Easter 5C: Where I Am Going

15-01-18-CFIRST LESSON:  Acts 11: 1-18

To read the Acts passage

This story is actually told in Chapter 10 and then again in Chapter 11 of the Book of Acts.  The issue that was rather hotly debated was whether the newfound faith of these early Christians was intended only for Jews or whether it was to include Gentiles (while allowing them to remain Gentiles).  In other words, was circumcision so important as to keep people out of the community of faith?  The biggest concern was eating and sharing bread and food with these “unclean” believers.  And there was no lack of voicing of people’s opinions about this matter.  Conflict and confrontation was open and loud, rather than being swept under the carpet the way we often do today.  Perhaps it is a reminder that voicing conflict can indeed be transformational for a community.

So Peter has heard this confrontation and conflict and responds to it.  His response is to tell a story (Gee…wonder where he learned that!).  He retells the story of what happened to him in Chapter 10.  He tells the story of his vision and the sheet with all of the creatures and the reminder that nothing of God is profane (and that everything is in effect “of God”.)  He did not charge in angrily shouting theological platitudes.  He just told them a story.  As Stephen D. Jones says in Feasting on the Word (Page 453), “a story invites people across the separating chasm, making everyone the winner.  Jesus knew this as he changed so many hardened hearts with parables.  His parables often left people with questions for them to explore, rather than theological issues for them to debate.”

Peter was not trying to go outside the boundaries.  He just recognized that God had somehow shown him a different way of looking at something.  The point for Peter is that God had given those Gentiles the same gifts of the Spirit received by the apostles and the more orthodox believers.  That is a turning point for the whole Book of Acts and, for that matter, the whole Christian message.  Here, Peter was in no way demeaning Jewish belief; he was just saying that God’s vision was a larger one.  Rather than characterizing this Way of Jesus as an alternative boundary, it becomes an alternative vision, a different way of viewing all of Creation.

It is a good reminder that theological reflection is not a list of rules; it is a way of living, a way of understanding how God is at work in our lives as well as the lives of those around us.  It is also a good indicator that bringing people of a different culture or a different lifestyle or a different focus into a faith community requires us to rethink and re-reflect theologically on the statements of that faith.  It is in that way that our faith community grows and truly transforms the world.  It is not a matter of “accommodating” or “tolerating” or even compromising; it’s a matter, rather, of continuing to listen to God and how God is working in the world.  According to Peter, the things in the faith that do not change are speaking the name of Jesus, bearing witness to the resurrection, and acknowledging the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps everything else is open for discussion…

 

If Golgotha was the day of reckoning for our salvation, then the day that Peter dreamed of innumerable unclean creatures made clean in God’s estimation was the day salvation actually came to our house, to you and to me. Before that moment, Christianity was not available to those who were not born and ritually inducted into Judaism. But ever since the early church was opened to Gentiles, Christians have struggled to be as open in other times and places, and as willing to embrace those we thought were unclean but whom God has declared clean.

Christians have always struggled with two images that describe the church: is the church the Virgin Mother, pure, unsullied and unstained? Or is she an Earth Mother gathering her wayward children to her skirts? In the church of the Virgin, no eye is pure enough to see God, no tongue clean enough to speak God’s name. This church is vigilant in covering her children’s ears and tries to keep them from seeing or touching the world’s impurity. Its clergy are a model to the flock in morality, goodness and self-control. In the church of the Earth Mother, however, the dirty hands and unwashed faces of her children are a delight. “I am come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you might have it abundantly.” This church’s children gather to her like Ma Kettle’s kids come in from the barnyard, frogs in their pockets and grass stains on their jeans. What they lack in cleanliness they more than make up in joy. Her clergy are earthen vessels.

Of course all churches are a mixture of these symbolic figures. Christians are neither all heaven nor all earth, but a wondrous mixture of dust and glory, which is why churches are hospitals for the soul—less like sterile operating rooms scrubbed and sanitized for elective surgery and more like MASH units where mangled bodies of injured humans are rolled in for emergency treatment.

The situation of the 21st-century church is not that different from that of the first-century church in Jerusalem. Today we struggle to maintain a holy community in the church where the glory of God can shine brightly in the lives of God’s humble servants. But we do so realizing that we are only human, and that strive as we may, we are not all holy.

In the first century the dividing line between exclusionary holiness and holy hospitality was circumcision, dietary laws and ritual observance. Today it is homosexuality, gay marriage, women’s ordination and the right of property ownership. Today’s fixations are not the issues that divided Christians at Chalcedon or Nicea or even Jerusalem, but they are, nonetheless, issues on which we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

It would have been so much easier if the Spirit had left well enough alone and not blown where it did, showing Peter the wider dimensions of a gospel meant for all people, both clean and unclean. But the Spirit is a spirit of love and cannot resist drawing disparate elements together; it has a broader vision of the future and a greater hope for our humanity than we have ever imagined, a vision articulated by the 148th Psalm, which sings of a time when all the earth and all created things shall praise the Lord. Angels praise God, sun and moon, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, kings and peoples . . . all of us praise the Lord. Salvation, occurring in all times and places through the Holy Spirit’s direction, is today offered to one and to all. (From “Dreaming in Joppa”, by Jon M. Walton, in The Christian Century, April 17, 2007, available at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=3194, accessed 28 April 2010.

 

For us, who is it that we deem “impure” (either intentionally or without even thinking), that we view as unworthy of church membership or church outreach or just love and acceptance in general? What boundaries have we improperly drawn through this glorious vision that God holds for us?

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does that truly mean that the Gospel is available to everyone?

3)      What would it mean for us to live as if theological reflection were a way of living, rather than a way of rule-following?  What would that mean for our faith?

 

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Revelation 21: 1-6

To read the Revelation passage

We are probably accustomed to hearing this passage read at funerals.  And yet, this vision reveals what God has in mind for all of life—even now.  This is the New Jerusalem that God is bringing into being—not after we are gone but now, as we speak.  And the reason we as Christians know these things is through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  This is the way that the vision for all has been revealed to us as Christians.  Eugene Peterson writes, “The Biblical story began, quite logically, with a beginning.  Now it draws to an end, not quite so logically, also with a beginning.  The sin-ruined Creation of Genesis is restored in the sacrifice-renewed creation of Revelation.  The product of these beginning and ending acts of creation is the same:  “the heavens and earth” in Genesis, and “a new heaven and new earth” in Revelation.”  (From Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 169)

For many people and indeed many Christians, the hope lies in heaven only.  This is a reminder that hope is here and now—if we will only imagine it and claim it.  It speaks to the broadness of Creation and perhaps reminds us that we should care for THIS Creation rather than banking on the possibility that we’re going to leave it all behind anyway!  But remember—God is here, making the Divine Home among us, among the “unclean” to go back to the Acts passage.  Wasn’t that what the whole Emmanuel, God-with-us, was about?  Wasn’t that why Christ came as God incarnate?  The hope expressed in Revelation is the one that makes all things new.  Isn’t that remarkable?  It is not about personal conversion; it is about world order.  It is about staking one’s very life not on the way things are now but on the way things could and will be, the way God envisions Creation.

This passage is a promise to us.  Perhaps it is a call for patience; perhaps it is a call to not be so hard on ourselves (in spite of St. Augustine’s purporting that we are hopeless and helpless sinful creatures!); perhaps it is simply a call to imagine—to imagine what God can do in our lives and be open to what that looks like, to be open to newness, to be open to the place between endings and beginnings.

This is not a dream for a different place, for a different city.  It is the dream for THIS one, the place where we are living now.  And it’s not just putting us back in that perfect utopian garden in which we started.  After all, we have grown WAY beyond that, fully embracing that whole free will thing and all.  I don’t think that’s what God has in mind.  I think the Garden was a beginning.  Maybe God even MEANT us to break those boundaries.  Maybe that was the whole idea, the place that we learned that boundaries were meant to be explored and pushed and, yes, even blown wide open so that the Spirit of God could blow through unhindered and recreate all that is.

 

While our passage today starts off with a beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth, there is a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. “While the story of the Bible begins with a garden, it ends in a city,” writes Michael Pasquarello III (Feasting on the Word). And Dana Ferguson develops this further: “Why a city? Because cities are places where people live together in dependence upon one another. A city works when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people arrive home at the end of a long and confusing journey. It is where God lives” (Feasting on the Word). What an intriguing way to spur our religious imaginations about our own cities and communities (no matter how large or small), as places “where God lives.” Imagine what it might look like for our cities to be places where we live not in competition and anxiety but in graceful community, welcoming people home and inviting them in. Such a vision is the opposite of destruction, separation, loneliness, and exile. (From a reflection by Rev. Kate Huey, available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/may-2-2010.html, accessed 28 April 2010)

 

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does that “newness” look like for you?

3)      What does it mean for you to look upon this passage as a promise for THIS place, rather than a new place?

4)      What gets in the way of our own “imaginings”?

5)      What does it mean for us to participate in God’s vision for Creation?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

To read the Gospel passage

This Gospel passage is also read for Maundy Thursday.  But on this fifth Sunday of Easter, we are asked to go back to before the crucifixion.  The Gospel writer uses the word “now”, implying that all that has happened up to this point is coming to fulfillment.  It is Jesus’ way of preparing the disciples for his impending death, for the time when they will feel deserted and alone.  He urges them to have patience and to lean on each other, to care for one another and forgive one another.  It is a plea for them to abide in the life that he has shown them.  Rather than allowing their fears and their insecurities to pull them apart, Jesus is laying out a life that will bring them together.

This was a completely different way of looking at things, a completely different concept of what “glory” is.  This glory is the one that feeds that self-giving love that is contained in the “new commandment”.  Glory comes not from being placed above but by allowing Christ’s love to take root deep within oneself.  In other words, we find life and love in community, in the community of Christ.  Without that relationship, everything else falls apart.  No doctrine or theology can replace it.

Joan Chittister refers to community as a “social sacrament”, a sacred act far beyond connections or acquaintances.  Perhaps Jesus saw it the same way.  Once again, the spiritual walk is much, much more than rules or doctrines.  It is about seeing everything and everyone around you as part of God’s Creation.  And, interestingly enough, if you back up to the verses prior to this passage, we read of Judas’ impending betrayal of Jesus.  And then this.  Yes, even Judas, is part of that love, part of that Creation.

Now is the time.  It is time for Jesus to go.  But it is not the end.  It is time for those who love him and follow him to step into place, to experience what it is like to bask and embrace in the holy and the sacred.  Love one another…for that is the way that you will experience the holy and the sacred.  But this is not some sort of passive, saccharine-type love.  This was active.  This was putting oneself aside for another, putting one’s life down for another.  This, again, was breaking all those boundaries open in the name of love.  For it is in each other’s eyes and each other’s lives that you will experience God as Christ said that you could experience God.  And THAT is what glorifies Christ—your being there, your living in that sacredness, your embracing and being holiness.  It is a love that surrenders to God and God’s vision for us.  It is a love that imagines what God can do.  So, love one another…rest deep in God’s love.  That’s what it is about.  “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  You cannot come because there is much work to be done here.  You have to stay and be Christ in the world.  You have to stay and blow all those boundaries wide open.  You have to stay and love one another.  That is the way that we are called to be.

The following chapter goes on with Jesus’ words.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself.”  Jesus’s absence breaks open a new boundary.  Jesus’ Presence, always and forever here, is in our Presence, in our love, in our willingness to follow, to choose that new vision that God holds.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this “new commandment” mean for you?

3)      In what ways does the Christian community feed your own faith journey?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Turn your face to the light and the shadows will fall behind you. (Maori Proverb)

 

Faith is being grasped by the power of love…it is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so [today] we might become more like him.  (William Sloane Coffin)

 

People do not enter our lives to be coerced or manipulated, but to enrich us by their differences, and to be graciously received in the name of Christ.  (Elizabeth Canham)

 

 

Closing

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored:  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

 

All praise to the [Creator], from whom all things come, and all praise to Christ Jesus, God’s only Son, and all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one:  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

(Peter Scholtes, 1966)

Proper 28B: Yearning

Longing for GodOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20

To read the Old Testament passage

The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year. Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”.  Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk – if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” . No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer. Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel.  Samuel would end the time of the judges and usher in the monarchy.  God was doing a new thing in Israel.  Hannah’s name, which means “grace”, is fitting for someone who would essentially birth the beginning of the monarchy with a bold act of faith.

Now the notion of infertility is not new in the Bible—think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, even, later, Elizabeth.  But barrenness was a source of shame.  And it was always thought to be the fault of the woman.  So, taunted and rejected, Hannah enters a long line of women who suffered because of this.  And, on top of it, Hannah was part of an unjust system that didn’t even acknowledge her pain. But rather than folding into it, she stood up and prayed. Her tears and her songs point to this injustice.  It becomes a song of revolution.  The mighty will fall and the poor will be raised.  Over and over we are told that God “opens wombs”, birthing new life.  But perhaps the story is not merely about God answering prayers but rather the story of one who yearned for God.  Maybe her yearning, her way of “returning grace” to God, was the answer to the prayer itself.  Our deepest longings themselves often reflect this “upside-down” kingdom that God envisions.  And in those longings, God will open wombs and new life will come to be.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
  3. What does prayer mean for you in your life?
  4. What would it mean for us to yearn for something better?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18) 19-25

To read the passage from Hebrews

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the face of opposition – these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s Scripture reading. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth. The word, parresia, (“confidence”), means being free to speak one’s mind, not being ashamed. It means boldness, courage, fearlessness, and joy. It is those things that belong to freedom. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise that boldness. But in the society of God, we are free to have confidence and to be assured of God’s presence with us.

Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God’s Presence is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God’s life, the life we recognize as being active  wherever people are attuned to it – in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.

In some ways, the Letter to the Hebrews is a treatise on organized religion. But it is not that religion of rules and memberships and those who are in and those who are out. It tells us how to be a community—a loving, encouraging community in the name of Jesus Christ. 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said “the spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.” The writing does not tell us how to be religious; it doesn’t teach us how to be spiritual; it talks of how to live within the Spirit of God, within that “upside-down” Kingdom. It teaches us how to be the worshipping Kingdom of God together. It teaches us how to experience God’s Presence, speak in boldness, and encourage each other.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What would a church that encourages each other look like?
  3. What does it mean to you to live within the Spirit of God?
  4. What does this boldness in Christ mean?

GOSPEL: Mark 13: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The disciples were apparently in awe of the temple.  It was magnificent in structure.  Supposedly it covered an area five football fields long and three football fields wide and was covered in white marble and gold, to put it in perspective.  There is debate as to whether the Gospel according to Mark was written before the destruction of this great temple or just after.  Regardless, it was a time of great political crisis and out of this apocalyptic literature began to flourish.

And Jesus is warning the disciples to hold their course, to be faithful, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of the cross.  It is a reminder to be aware of what it is and who it is in which you put your trust.  On what are you building your faith?  What cost of discipleship are you willing to bear?

Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?”

Here, Jesus was not merely proclaiming destruction. He was prodding those listening to him to change the script, to change that which gets their attention, that which gets their loyalty. He was reminding them to live their life but to yearn for something more. He was pushing them to look beyond what they saw, beyond the stones, beyond the buildings, beyond the beautiful paraments and the other articles of worship, beyond what people are wearing or where they were schooled or what they do for a living.  None of that makes sense in God’s vision.  It is meaningless.  God’s vision is about us, all of us together.  Jesus was telling them that “everything will be alright”, not in a trite, sappy sense where he pats his followers on the head and then walks away, but with a promise of something better just up ahead.

Like any apocalyptic writing, it is trying to make sense of that which really doesn’t make sense.  It is trying to bring comfort to people who are suffering and scared.  It should not be read as a way of “figuring out” when the world will end, or Jesus will return, or whatever you believe will mark the next phase of existence.  It is, rather, about hope, about learning to live, as Hannah did, with that yearning for the new life that God holds.  “Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”, for seeing.  Jesus was trying to open the door to a vision of what could be.  And, when you think about it, if these are the “birthpangs”, then the journey has only just begun.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you think most people would read this in today’s world?
  3. What does the image of the “birthpangs” mean for you as it relates to this Scripture?
  4. What vision are we called to see that we are perhaps missing?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Countless writings underlie the urgency for our modern world, with all its bustle and noise, of rediscovering the value of meditation, of silence of prayer, of devotion.  I preached it before I practiced it.  If one is to help the world towards its rediscovery, one must practice it oneself.  The religious life must be fed.  We devote years to studying a trade or profession.  Ought we show less perseverance in acquiring the presence of God? (Paul Tournier)

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)

 

 

Closing

 

O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared; direct my power and passion to creating life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and, behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

 

(“Bring More of What I Dream”, from Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Ted Loder, p. 109)