday of Lent, so this is one of the times we get to read John. This is a great story. A version of this incident, where a woman anoints Jesus, is in all four gospels. Each has their own take on how it happened and when it happened in the life of Jesus. Only in John is the woman given a name: Mary.
There are five characters in this little passage: Martha, Lazarus, Mary, Jesus, and Judas. Two play very minor roles, at least in terms of what they say or what is said of them: Martha who serves (not a minor thing to do!) and Lazarus, who is newly resuscitated from the dead. He probably is still getting used to being in the land of the living and not saying much!
The focus of this sermon will be on the other three: Mary, Jesus, and Judas. But first we need to set the stage. Jesus, as has been said, had just resuscitated Lazarus. This caused quite a stir as you might imagine. The religious authorities were not pleased with how many people were wanting to follow Jesus. They decided he must be put to death. They basically put out an all points bulletin to have anyone who knows where he is tell them.
That makes Jesus’ coming to Bethany, only two miles from Jerusalem, either foolhardy or courageous. For Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to entertain Jesus at a dinner party is also risky. They, too, were being either foolhardy or courageous. Plus, John makes it clear this is happening near the Passover feast, the festival where Jews celebrated their freedom from bondage. John wants us to see what follows in the context of the Passover. Jesus, for John, was the Passover lamb sacrificed for the people.
Let’s start with Mary. She lets down her hair in public. Then she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair after pouring perfume made from nard on them. This was an incredible act of extravagant devotion. She does not think of how people will judge her when she lets down her hair in public. Certainly her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair could be interpreted as a very sensuous, even scandalous act. Her actions were uninhibited and over the top. The pound of nard she used was a very rare spice which probably came from the Himalayas. It was very costly. In today’s currency we are talking about around $18,000 worth of perfume!.
Where did she get the money to buy something that expensive? Would anyone in their right mind pour out that much perfume? This was an incredible act that probably was exaggerated to make a point. John is painting a powerful picture of extravagant devotion.
Then there is Judas, the seemingly sensible one here. He argues that the money used to buy the perfume could have been spent on the poor. John says he really did not mean it. Judas was a thief who wanted the money for himself. The distinction John was trying to make in this story is not between spending money on worship, or worship buildings versus giving to the poor or social justice issues. The distinction he is making is between Mary’s extravagant love versus Judas’ selfishness.
Finally there is Jesus. His life was going to end in an act of love, confronting the authorities who were exploiting the masses, even at the cost of his life. Good Friday was an extravagant act of love that moves people to this day to see the depths of God’s love for us in Jesus.
Interestingly John follows this story with his version of the Last Supper in chapter thirteen. In John’s version there is no bread and cup. Instead Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Did Mary’s action so touch Jesus that he followed suit? It is hard to say. Still for the master to wash the disciples’ feet was yet another extravagant act of love and humility.
What does all this mean? Such a story leads us to ask ourselves questions like: How extravagant are we in our devotion to God? In our giving without counting the cost? In our risking our reputations by serving others or standing up for justice? All those are good questions to ask in Lent as we head to Good Friday and Easter.
Some have asked themselves this question and decided to act. I know a couple who has taken in a dying man into their home because the one dying did not have any family to comfort or help him in his last days. Extravagant love.
I know a couple who have taken in countless foster children, some with severe issues that made them difficult to nurture, helping those children be ready to be adopted by another family. Costly love.
Those two examples are huge steps that those people have taken. There are countless smaller steps available for us to try as we slowly step into being followers of the one who modeled extravagant love. Writing letters to our legislators or signing a petition urging action on issues of justice and compassion is a small step. Getting involved in interfaith work, whether going to a dinner dialogue, befriending someone from another faith tradition, or just reading about those who see God in a different way is another small step. Marching for sensible gun legislation, or any other justice issue, is yet another way to follow Jesus’ example.
Extravagant love. It was the way of Jesus. It was the way of Mary. It can be our way too.
Will Willimon has said, “Think of Sunday as a weekly attempt to get our vision corrected. Optometrics. We gather in church, not seeking an escape from the ‘real world’ but in order, by the grace of God, to get a gander at reality.”
That is not a bad way to look at why we come to worship. We correct our vision in a variety of ways in worship. One critical way is listening to the scriptures. Our Second Corinthian passage is a beloved one. It finds its way into the lectionary texts on more than one occasion during the liturgical year. It is a favorite, but it is also tricky to understand. If I had any doubt about how difficult this passage is to comprehend, those doubts were shattered last Tuesday at our lectionary class. I left that class more confused as to the meaning of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth than when I entered it. That is not always a bad thing!
I am going to read this short passage twice. Maybe you can join me in my perplexity! First I will read it from the NRSV of the Bible, beginning a couple of verses before our text. (Read it). Now listen to it from Eugene Peterson’s version called The Message. (Read it). Peterson makes some of the issues raised by this text clear in his scholarly paraphrase.
Paul truly believed the Christ event was monumental. It was on the same magnitude as the first creation of the world we read about in Genesis. In the first creation God created light to shatter the primordial darkness and bring order to creation. In the Christ event there was a new creation, according to Paul. Jesus was the Light of the world. As one commentator said, God has “once again broken through the chaos of human darkness” in Jesus.
That same commentator goes on to say the distinguishing mark of this new creation in Christ is that we can now know reconciliation or peace with God and with one another. The first creation brought order to chaos. The second creation brought reconciliation to brokenness.
God in Christ was reconciling the world to Godself. In the person Jesus we see that God’s love is bigger than our brokenness, our rebellion, our petty hatreds, and our ignorance. The good news is that we don’t have to earn God’s love. It is a given. Paul says God does not count our tresspasses against us. We need not fear a judgmental God and the punishment such a God metes out. To be reconciled to God is to realize and trust this love and then live out of that perspective.
It sounds simple, but as we know, it is easy to forget that there is a new creation. Willimon says many of us act as if Christ’s life, death, and resurrection did not change anything. We live in the same, tired, old world of worries and fears, meanness and revenge, brutal competition and selfishness. We forget to notice the Holy Mystery we call Love at the center of our world. We forget that we don’t have to live in the old creation that breeds brokenness.
Paul says we need to trust that God forgives us and then be ambassadors of that forgiveness to the world. We need to live as if we truly believed we are forgiven, and then forgive others. It is that simple and that hard.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” That ought to be the classic Lenten question. Actually, that is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves any time of year. Why do we give our best energies to that which does not finally satisfy our greatest needs? Why are we seduced into thinking our jobs, our status among our peers, our wealth, or any other cultural measuring stick can give our life meaning?
That question was originally asked to people in exile. Israel had been defeated by Babylon and taken into captivity. No doubt many of the captives were literally hungry. The promise of wine and rich food must have been very welcome. But Isaiah was not just talking about food here, or things that money can buy. He gives us a hint he is getting at something deeper when he says to those who have no money that they should come and buy. What he is offering cannot be bought. It was without price.
Those in captivity hungered and thirsted for freedom. They wanted a place to call home where they could worship in their own fashion and raise their children to follow the values and customs of their Jewish tradition.
Those of us who read this passage today have our own hungers and thirsts. We thirst for meaning when life seems absurd. We hunger for adventure when life gets boring. We thirst for purpose when we grow older, when circumstances change and we wonder what this stage in life means. We hunger for justice and peace in a world that knows far too little of both realities.
How can we get those most basic hungers and thirsts met? Isaiah says first of all, be careful where you spend your energy. Don’t give your best energies to things that will not satisfy your deepest needs. And then Isaiah says listen, look, and seek.
Listening is critical. Isaiah has God say, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Our very lives depend on how we listen, and to whom we lend our ears. The life we have is deeply affected by those to whom we listen. Lent is a time to ask ourselves to whom do we give our ear? Whose words do we value? What do we fill our heads with as we go about our days?
Some fill their heads with music that has violent or mysogynistic lyrics. Others listen to talk radio or read material from a slanted and distorted political perspective, whether right or left in its leanings. Some of those commentators make those who come from a different perspective out to be idiots, at best. Many of us have a critical inner voice, maybe a voice from a parent, that feeds our heads and hearts with negative messages of how we don’t measure up.
Whom we listen to is critical to the kind of life we will lead. I am not suggesting the Bible is the only word to which we we need to listen. It is not a bad place to start, but setting up a disciplined Bible reading schedule is a tough sell for many. Some of the words we read in the Bible are not all that helpful if taken out of context. God’s word can be detected in other places and persons. Choose carefully whose voice you give your best attention.
Look carefully at your life so that you might see evidence of God’s presence in surprising places. Look beneath the surface of things to a deeper level. This is a particularly hard suggestion for those of us who have a hard time noticing things, who are so preoccupied with details or lists of things to do we are blind to what is right in front of us.
I remember coming home after Sandy decorated the house for Christmas and not noticing that anything had changed. Sandy asked me, “Did you notice anything different about the house?” I said no. She said-look again. I think she even said I needed to find ten new things before we could sit down to dinner! Then I really looked and lo and behold, there were all kinds of new Advent and Christmas things all over the house.
Many of us fail to see evidence of God’s presence right in front of us. If we don’t look, we will not see. If we don’t see we will not find things that nourish our lives. Lent is about taking the time to look carefully and notice reminders of God’s presence in ordinary things as well as surprising places.
Finally, Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. . .” When I first read that I thought, isn’t God always near? Are there only certain times that God can be found? Of course, God is always near. We live and move and have our being in God’s Spirit. But, there are particular times in our lives when we are best able to find God. Isaiah says we need to seize those moments. Don’t let them slip away.
Many have found that in dark moments of despair or depression seeking God feels impossible. The best we can do is just gut our way through those times with the love and help of family and friends, and our church community.
Often it is after those dark times lift that we are in a position to seek God’s presence. The God that felt so absent when we were in deep pain, now feels palpably close. Don’t waste those moments. It is in seeking God that we can experience grace and forgiveness.
Isaiah ends this passage recognizing God is so far above us and so different than us. Therefore our intellects cannot possibly grasp God’s essence. We can’t think our way into a relationship with the Holy Mystery. But that does not mean it is impossible.
One commentator ends his remarks on this passage writing, “The prophet does not point to God’s otherness in order to crush mortals into complacent dust but to infuse them with confidence. God has more in store for us than we can either ask or imagine. The passage summons its hearers to a vision of a new universe of goodness and plenty, summons us with the assurance that God’s love has no limits. There is enough love to go around, even enough to change the wicked.”
As we take communion in silence this day, let us commit ourselves to listen, look and seek God in our everyday lives so that we might find what truly satisfies. May this little symbolic meal remind us of the feast that is available when we take the time to focus on things that really matter.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The early church announced a season of Lent, from the Old English word lenten, meaning ‘spring’-not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. I think of it as an Outward Bound for the soul.
That is a great image to capture this season. It is an adventure where we recognize realities inside and outside that might be tough to confront , that might stretch us and cause us to grow, that might help us deal with our fears.
We start Lent every year with one of the Gospel’s version of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. The fact that Jesus could be tempted, really tempted, helps us see his humanity clearly. The Devil was not just making suggestions that he could easily reject. Those temptations were difficult for him to turn down.
This story in Luke comes almost immediately after Jesus’ baptism. Remember Jesus heard a voice, a voice spoken just to him in Luke, that said, “You are my son, the Beloved. . .” Then he heads out into the wilderness to try and figure out what it would mean for him to be God’s son.
The Tempter meets him in the wilderness with that simple, but cruel address, “If you are the Son of God. . .” Are you really God’s son? Did you hear that voice clearly? If you are the Son of God, what does that mean? How are you going to live into that? The tempter says I have some ideas. And then Jesus is given three temptations.
All those temptations are potentially opportunities to do good things. One commentator says these temptations were tests to see if “even good things can lure Jesus away from a focus on God’s will.”
Feeding the hungry by turning stones into bread, becoming a benign dictator, as it were, by accepting authority over the world, or convincing the people that he was special by jumping off the Temple pinnacle without getting hurt all have potential good outcomes. Jesus is forced to decide if doing those things is what it means to be the Son of God. Are those actions consistent with his true identity?
Jesus decides that is not his calling. He uses scripture to help him. That ought to help us see the importance of scripture in withstanding temptations. But it is not that simple. Note the Devil uses scripture in the last temptation. Scripture can be manipulated to mean what we want it to mean. We will need more than biblical knowledge to deal with temptation in our lives.
All of this is may be interesting to some of us who like this glimpse into Jesus’ inner struggle. It is comforting to know he had to wrestle with his own identity. But the real power of this passage comes when we turn it to focus on ourselves. What tempts us to go against our true identity, our best selves?
A prior question is even more difficult. Who are you? What is your essence? Some would say that is simple. I am a child of God. I am a Christian. That, of course, is true, but that does not fully answer the identity question. The real answer has to do with what does it mean for you to be a child of God? How are you going to live into your identity as a Christian? Does that change over time? Does your calling change from when you are 25 to when you are 65?
We do remain a mystery to ourselves in many ways. The best we might do is come up with tentative conclusions as to who we are and what God expects us to do with that identity. And when we arrive at those conclusions the next question becomes important. What tempts us to go against that identity?
Most of us are not tempted to turn stones into bread, or to jump off high buildings and not get hurt. I suspect some of us might be tempted to rule the world, but we all know those who try that are delusional! So, what are your temptations?
Taylor talks about temptations in terms of addictions. She says many of us have addictions to “eating, shopping, blaming or taking care of other people. “ She goes on to say, “The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.” What do you use to fill that empty place? How does that distract you from God’s call in your life?
Once again I asked the lectionary class last Tuesday and they said things like fear: fear of failing, fear of looking like a fool, fear of being out of our league, fear of being incompetent. Some said trying to live up to other people’s expectations can be a temptation to not do what God is calling us to do. What tempts you? Lent is a time to explore these critical identity and temptation questions. It is a time of thoughtful introspection.
Note at the end of the passage Luke says the Devil left but would return at a more opportune time. Luke goes on to report those times later in Jesus’ life.
This raises an important question for us. What are the opportune times for us when we are vulnerable to temptations? When we are tired? When we are angry? When we become overwhelmed? How do we protect ourselves when we are vulnerable to the temptation to not respond out of our true center? It is important to recognize those vulnerable times and make sure we have people in our lives to honestly tell us when we are not making decisions true to our best selves.
Lent is a time to focus on these issues. It is a season of introspection, in the best sense of that word. It is a season when we need to focus on nourishing the best parts of ourselves, so that we can be the people God created us to be. Part of that nourishment comes when we take communion. That is why we are serving communion each Sunday of Lent this year. As we come forward today, may we commit ourselves to figuring out our God-given identity. Then let us decide how we are going to live that out.
Here we are, once again, at the Transfiguration. Epiphany always ends with this story found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Today we hear Luke’s version.
We know we are not dealing with normal, rational reality when we read about this mountain-top experience. People long dead, Moses and Elijah, show up and talk with Jesus. The disciples, surprisingly, know who they are. How do they know? There were no photographs of Moses and Elijah. Were they wearing name tags? Was there an unrecorded introduction by Jesus? Then there is the glowing face and clothes white enough to make anyone today bleaching their whites jealous.
Some have called this a parable by Luke. Others have said it was a mystical experience. If that is so, trying to explain the unanswerable questions listed above would be irrelevant. I happen to like the fact we can’t explain all the weird details of this story. Mysteries like this provoke silent pondering, like the discisples at the end of this passage. But, since most of you expect to hear a sermon, I’ll say a few words.
I have read this story countless times in my thirty years of ministry. This year a couple of details jumped out at me. They all surround the suggestion of Peter to build three dwellings or booths, one for Elijah, one for Moses and one for Jesus. Luke says Peter did not know what he was saying. Perhaps he was still groggy from sleep. Maybe he was just overpowered by the mystical wonder of this experience and said something stupid, as some of us might respond in a similar situation. Either way, we are led to believe Peter was off base in his suggestion.
He was off base for several reasons. By building dwellings Peter was trying to prolong this mountain-top experience. We can certainly understand that impulse. Many of us went to camp as a teenager and were wowed by the speaker, enjoyed living with our peers away from our parents, and were moved by the beauty of the camp. Staying up late talking to our friends made us a little sleep deprived and more vulnerable or open to a spiritual experience.
We wanted to prolong those wonderful feelings and commitments we had at camp only to come home and get lost in the everydayness of life. We went back to school and were irritated by the same kids or teachers. We got anxious about tests, relating to the opposite sex, and trying to appear cool to our peers. The whole mountain-top experience was forgotten.
Adults are not immune to this experience. We have the same mountain-top experiences at a retreat, hearing a powerful speaker, or reading a book that touches our hearts. We have the same difficulty living into our new commitments or changed perspectives such experiences foster.
There is an old Zen proverb that goes like this: “After enlightenment, the laundry.” We know exactly what that proverb is getting at. So does Luke. Immediately following the Transfiguration the disciples go back down into the valley and find they can’t help this man who has a son plagued by demons.
Life is tough. Life can be boring with numbing routine. It can wear us down with countless obligations that just make us tired and wanting a nap. The spiritual life is all about taking on these valley experiences head on. It is not about avoiding life and trying to prolong mountain-top feelings. Luke helps us see this by his showing how inappropriate it was for Peter to suggest building dwellings.
Peter’s suggestion to build dwellings was also wrong on another level. By building those structures he was trying to hold on to the past symbolized by Moses and Elijah. They represent the best of his Jewish tradition: the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah).
There is nothing wrong with treasuring the past and our most sacred traditions. But if we hold on to them too tightly we cannot experience anything new God’s Spirit is trying to show us. Luke says the voice out of the cloud tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. And then the voices out of the past cease.
We, too, need to let go of the past in order to grow in our faith journey. We talked about this in our lectionary class this past Tuesday. I asked them what do we need to let go of in order to hear God’s voice leading us into our future. They came up with some interesting ideas.
One person said we need to let go of how we thought our life would or should go when we grew up. Many of us had notions of what it would mean to be a success, maybe even famous. We would do something that would make a difference in the world. Some thought we would grow up, get married to the love of our life and live happily ever after.
Then life happens. We don’t end up in the vocation we always thought we would. We get divorced or our spouse dies. We can’t have children or the children we do have make choices we just hate. We don’t become famous. We just join the great masses trying to live our lives and find at least a little happiness. We need to let go of some of those notions about adulthood we had as children so we can see where the Spirit is leading us in the life we have.
Another said we need to let go of the old ways we framed our faith. We need to let go of the judgmental God figure who seemed to hate everything we found pleasurable. We need to let go of the guilt that cripples many of us into adulthood. We need to let go of the narrow parameters we thought were critical to orthodoxy. We need to let go of thinking our way of understanding God is the only right way to understand the Holy Mystery.
Life happens and we need to accept our lives, however imperfect, and try to hear the voice of God where we are now, not where we thought we should be. The past can help us find a path to follow, but if we hold on too tightly and then stumble off that path, we end up being lost. God’s voice is still speaking if we but have ears to hear it where we are.
Finally, Peter’s suggestion to build booths could have been an attempt to contain God. One commentator says there is more to God than we can understand or nail down in any container. Our need to understand all mysteries, to make everything about God fit into our neat, little world view is really all about control.
Peter wanted to be in control when he was wowed by the Transfiguration. Let’s build dwellings so we can contain this experience of God, nail it down on our terms, in our old religious framework or world view. Instead the cloud rolls in and there is no room for control, only fear or awe.
The story ends with the voice affirming Jesus as superior to Moses and Elijah and urging the disciples to listen to him. Don’t let the past filter out the new thing the Spirit is saying in Jesus’ voice. Listen to him. And then the past disappears.
Basically Luke is saying the role of the disciples is to listen up and then shut up. Don’t speak after such an experience or you will cheapen it. Don’t speak until you have let go of those things that distort your hearing the voice of Jesus showing a new way of incorporating the best of the past.
And with that I’ll just shut up.
I Cor. 12:31b-13:13
This passage in First Corinthians would most likely be on most people’s list of the best of the New Testament. The poetry is beautiful. In fact, it is so beautiful it is often used in wedding services by couples hoping to love each other as God would intend.
The only trouble is that Paul is not talking about love between two people. He would be disappointed, if not upset, that his words on love were being used in that fashion. To do so is to miss, as scholars point out, the forcefulness and sting of his words to the original readers of this letter.
Paul was writing to a church that was as conflicted as any church we could name in our day. Many in the Corinthian Church were enamored with their spiritual gifts. They thought they were incredibly mature and wonderful.
A close reading of this letter would show that some in the church were rude to one another. Some were incredibly arrogant. Others insisted that their approach to the faith was the right one and others were mistaken. Paul pops all those balloons. He says they were not acting in loving ways. In fact they were acting in unloving ways. He says this in the most forceful way.
For example, some spoke in ecstatic tongues. They felt that they were so filled with God’s Spirit that they were given this gift of spiritual language. Commentators say that they were so puffed up by this gift they thought they were given the language of angels, and thus participated in heavenly worship services while they lived on the earth.
Paul says if they don’t love as Christ loves their spiritual speaking is like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbol. He was referring to instruments used in pagan worship in their city. While we do not see other forms of spirituality in a negative light today, Paul did not intend that as a compliment. He, in essence, was saying their gift did not bring them closer to God or give them entrance into a heavenly worship service. They might as well be pagans if they don’t have love. Love trumps spiritual speaking.
Others felt they had the power to understand great mysteries. They were filled with knowledge most could not understand. Such knowledge even gave them the ability to perform faith miracles. Paul says if they don’t have love, they don’t know squat. Elsewhere in his letter he put it this way: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by (him).” (8:1b-3) It is not what we know that counts but who we love and who loves and truly knows us.
He even says that those who do acts of incredible self-sacrifice, even risking horrible persecution, but don’t have love gain nothing. It is not that all of these gifts are insignificant. It is just that they don’t mean a thing without love.
The love Paul is talking about is not a feeling. Love is not a warm and fuzzy feeling like the crushes we have on people when we talk about falling in love. Crushes are wonderful, but they are not love. Love is a choice to act in a certain way. It is a choice to treat those in our community of faith with dignity, fairness, and compassion. In verses 4-7 he lists what love is not as well as what love is.
Scholars say that love, in this sense, is not a talent but a state of being. It is not a gift but a way of life. It is, as Gail O’Day says, God’s character. I John says God is love. That defines God’s essence. It is only when we give ourselves to God that we begin to grow in love. It is only in loving that we experience God, for God is love. That is why Paul can say love never ends because God never ends.
When we grasp how inadequate is our loving we can begin to see the humility Paul is urging for the Corinthians. One of the most touching ways he urges humility is his metaphor of the mirror. He says now we see in a mirror dimly. Mirrors in his day were made of polished metal. The image reflected in such a mirror was not very clear. If you have ever been to a restroom in a campground where the mirrors were not made of glass, but metal so they could not be easily broken, and tried to shave, you have an idea how poor metal mirrors are for helping us see ourselves clearly.
Paul says we see life and ourselves as if we are looking at one of those pathetic mirrors. Life comes across as a riddle, an enigma. Our knowledge is partial at best. We can’t get absolutely truthful answers to our most pressing questions about ourselves or life. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or seen human cruelty knows there are no satisfying answers as to why or how those things happen.
Paul’s great hope is that eventually our partial knowledge will be swallowed up in being fully known by God. This kind of Godly knowing is not informational knowing, as one commentator says, but personal knowing. Knowing stuff, facts, even theological information pales in comparison to personal knowing and being known. That kind of knowing is available even to those who are not gifted in ecstatic tongues, or understanding all mysteries. That kind of knowing is available to those who love, because God is love.
We celebrate God’s love everytime we take communion. We see the depths of that love in Jesus who incarnated God’s love. Jesus loved us so much he kept speaking the truth to power, including those polite society excluded, and calling for justice when some benefitted from an unjust economic system. He did this even though he knew it would get him in trouble. Loving, even when it is costly, is what is expected of those who are part of any Church community.
When we take communion we pledge ourselves to listen to those in our church with whom we disagree. We pledge to stand by one another when one of us is experiencing a difficult time, even if that inconveniences us. We pledge ourselves to act lovingly even when we don’t feel like it. As we receive the elements today may it remind us to strive to live in the more excellent way love shows us.