Encourage Like Paul!

“Encourage Like Paul!” – August 2, 2020

Phil 1-3 thank God words

Philippians 1:3-11 (1:3-6)

Do you remember a time when someone encouraged you? I mean, when you were feeling downhearted or down in the dumps, and a friend or relative gave you a real, sincere word of encouragement? I am afraid to say that my words of encouragement often do not measure up when compared to this encouraging letter Paul wrote to his Philippian friends. Paul really meant what he said in this letter to Philippi – every word!

We are starting a sermon series on the letter to the church in Philippi this week. This letter is one of the most heartwarming and personal letters written in the New Testament. Philippians is one of my favorite Bible books, too.

Just to remind us all, the apostle Paul traveled around for years. As an itinerant preacher and missionary, he was often on the move. Although, Paul did settle down from time to time, and stay in particular towns for a number of months. Like, right here, in Philippi.

`           I know today we might be encouraged by a family member over the telephone, or by a co-worker in a Zoom meeting, or by a friend through email or Instagram. But in the apostle Paul’s day, there were only two choices: either face to face, in a personal encounter, or in written form. Paul was far away from his friends and former parishioners, so he used a letter.  

Paul’s affection and care for his Philippian friends went much deeper than a nodding acquaintance, such as we might see in casual, continued encounters like in line at a grocery store, walking in the neighborhood, or in a polite exchange at the office.

Let’s look at exactly what Paul said here. This was a thank-you letter for a financial gift sent by the Philippian church. Since Paul was in prison, he was doubly thankful for the gift! I suspect it provided for his food, clothing and other needs while he was locked up. Let me remind people that if a prisoner’s friends or relatives did not supply these necessities, the prisoner was sadly out of luck. The prison did not supply anything. At least, not for free.

So, you and I might think this was a sad time and puzzling situation for Paul to have positive words to say about anything – much less to send such a positive, uplifting letter to his faraway friends in thanks for their financial gift.

Paul is fairly bubbling over with gratitude and thankfulness as he begins this letter. I wanted us to especially notice the 3rd verse. Paul thanks God every time he remembers his friends in Philippi. Do you have friends you can say that about? Do you or I have even one or two friends who are so special to us that we remember them to God with such warmth and excitement? What a marvelous thing to say about a friend. A good friend. Even, a best friend.

Verse 4 tells us that Paul always – always prays with joy when he prays for these special friends from Philippi. This is the first of many times Paul uses to word “joy” in this letter. He uses either the noun “joy” or the verb “rejoice” fourteen times! When I first took the course Bible Study Methods decades ago in bible college, we were told that if a passage or a book of the Bible repeated something, there was a really good reason for it. I believe, and commentators and Bible scholars agree, the apostle Paul means joy to be an overarching theme in this letter.

And, verse 5 tells what fills Paul with such joy: the Philippians not only were supporting Paul in prayer, but they also supported him in the partnership of the Gospel. They shared the Good News of Christ, too! That really filled the apostle Paul with joy.

How do you feel when you are especially encouraged and affirmed? What if that someone who encourages you is someone very special? Someone who means a whole lot to you? Doesn’t that make that encouragement and appreciation even more meaningful?

Let’s imagine. Close your eyes, if that helps you imagine. You and I are among this group of believers in Philippi, and we have just received this letter from our Pastor Paul in prison. Let’s listen again to these three verses: “I thank my God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now.”

Paul is thankful for the money his friends sent. But, I hear these words saying how incredibly thankful and grateful Paul is for the caring and love of these people, friends from far away. Have you ever been encouraged and affirmed, with these amazing words?

I am reminded of when I taught piano lessons, some years ago, before I started seminary and several years into it. I taught for about ten years. I remember one student in particular. Her parents were going through a nasty divorce that lasted for many months. I taught this girl for a whole year. Her mother wanted her to continue with lessons until the end of the school year, as a stabilizing factor, because she saw how encouraging I was to her daughter in each lesson. And, I really tried to be a caring encourager for a troubled time in this girl’s life.

We all have had teachers, coaches or mentors in our past. Who has taught you about the Christian faith? Who has mentored you along the way, and encouraged you to become a more faithful believer? Do you have an apostle Paul in your life? Or, perhaps an encouraging and faithful Barnabas, one of Paul’s companions? Or, maybe an excited and eager John Mark, another companion of Paul? [1]

Whatever kind of teacher, coach or mentor in faith you have had, praise God for this beloved person. Thank the Lord for the impact this dear one has made on your life, and on mine. And, perhaps you can be that person who has a lasting impact on someone else. Please God, may it be today!

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/c/2Advent-c/SR-2Advent-c.html

“A Letter from a Mentor,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel. Adult Study, Children’s Story, Family Activity, Support Materials.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Suit Yourselves!

“Suit Yourselves!”

2 Tim 4-3 itching ears

2 Timothy 4:1-5 – October 20, 2019

Have you seen the comics lately? I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the comics section of the newspapers—the daily comics in black and white, and the Sunday comics in full color—even if you don’t read them regularly. Can you picture this scene from the comics? A single panel, showing two business men by an office water cooler. One looks like a boss, and he says to the other, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a yes-man. Isn’t that right, Baxter?”

We chuckle, because we all are familiar with that kind of attitude. I’m sure we can recognize that tendency in other forms. Getting some yes-man to tell us what we want to hear . . . not what’s good for us to hear, not what we need to hear, but instead what we want to hear.

With all the worry and anxiety, trouble and danger in this modern world, people are actively searching for good news. Many are searching in all the wrong places. Commercialism and consumerism are rampant, with many people accumulating more and more stuff and always needing to get something else, something more, something new.

Sometimes, some people search for thrills, for that adrenaline rush, for some kind of excitement in life. It doesn’t matter if thrills come from drag racing, gambling, or risky behavior, like a wild bender at the local bar. Oftentimes, these people are trying to fill a hole deep inside.

Other people turn inward, searching for spiritual fulfilment. There are many ways of experiencing some kind of spirituality, like through the martial arts, or through meditative practices. Fung shui, the Chinese method of arranging furniture is an attempt to try to find balance and proper order in this life. Sure, doing an inside job, concentrating on the inside of ourselves is a great place to start, but . . . searching for inward, spiritual fulfillment on our own just won’t work. Anyway, not without God.

We have the assurance, from our scripture passage today, that Timothy had the opportunity to know God. Timothy was instructed, from the time he was very young, in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. His mother and grandmother were both women of faith, and Timothy grew up in a believing household, a household that put God first.

As we read further in our passage today, we find there are people who will not put up with sound doctrine. They will not even want to listen to the truth! Even when the truth is as clear as day, and presented to them in a straight-forward manner, still, some will turn away.

You probably are all familiar with that modern phenomenon—tele-evangelists, some of whom are worthy people of God. However, there are those who are frauds. Charlatans. Fakes. Preachers not of sound doctrine or biblical teaching, but instead telling their listeners exactly what they—the listenerswant to hear.

Are you familiar with the health, wealth and happiness gospel, which focuses on only a few isolated passages from scripture? This false gospel tell the listeners that God wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and happy! All the time! And even shows us the example of Job—why, didn’t God give back to Job everything that was taken away? But . . . we must have faith! And if anything is wrong in our lives, or if our house burns down, or if we get sick, or if someone we love loses a job, or if our child gets in trouble, or . . . or . . . or . . . you get the picture. Well, we just didn’t have enough faith. Oh, and we didn’t send enough money to the tele-evangelist. So, God apparently must be withholding His blessing because of our lack of faith and our stinginess.

Not so!! This is a perverse, yet skillful, twisting of the truth! I bet you can see parts of the true Gospel here in what I’ve just described, but the rest is so skillfully bent and twisted, It sounds so similar to the Good News of God we have come to know and to understand and to love. Like, and yet unlike. The true Gospel tells us that God does indeed want to bless us abundantly! And, it is an inside job! God wants to change us, to help us change ourselves, to make us new creations from the inside out, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, what about unsuspecting folks, who get turned away from the truth in God’s Word? What did our scripture passage today say about this sort of people? It mentions that they have “itching ears.” This is a Greek phrase that can be translated several ways—another way is “having their ears tickled.” In other words, having the preacher tell you exactly what you want to hear! These people with the itching ears, who wanted nice, warm, soft, fuzzy things said to them, nonthreatening, reassuring things preached to them from the pulpit, these people turned their backs on the truth of God’s Word and of sound doctrine.

These people with the itching ears had an agenda—and that was to hear only what they wanted to hear, at all times. None of the challenging words, none of the admonishing words, none of the emotional words of Scripture. This is another form of idolatry: putting themselves first, putting God aside as an afterthought. You know the attitude—me, me, me! I’m the most important person around here! Everything needs to go my way! Nobody else counts!

As I was thinking about this text over the past days, it came to me—what would Calvin say? John Calvin was one of the foremost theologians in the Reformed tradition, the tradition we in the UCC adhere to. What would Calvin say about these false teachers, preaching a “health, wealth and happiness” gospel, or any other sort of false gospel, for that matter?

How would he deal with these false teachers, leading people astray? Checking the Institutes, I find that Calvin spoke strong words against these false teachers, saying that they, in fact, pose the greatest danger to the church. They lead people away from true scripture and sound doctrine, and are responsible for bringing in destructive heresies. [1]

But . . . that’s not what we learned. That’s not what Timothy learned. We have the “sacred writings that are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” We have the opportunity to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. How wonderful, how awesome, and how sobering that Jesus entrusted us with the message of His Good News.

Now what? The different New Testament letters do indeed tell us definite things about doctrine, about theology . . . but then . . . what do we do with all of this information? How do we put it into practice? How do we live the Christian life? Now what, in other words?

I consider the commands in this passage to be good advice to anyone wanting to follow Christ more nearly. We are to proclaim the message. Communicate the Good News!

This command may give some people pause. How can I preach the Good News? Am I supposed to go to some cable television station and get on the air as yet another tele-evangelist? Or how about standing out on a street corner, preaching with a megaphone? Both of these are valid ways of preaching God’s Good News, but I don’t think most of us here in this church could ever see ourselves doing either of these things. But there are other ways to proclaim the message.

Preach the Good News. Another way of thinking about it is . . . telling what God has done in your life. What has God done for you? How has God made a difference in your life? How has God made a difference in mine? What new things have you and I learned from the Lord lately? What an opportunity to share these things with others, with our friends, with those who might not know God in a personal way.

Do we need advanced degrees in divinity or theology to do this? To share what God has done for us? No! Oftentimes, we are excited to tell people about other things, like who won the latest ball game, or about the neighbor next door spraining her ankle, or what exciting story we just heard on the news. Why can’t I tell people about Jesus, and what He’s done for me? Why can’t you?     I can tell about God’s faithfulness in my busy, hectic life. I can praise God for helping me to walk the Christian walk, one day at a time.

Thank God we have been given this Good News! What a opportunity! What a thing to celebrate! Praise God, we have been granted salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s truly something to celebrate. That’s truly Good News to share.             Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960), IV.9.4.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

What Are You Expecting?

“What Are You Expecting?”

Jesus teaching

Luke 6:17-23 (6:18-19) – February 17, 2019

Have you ever been expecting something, with all your heart? Perhaps, getting to a stadium early, and expecting a great ball game? Or, arriving at the church, expecting a wedding of two people who are dear to you? Maybe, finally going to a concert you’ve been waiting for, for many months. You are there with many other people. And, all of you have such expectations!

Expectations—of what?

We see something so similar with the scripture reading Eileen just read to us, from Luke chapter 6. Yes, this was early in the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry, but there already was talk about this promising young Rabbi. He not only teaches with authority, but this Jesus heals people’s diseases, too! And, He even casts demons out of people!

Wouldn’t that be something to travel a long distance for? Just imagine—a Rabbi, a high-profile teacher who spoke with authority. On top of that, He’s a healer and miracle-worker, too! That is something to see, indeed!

We need to step back a bit, and look at the bigger picture. Did you know that Luke chapter 6 contains much of the same information that Jesus preached in Matthew, chapters 5, 6 and 7? Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount—leading off with the Beatitudes—is summarized in about one third of the space, right here. In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.

Both sermons contain much of the same information, except sometimes in different phrases and from a slightly differing point of view. Matthew was one of Jesus’s disciples, he was Jewish, and an eye witness. Dr. Luke was a Greek, he was writing his Gospel some years later, and relied on the testimony of a number of first-person accounts. Just so you can see these two sermons side by side.

Instead of diving into the sermon right away, I want us to look at the people who were hearing it. Dr. Luke is quite particular in his wording: he wants us to know that people from all over are listening, from down south in Judea and Jerusalem (good, God-fearing Jews), as well as people from the coast in the north, from the cities Tyre and Sidon. This second group of people was more mixed, some Jews, but secular, pagan Gentiles as well.

Luke mentioned the disciples, specifically. These were the twelve disciples, recently hand-chosen by Jesus. Moreover, “there are the larger crowds of disciples who are followers of Jesus, who have responded to His ministry, but who have not received a special call from Jesus.”[1] Quite a diverse group, indeed. And, Jesus preached to them all.

Have you ever been in a crowd of all different kinds of people? At a ball game, or, in a crowd at a concert, perhaps. I’ve been there, and I have felt the camaraderie, the fellowship and general good nature of certain kinds of crowds.

Reading again from Luke 6: “Jesus went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of His disciples was there and a great number of people who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured.”

Expectant? I suspect that is exactly how this crowd was feeling. Even before Jesus can start preaching, people surged around Him. Listen, again from Luke: “and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.”

People not only wanted to see Jesus, they wanted a word of comfort or encouragement from Jesus. And, people wanted to be healed by Jesus most of all! Did you notice that Jesus did not just heal people from their physical problems, but also their spiritual and psychological difficulties, too? Such miracle-working activity must have brought people many miles to see the Rabbi Jesus.

As the Rev. Ernest Lyght mentions, “Perhaps there are some similarities between the crowd on the plain and the crowds that come to our churches. When you look out into your congregation, whom do you see? What are their needs? Who are the people who come to our churches? Do they reflect the neighborhoods around the church? Surely, they are folks who want to hear a Word from the Lord, and they want to be healed. They come with certain expectations.”[2]

Which leads to the next question: what are your expectations for the worship service, this morning? Were you expecting a warm, familiar service, with nice, familiar hymns, and a warm, comforting sermon? Or, were you surprised and even taken aback when we heard the testimony about a lovely ten-year-old boy with autism who wrote that wonderful poem for his English assignment? (I had tears in my eyes when I first finished reading that poem. God bless that boy, and God bless that teacher, too.)

Does Jesus challenge you – challenge me – in our daily walk with Him, or are you just looking for a nice, easy, quiet stroll with Jesus? What are your expectations?

Let’s look at some of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: “’Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.’”

Whoa, wait a minute, Jesus! I thought You were warm and cuddly, like a teddy bear. At least, that’s what I heard. From Sunday school, or somewhere. Where did Jesus come up with all this about hungering, and weeping, with people hating me, excluding me, insulting me, even rejecting me. What gives, Jesus? What happened to that warm, fuzzy Christianity I thought I knew?

Christianity is not a religion, being a Christian is a relationship. It’s a series of relationships. Jesus and me, vertically. Sure! But, it’s Jesus and all of us too. Plus, it’s the horizontal relationship between you, and me, and you, and you—and all of us, with each other. That is what Jesus came to offer all of us. A radical change in relationships between God and humanity. And, in how we all relate to each other. No matter who.

Have you told anyone about this radical, out-of-this-world friendship between you and God? Have you been changed in how you relate to everyone you meet?

Bishop Lyght is now retired from the United Methodist Church. The UMC has for its advertising catch phrase “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” Great images! Wonderful things to strive for, too. We can take that phrase to heart, and ask ourselves: do we have open hearts? Are our hearts open to everyone who may walk in to our church? Do we have open minds? Are our minds open and accepting of everyone, no matter what ethnicity, mental challenge, sexual orientation, or other kind of differences they might have?

Finally, do we have open doors? Who are the people who do not come to our church, on this corner? Do we truly welcome all people? In our church? On the street or at work or at line in the grocery store? In our neighborhoods?

What are your expectations? Check with Jesus, and see who He would welcome.

 

(Many thanks to the Rev. Ernest Lyght and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on discipleship.)

[1] http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany6nt.html

Lectionary Commentary and Preaching Paths (Epiphany C6), by Dennis Bratcher, at The Christian Resource Institute.

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-2-worship-planning-series/february-17-sixth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/sixth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes  

Thanksgiving to God

“Thanksgiving to God”

2 Cor 9-11 thanksgiving, words

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 (9:11) – November 19, 2017

Today, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, many people across the United States celebrate as Thanksgiving Sunday. “According to the Internet there are 12 nations – large and small – who celebrate in one form or another their nation’s Thanksgiving Day; whilst other forms and styles of celebration include local “Harvest Thanksgiving” services.” [1]

Both scripture readings this morning feature words of gratitude and thanks to God for giving us our many blessings, and specifically for the blessings of the harvest. First, our psalm for this morning lets us know God has provided so much for us to enjoy. Not only the bounty of the harvest, but more than that. Our Psalmist lets us know God has made the earth and water, and everything else, and provides everything for humanity’s benefit.

Let me read again from Psalm 65: “You, God, soften the earth with showers and bless its abundant crops. 11 You crown the year with a bountiful harvest; even the hard pathways overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness become a lush pasture, and the hillsides blossom with joy. 13 The meadows are clothed with flocks of sheep, and the valleys are carpeted with grain. They all shout and sing for joy!”

All this bounty is considered to be given to humanity to enjoy. All the harvest and bounty that this psalm celebrates is what the apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the church in Corinth, too. Except, Paul goes one step further.

When we read Paul’s suggestions in this passage today, he urges the believers in Corinth to be generous. Sure, in Paul’s previous letter, in 1 Corinthians, the people from that church were collecting for the poor and persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Now, with this updated message to Corinth, Paul praises the church for continuing with the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, and urges them to be generous. He broadens his suggestion and encourages them to give gifts freely. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

What about that last phrase, anyway? “God loves a cheerful giver.” Sure, Paul is urging his fellow Christians to be generous. However, this goes over and above mere giving of alms, or slipping a dollar in a panhandler’s cup, or even a five-dollar bill in the Salvation Army kettle in the holiday season. Paul lets us know we ought to give cheerfully (Gr. hilaron), or “hilariously,” in the sense of very joyfully. But, he doesn’t want us to throw our money around needlessly. And, not in the sense of thoughtlessly, either.

Money, charity, and giving are discussed in the Bible in several places. I will highlight one: “cheerful” givers always receive God’s loving approval (Prov. 22:8). So, God wants all of us to be cheerful, generous, and open-hearted.

There is a problem here, and Paul mentions it. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

One of my favorite bible commentators, Bob Deffinbaugh, writes “Some people simply do not enjoy being generous. It causes them great pain to give up more of what they possess in order to bestow it upon someone who needs it more than they do. Once I suggested to a friend who was dying that she give away some of her possessions while she was alive, so that she could enjoy the act of giving while she was still alive. I had seriously misjudged the situation. This woman did not want to give anything away before she died, because she found no pleasure in giving. Only after her death, when she could keep her possessions no longer, would she reluctantly will them to someone else. How sad.” [2]

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. Certainly, the idea of reluctantly giving away money or worldly goods is something most of us associate with Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol fame. I know very well that there are great numbers of people who only give “grudgingly.”

So many people love their stuff, don’t they? Or, if not “stuff,” then they are awfully attached to their money, or even their time. Some might hate to part with anything of value, period.  And, especially, “We should not give because we feel there is no alternative, or because we think others will look down on us if we fail to give.” [3] It’s sort of tGod’swisted and perverted, and just like the Pharisees. That is the exact opposite of the reason Paul tells us to give.

As Bob Deffinbaugh relates, “To use an analogy our Lord employs, when we see a brother who has no coat, we don’t have to own a coat factory; all we need is two coats (see Luke 3:11). The reason we may not have the means to give to the poor is because we have not sown from that which we have in order to reap more to give. We, like the widow who cared for Elijah, may need to give first to those in need, and then look to God to supply our needs.” [4]

We can follow Paul’s words and suggestions, and ask—how would we celebrate God’s blessings to us? How could we give thanks? Like I suggested to the children earlier today, we can be generous. Give of what we have. If we have a little extra food or canned goods or pasta, give that. If we have an extra coat, give it to a coat drive. If we have some free time, volunteer or donate that. If God has been good to us and we have some extra money, be generous with whatever God has blessed us with.

When my husband and I were hiking through a state forest some years ago, we came across a stream. The path turned and followed the bubbling, flowing stream. As my husband and I continued walking, we came to a little waterfall, where the water bubbled and traveled downward from one level to another, and then went rushing along its merry way. I think of giving like this. Paul lets us know that generous giving flows out of God’s generosity to us. If we dam up that trickle of giving, we might end up with a backload of water that can’t flow, can’t run free and clear, and cannot transmit God’s blessings to others.

When we understand that everything—every single thing!—we have comes from God, it is much easier to share what we have with others. God supplies both the seed and the harvest. He is the one who makes us rich so that we might be generous on every occasion. Our giving is a demonstration of thanks to God. We thank God for what God has given us by giving it away!

And, what is the final point of Paul’s suggestion? What is the most wonderful thing God gives us? Praise the Lord for God’s unmatchable, unspeakable, unsurpassable Gift—Jesus Christ! Jesus and the grace He freely gives to us is the reason we give to others.

We give thanks that our generosity is rooted in the generosity of our God in the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We can say “Happy Thanksgiving,” indeed.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.thetimelesspsalms.net/w_resources/pentecost23[30]c_2016.htm

The Timeless Psalms: Psalm 65, Joan Stott, prayers and meditations based on lectionary Psalms, 2016.

[2] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

[3] http://soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/2corinthians.pdf

2 Corinthians, Expository Notes, Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2005 edition.

[4] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Into the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11 – March 5, 2017

jesus-temptation-wilderness

“Into the Wilderness”

Have you ever overheard a conversation at a restaurant where someone was absolutely raving about the food served? About how delicious it was, how well seasoned, or well prepared? The magnificent desserts, or the fantastic dishes? “Out of this world!” or, “It’s to die for!” I’ve even heard a few people say, “That was positively sinful!”

Enjoying our creature comforts so much, we are not able to focus on anything else. Not able to focus on each other, and reaching out to the needy, sick and hungry. Not able to focus on God, either, much less worship God’s name regularly.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Yes, back to the very beginning, the book of Genesis. Eileen just read for us several verses from chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are tempted by the Devil.

We find out that the garden from Genesis has everything a person could want—except for one thing. There is one prohibition: a tree in the middle of the garden. Adam and Eve already have been told never to eat from that tree. Never, ever, ever eat from that specific tree. (Or they—we—shall surely die.)

We all know the story. The Tempter comes to Eve in the form of a snake, plants doubt in her mind, and convinces her to eat the fruit of the tree. What’s more, she gives some to Adam and he eats. And because of this sin, this disobedience, Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden of Eden.

What got in the way between Adam and Eve, and God? Adam and Eve said “Yes” to the serpent. In saying “Yes” to the snake, they found themselves saying “No” to God. They renounced the God who created them, who loved them, and who gave them all things. And, they were sent into the wilderness.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus led out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. For forty days Jesus fasts and prays, away by Himself, in the wilderness. Jesus was preparing Himself for His time of ministry ahead, as well. At the end of this time, the tempter comes to a weakened, depleted Jesus, and tempts Him. The devil tempts Jesus with food, with control, and with power. The devil very much wanted to get Jesus to say “Yes” to him, to say “Yes” to at least one of the temptations he brought to Jesus.

At the beginning of each Lenten season, each year, the lectionary readings begin with the Gospel reading of Jesus and the temptation. The devil tries very hard to get Jesus to say “Yes” to him and the phony, flashy, fake things he offers. And by saying “Yes” to the devil, Jesus would end up saying “No” to God. The devil wanted to get Jesus to renounce His heavenly Father.

The period of Lent as a time of fasting, penitence and self-examination was followed early on, in the church’s history. The Church Council of Nicaea in 325 discussed a 40-day period of Lent, but did not get that period codified at that point.

What was a common practice by that time was an extended period for people intending to prepare themselves for baptism on Easter Day. Yes, this did include fasting, penitence and self-examination, along with learning the catechism of the Church.

The rest of the congregation did not take it easy during this 40-day period. They had to fast, be penitent, and examine themselves, too. We still do this today, remembering Jesus and His time of fasting and penitence in the wilderness just before He began His ministry. A time when He renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways.

Renounce. Renounce what? This is a confusing term, for some. But—what gets in the way between us and God? What tempts us to turn from God and the good things God wants for each of us?  What does it mean for us to follow after Jesus, and to renounce the devil?

The first temptation was that of hunger. The devil tempted Jesus with bread. (And, not just physical hunger.) “It is about all of those things that we use in an attempt to fill ourselves up, to satisfy our many hungers. We have a problem with excess.  We eat too much.  We drink too much.  We buy too much.  We spend too much.  We have too much.” [1]

Augustine, that great saint of the Church, said there was a God-shaped hole inside of each of us. We try to fill that empty hole, that void, with all kinds of things. Both physical as well as spiritual.  “And the food and clothes and jewels, all the drugs and alcohol and sex and movies and vacations and entertainment and money and toys in the world, aren’t going to be enough to fill up that empty space inside us.” [2]

The second and third temptations are all about control and power. And, putting God to the test. Do we try to take control of our own lives? Or, how about micro-managing everyone around us? Do you know anyone who willfully, stubbornly goes off on their own, whose theme song is “My Way” by Frank Sinatra? Not following God, not putting themselves into God’s caring, loving hands. Perhaps making bargains with God?

The commentator says this week, “Do we worship our lifestyle? The (fill in your nationality) way? Military power? Economic domination? The rich and the famous? Football or [baseball or hockey or] other sports? The almighty dollar?” [3] What do we need to renounce in order to come back into a close, loving relationship with God?

We can take for our example how Jesus responded to the devil. Three different temptations, and three times Jesus responded with the Word of God.  

Do we remember baptism? Not necessarily our own baptisms, but the more recent baptisms that have happened here. Several months ago, I baptized Claire. Part of the liturgy for that service includes several questions. The pastor says the words “Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of the devil, his works and ways, and to receive the power of new life in Christ?” The parents and the sponsors respond, “We will, with the help of God.”

It doesn’t matter where we are, we have promised, on our behalf or on our children’s, to encourage ourselves or our loved ones to renounce the devil. With the help of God, we will say “No” to the devil. It says so, right here in the service of baptism. That is exactly what Jesus did, at His temptation, and we’re encouraged to say “No,” too!

It can be as simple and straightforward as saying “No” to the tempter, to his works and ways, and saying “Yes” to God. Turning our backs on the tempting things that beckon to us, lure us in, and instead, following after Jesus.

Whether having to do with our bodies, desires, excess, addiction, power, control; in deserts, gardens, the country, cities, mountains—wherever we find ourselves, we need to consider renouncing the devil. Refusing to follow after the devil’s pied piper flute.  Lent is not just giving up chocolate or sweets, or meat on Fridays, but this is a special time to follow Jesus, to examine ourselves, and to learn and practice the works and ways of God.

Whether we are in the wilderness or not, I encourage all of us to follow after Jesus. Say “Yes” to God, and “No” to the devil and the seductive power of evil. And, God will be with us, in the wilderness, on the mountain, in the cities, wherever we are. Thank God! Amen.
[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/first-sunday-in-lent7#preaching

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)

Until He Comes

“Until He Comes”

 

1-cor-11-26-until-he-comes

(My friend Pastor Gordon preached at St. Luke’s Church this morning. Here is a shorter meditation I preached, from the first week of December 2012.)

1 Corinthians 11:26 – December 7, 2012

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” This popular Christmas song blares from PA systems at malls, restaurants and grocery stores across the United States at this time of year. This song talks about caroling, mistletoe, snowmen, good cheer. These Christmas-themed songs blare for more than a month before Christmas, long before the Thanksgiving turkey is on the table.

But what about what comes before Christmas? What about Advent? Who remembers Advent, in our popular culture? Advent is a time of preparation. A time of waiting. A time of anticipation. But Advent is not honored or valued much here, especially in this country’s culture. Not in this society of flash and noise, of macho and posturing, of glitz and glamour. Let’s face it. The quiet, reflective season of Advent is just not as exciting as Christmas.

Seriously, from one point of view, Christmas has it all. Angel choir, big miracle, special effects, even some VIPs—the Magi. It even has some aspects that certain segments of society today would consider inclusive—featuring a marginalized people-group, starring a young, single mother, even society’s downtrodden outcasts in the shepherds. And the music! Just think of Christmas carols and music from your childhood, from concerts you’ve attended. Yup. Christmas has it all.

But what of Advent? Not so much. Advent is a waiting time. A time of anticipation. We wait for the coming of Christ, the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. For four weeks we wait, and watch, and pray. During the reflective Advent season, we hear many prophecies foretelling the coming of Christ. Both the first coming—in Bethlehem—as well as the second coming.

Often we consider the Old Testament prophecies as foretelling, as promises, as forerunners to Good News of great joy, which shall be to all people. But what about our Scripture text for today? Our text comes from 1 Corinthians, from the writing of the Apostle Paul. At first glance, one might think it has little to do with Advent. But let’s look at verse 26 of chapter 11 one more time. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” That sounds like Advent to me!

Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we remember the second coming. We are anticipating the coming of our Lord. Yes, we remember the story of Jesus and His love, that happened two thousand years ago. But we also look forward to the time when our Lord comes in the clouds, with all of the angel chorus. Talk about special effects! Hollywood won’t be able to hold a candle to this one!

We are told to be ready. Like the Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared! And part of our preparation is to remember—to look backwards. And also, at the same time, to look ahead! We anticipate, we get ready, we remember. Both backwards and forwards, at the same time.

And if that is not enough—we celebrate. Praise God, we are invited to the table of our Lord. Let us thank God for these gifts we are about to receive.

Alleluia, amen.

 

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Pierced by Love

“Pierced by Love”

Crucifixion woodcut

Isaiah 53:5 – John 19:37 – March 25, 2016

This service tonight is brought to you—to me—to all of us—by the word “LOVE.” All through Lent we have been following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, following Him as He expressed that love to all He met, in various ways.

On the first Sunday in Lent, Valentine’s Day, we looked at Jesus as He was tempted in the wilderness. While He was here on earth, Jesus made sure His heart was given to His Heavenly Father, And, He advised us on where our hearts ought to be, too. Loving God.

This giant Valentine heart I’m holding is a conversation heart. Can we think of it as a Valentine from Jesus? On one side, it says “Be mine.” On the other, it says “I’m yours.”

Who—or what—do we give our hearts to?

            We heard Jesus compare Himself to a mother hen. Jesus welcomes us into His embrace, into His community of love and caring. Just as a lost little chick who finally finds the way home into the nest, into his or her mother hen’s warm feathery embrace, so we can find our way into a community of caring, love, nourishing and belonging. I hope our church community extends that caring and loving welcome to everyone. Jesus wants us to know that we are welcome with Him, loved by Him, always.

We followed the thread of covenant love given to King David. Are we sharing God’s covenant love with those who need to hear? Many are hiding in loneliness and desperation thinking that no one loves them. We can introduce them to our Lord Jesus. We can tell them of the love of God that we have received through Christ. With our Lord Jesus we can find acceptance and security, and most importantly, love. The thread of covenant love, traced down to today. God is offering that love to us, today. Can you feel it?

Then, the parable of the Prodigal. Jesus gives hope to all those who make bad choices and run away to a far country.(Including us.) God the heavenly Father—the heavenly Parent—is actively looking for us when we make bad choices. When we come to our senses and return to God for forgiveness, God comes running to meet us, from a long way off. If that isn’t love, what is?

We come to Mary of Bethany, anointing Jesus with a whole bottle of unbelievably expensive perfume. She intended this gift as a token of her extravagant love for Jesus. We know Jesus had given real expressions of His love to her and her family, in the raising of Lazarus.

Can you believe, spending a whole year’s wages on a small bottle of perfume? Astronomically expensive. Do you understand why I called Mary’s expression a gift of extravagant love?

I think Mary understood the warnings Jesus had been giving, about very soon entering Jerusalem. About the path He must travel—to the cross. Passover was coming! The Gospel tells us so. She is not only showing her extravagant love, but preparing Jesus for whatever it is that He will face—very soon.

Now, today, Good Friday, Jesus is facing that ultimate gift of love.

When I was in my twenties, recently graduated from a Christian college, it was this time of year. Holy Week. I had connections to several different churches around Chicago, in different denominations. I took the opportunity to attend a service each day at this time, at each place of worship. Thursday night, Maundy Thursday, I attended a Lutheran church. The night our Lord Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We celebrated the Lord’s Supper that night. Good Friday, I went to church at an evangelical church. The church celebrated communion that night. On Saturday at that time, I was in the habit of occasionally attending a Messianic synagogue. I attended that Saturday, and they celebrated that commemoration of the Passover dinner where Messiah Yeshua instituted the Lord’s Supper. And on Sunday morning, Easter morning, I went to a Presbyterian church, where we celebrated Easter communion.

Four very different services at four diverse places of worship. Four separate occasions where I had the opportunity to partake in the Lord’s Supper. With each renewed reminder of the Words of Institution, where we remembered that on the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and took the cup at supper. Said, “This is My body, this is My blood, broken and shed for all of you.” And St. Paul in 1 Corinthians reminds us when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we remember the death of our Lord until He comes again.

As each service washed over me, my consciousness of my sinfulness and how unworthy I was also washed over me. I love this reading from the prophet, Isaiah chapter 53. This chapter of Isaiah keeps breaking my heart. It broke my heart in my twenties, and still continues to break my heart today. I bow my head in grief as I read about our Lord Jesus, despised and rejected of humanity. A man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Acquainted with grief.

On that Holy Week in my twenties, with the repeated communion services, my sin was repeatedly put before me. Extreme grief and sorrow came over me each time as I repeatedly considered my sins, my transgressions, and these words from the prophet Isaiah.

Jesus was, indeed, pierced for my transgressions. Through His death on the cross, through those wounds He received, I was healed. Healed from all iniquity!

These words of the prophet are not just words on a page. They became vividly real to me some years ago. Just as they are still vividly real, today. Real for me, for you, for everyone. Jesus was pierced for all of our transgressions. Jesus was crushed for all of our iniquities.

“On Thursday—yesterday, Jesus ate with His disciples.  He knew it would be His last meal with them.  When no one washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus did the job.  He even washed the feet of Judas who would turn Him in to the soldiers and Peter who would pretend he did not even know Jesus later that night. That is love!

“On Friday, Jesus endured whipping and being nailed to a cross.  He forgave the soldiers who did the job.  He endured the crowds who mocked him as He died and forgave them.  He watched His mother watch Him die on the cross, and even asked his friend John to take care of her.  That is love!

“By the time he died on Friday, His heart was broken by his enemies, by the crowds, and even by His friends.  But Jesus kept on loving them all.  That is love – God’s love!” (from Worshiping with Children, Palm/Passion Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.)

Yes, our Lord Jesus did die on the cross. He took upon Himself the sins of humanity, willingly. Lovingly. He was pierced, because of love. The best news of all? Jesus did it because He loved us with God’s love. Boundless, abundant, transforming. Jesus loves without limits.

We have been forgiven. Just as the prophet says, through His wounds we are truly healed.  That is indeed something for which we all can thank God.

That is not the end of the story. No! Jesus may have died that Good Friday afternoon, but He did not stay dead. He rose from the dead! Sunday is coming! However, it is not here yet.

Yes, we sorrow with the women and with John, there at the Cross. Yes, we bow our heads in anguish and shame, guilt and grief.

When someone asks us, “How much did Jesus love people?” We can say, “Jesus loved us this much.” (holding up outstretched arms)

 

(Thanks to Carolyn Brown, for her excellent ideas for a Lenten series on Love! I borrowed freely from  Worshiping with Children, Palm/Passion Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-palm-passion-sunday-march-20-2016.html )

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!

God’s Abundance

“God’s Abundance”

John 2-8 Miracle Wedding at Cana Coptic icon

John 2:8 – January 17, 2016

Weddings are so often a joyful time! Busy, yes. Stressful, yes. But joy-filled, too!

Have you ever known a wedding where something unexpected happened? I mean, a mistake happened, or something just went plain wrong? These are just a few things that actually happened to a real-life pastor, the Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie.

  • The groom and best man got to the church on time, but they forgot to bring the suit for the 6-year-old ring bearer.
  • The matron of honor had surgery a little too recently to be standing for a long time and collapsed during the vows.
  • The pastor got the time wrong and showed up an hour late for the wedding.
  • People on the guest list didn’t bother to rsvp for the reception, but showed up anyway, assuming there would be enough food and drink for them. And there wasn’t. [1]

This last one happened at the commentator’s daughter’s wedding a few years ago. Can you imagine what kinds of consternation this might cause at a wedding? Surprise? Frustration? Embarrassment?

Imagine that wedding in the town of Cana, at the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus. It doesn’t so much matter when the wedding was celebrated, then or now. An awful problem, no matter where or when. Except, even more so in the Middle East, where hospitality is such an important, foundational part of life.

Today, we know how important it is to offer guests something to eat or drink when they come to our homes for a visit. Think of that, and then multiply it. Times ten, and even more. I suspect not only many of the local townspeople were there, but also friends and relatives from near-by towns. We read in the Gospel record that the Rabbi Jesus was also there, with His disciples. And, His mother was invited, too. Large crowd of people!

Reminding everyone, in the first century, Jewish custom held that most any wedding would be an event of celebration for several days. Our Scripture passage today shows a wealthy Jewish family—with a number of servants and a household steward.

Imagine the huge amount of time and the money that went into a celebration of that size. Plus, the logistics! We read that the family provided extravagant feasting for days. In the case of today’s Scripture, if there were any miscalculation or lack in provisions in food or drink, not only the bride and groom but also their families would most likely suffer great humiliation. And what if—God forbid—something should go very wrong? What then? The surprise, the frustration, the embarrassment that potentially could happen at that wedding celebration in Cana.

John begins his narrative in the middle of things. He opens the scene on the third day of the wedding feast. The party is in full swing! And it is a party. Huge celebration.

The miracles in John’s gospel are called signs; they show everyone Jesus the Son of God, and His Godly power, might and glory. As commentator Nancy Rockwell said, John’s signs deal with ordinary human things, set in the course of human events. Like, a wedding feast. [2] And the Son of God, the Divine Word made flesh, is human, too! He enjoys Himself at a big party, with His friends and family.

We aren’t sure, since the Gospel writer does not say. Perhaps Jesus’s mother Mary is related to the family, or is good friends with one or more family members. Regardless, she is concerned about the situation. “Weddings epitomize the fact that even the best planned and most auspicious of human scenarios are imperfect, flawed, and lacking. Something always goes wrong. Something is always askew. It is the role of the mother of Jesus to express that reality and to look expectantly (I imagine) in the direction of her Son.” [3]

His mother Mary comes to her Son—I suspect quietly. “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’” What’s to be done? This is a huge problem, and a terrible embarrassment to both families! Talk about public humiliation! Mary knows very well what is going on. So, she goes to Jesus for assistance.

When we have problems, or embarrassment, or difficulty today, how do we handle it? Do we keep it to ourselves? How about sweeping awkward problems under the rug? Or do we do what Mary did? Do we go to Jesus?

Our commentator Nancy Rockwell says, “Consistent with the other signs in John’s gospel, and in keeping with John’s exact words, would be this: Mary cannot stand by and watch an injustice, will not watch the groom and his bride be disgraced;  she does not want their marriage celebration to have a lasting shame as its memory. And in response to her compassion for them Jesus does what Mary, in her famous song in Luke’s gospel proclaimed:  he fills the hungry with a good thing.  He replenishes the wine.” [4]

Yes, I could tell you about the expression Jesus uses to address His mother—“Woman,” which can be a term of respect. I could talk about the way Mary sidles up to the servants and tells them “Do whatever he tells you.” But, instead, I want to focus on the large stone jars that Jesus used. These were six large containers of water with anywhere from twenty to thirty gallons apiece. There was a large crowd gathered at the party—or, banquet. Jewish ceremonial tradition demanded that there be a large amount of water nearby for observant Jews to wash ceremonially before they ate.

Jesus knew all about this custom, and He told the servants to fill the jars. Let’s say there were twenty gallons in each one. That was one hundred twenty gallons of water, just waiting!

As Nancy Rockwell said so well, Jesus responded to His mother’s compassion for her friends. Jesus replenished the wine! Notice He did not shake His finger at the crowd for enjoying some wine. Neither did Jesus sneak out the back door, not wanting to have anything to do with such a “shameful happening.” Imagine, not having enough wine for a big, multi-day celebration like this!

Instead, Jesus replenished the wine. Over one hundred gallons of it! He allowed the party, the feasting, the celebration to continue. He stepped into potential humiliation and family embarrassment at a significant event in the town of Cana. Jesus transformed it into something abundant.

Jesus worked a miracle! Another way of looking at it is that God abundantly provided for this situation at the wedding party. God reached out and touched this event, transforming it into something miraculous. Jesus transformed the potential injustice and embarrassment of these families into something wonderful.

I remember another situation, another place, another time, where injustice, frustration and embarrassment were gradually transformed into something amazing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his words, and his actions? Transformed our country through the miracles of what was accomplished through the civil rights marches, through Dr. King’s earthshaking speeches and sermons. What a transformation, taking something hurtful and potentially embarrassing, and transcending the flawed and faulty world.

Thank God! God’s Son saw fit to provide for this family situation at the wedding. Jesus can provide for us when we get into embarrassing situations, or difficult situations. Let’s thank Jesus for His love and care for each one of us. For reaching out and giving abundantly from God’s overflowing resources.

Amen, alleluia!

 

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Wedding-Mishaps-Alyce-McKenzie-01-14-2013

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/cana-an-unexpected-time/ Nancy Rockwell

[3] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Wedding-Mishaps-Alyce-McKenzie-01-14-2013

[4] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/cana-an-unexpected-time/ Nancy Rockwell

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

Woman-and-Jesus-

April 5, 2015 – John 20:18

Who doesn’t like to hear a good story? Storytellers are wonderful to listen to. Small children love to hear stories. Even grown-ups enjoy stories. Certain stories are told over and over again, in different ways. Cinderella. King Arthur. The Arabian Nights. Aesop’s fables. Even the Wizard of Oz. What about The Greatest Story Ever Told? That’s another name for the narrative of the Passion Week, following Jesus step by step from Palm Sunday through Good Friday, finishing up with the happily ever after ending on Easter morning!

We left Jesus on the cross, on Friday afternoon, when last we met in St. Luke’s sanctuary on Good Friday. Jesus had walked through the days of Holy Week, debating with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders in the Temple. He had eaten a Passover dinner with His disciples on Thursday evening. The special thing Jesus did on Thursday was instituting the Lord’s Supper with the bread and cup of the Passover meal. Do this in remembrance of Me, He said.

After dinner, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He wanted His disciples to keep watch with Him, but they were too exhausted. After the events of a very busy week, just think. The disciples couldn’t keep their eyes open!

Then the events follow in rapid succession. The arrest, torture, trials, and sentencing. The walk down the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. Jesus dragging the cross outside the old city of Jerusalem. The disciples fled. (I won’t blame them—since their Rabbi and master was sentenced as a criminal and enemy of the state, I suspect the disciples were afraid they might be connected with their leader Jesus, too!) We see the women at the foot of the cross. The faithful women. And Jesus’ mother, Mary. Then—Jesus dies on the cross. The earth quakes, the sky is darkened. All creation mourns as the Word made flesh, the creator of all the universe, dies on the cross.

As we continued to follow the Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus is taken down from the cross shortly before sunset. His body is turned over to one of the Pharisees, Joseph of Arimethea. That Pharisee who came to Jesus one night early in His ministry, recorded in John chapter 3. Joseph hurriedly lays the dead body of Jesus in a tomb nearby. And, the faithful women are also there. They follow the dead body to the tomb.

What faith they must have had! What tenacity, and what love. To follow their leader, their rabbi, their Lord and master, even though He’s dead. To care for His body, in the absence of the disciples. The men disciples who are in hiding.

The women are there. Not shunted aside, not put in second place. These faithful women play an important role in caring for their Rabbi and their friend, hurriedly washing and preparing His dead body for the grave, before the Sabbath begins at sunset.

As Friday night swiftly approaches, with it comes the Jewish holy observance. Especially this special Sabbath—which falls during Passover. No work is to be done at all on this holy day of rest, not even the compassionate work of caring for a dead body.

After Sabbath day and Saturday night end, it is now Sunday morning. Faithful Mary Magdalene heads out for the tomb even before the sun has fully risen. Can you see her, eager in her haste to get to the tomb? With some oils to anoint the body, perhaps? But as she comes near the tomb, she discovers the stone has been rolled away. The tomb is now empty. What happened? What on earth is going on? Mary runs to get some assistance, someone to come with her and check things out more fully. (Prudent, I say! Better to be safe, Mary!)

Sure enough, Mary tells what she discovered. Two of the—men—disciples come back with her. Mary returns with the other two, back to the tomb. They see the tomb, and sure enough. It is empty. And then, these two disciples turn right around. Go back to the rest. In hiding.

But—what about Mary? What does she do?

Again, I come back to the indisputable fact that the women are faithful and true. The women show compassion, love, and care for their Rabbi, their master and friend. Mary stays put near the tomb, and weeps.

What a roller coaster ride Mary has been on. Starting on Palm Sunday, their leader and master Jesus marches right into the lion’s den, right into Jerusalem itself. All through the Passion Week, Jesus appears in and around Jerusalem, in the Temple, doing anything but keeping a low profile. And I am certain the disciples and the women accompanying them knew very well that the Jewish leaders and most of the Pharisees were planning on doing bad things to Jesus. I suspect the events of Good Friday were not totally unexpected.

So, at this desperate point, early on Sunday morning, Mary weeps. She does not know where her Lord and Master’s body has gone! After many days and nights of worry, anxiety, strong emotion, and intense grief, I can well understand how Mary broke down in tears.

What about us, today? Have you ever been through days of intense emotion, gut-wrenching anxiety, even intense grief? All of those feelings tumbling and roiling through you? Then you know a little of what Mary was going through.

What Mary did not suspect at first was that she was in the Greatest Story Ever Told. She sees Someone through her tears, in the cemetery. She suspects this Person is the gardener, of all things! She says, still crying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Then, Jesus—for it is He!—Jesus speaks to her. Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!”   Do you hear that? Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” How sweet to have someone who loves you very much call you by name! Remember, I just said that Mary had been on an emotional roller coaster the whole week previous? Just think what this would do! Wow!

Mary’s eyes are opened. Mary finally sees clearly, and responds, “Rabbi!” “Teacher!”

There’s a word in the next verse that is sometimes misunderstood. In verse 17, Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me.” I’d like to tell you about this phrase. In the original language, Greek, the word ‘hold on’ or ‘touch’ is a present imperative verb. The verb in the sentence can be translated “Do not keep touching me!” Mary finally realizes that it was really and truly Jesus, in the flesh. And I bet she fell on her knees and grabbed onto His legs with every ounce of strength in her body. Clutching, crying, laughing. Can you just see her? Can you just see them? Jesus, gently trying to get her to let go. “Mary, Mary, can you stop clutching at Me?”

Can you see Mary now, as she understands in full. Jesus is alive! He is risen! Then, she listens to Jesus. Returns to the disciples, and declares the joyful truth to everyone!

So, Mary is not only a faithful friend and follower of her Rabbi, she is also someone who carries the Good News! The news that Jesus is no longer dead, but He is risen! He is alive again. I want all of you to understand this all-important point. Jesus has entrusted Mary with the Gospel message. Mary Magdalene is no longer just a supporting player, just a side note in the Gospel. Instead, she transitions to a lead actor in the Greatest Story Ever Told, here in John 20. And, one of the first and best preachers, sharing her experience, hope and joy.

What a story! Except—this is not make-believe. This is for real. This is very much the truth. Yes, Jesus is alive. Yes, He is Lord. And, yes, He has conquered death once and for all. Do you hear? Listen again to the words of Mary. She told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

I pray that we all can affirm together today: He is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Alleluia! Amen!

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions and notes for Lent 2015. #40acts Do Lent generously! And, to the Rev. Dave Buerstetta for several ideas from his commentary notes on John 20:1-18.

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)