March 27, 2016 – Perplexed and Amazed

1 Corinthians 15: 12-22

Luke 24: 1-12

Sometimes our expectations can be thoroughly confounded.  Sometimes the mismatch between what we anticipate and what we actually encounter can rock our worlds.  Certainly that is what happened on that long ago early spring morning after the last Pesach, or Passover, that Jesus shared with His followers.  You remember what occurred.  Jesus had celebrated Passover, been betrayed, arrested, borne the mockery of a trial.  Jesus had been bounced between Pilate and Herod, both of whom were not inclined to pass judgment, even as Herod in particular also mocked Him.  But Pilate was where the buck stopped.  He made the final decision to release Barabbas, following his custom and the cries of the crowd.  Pilate ordered that Jesus be flogged, and then crucified.   The Roman centurion followed orders, and so Jesus was crucified, endured more mockery, and died.  Joseph of Arimathea  claimed Jesus’ body, and wrapped it in a linen shroud.  But there was not much time to otherwise prepare Jesus’ body, because the Sabbath was coming on.  The women who had accompanied Jesus, who had provided for Him and for His followers, women like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and death, those women paid attention to what was going on.  55The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.  But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the Body. While they were perplexed about this....  

Perplexed is a great way to describe their feelings.  They were surprised, confused.  They were filled with uncertainty – they had expected to care for Jesus’ dead body as a last sign of respect and love – but there WAS no body.  This is a difficult, bizarre situation.  What has happened???  And while they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground...  They have this amazing encounter with two men – who tell them that Jesus is, in fact, alive.  The two men remind them of Jesus’ own words – and since their expectations have been so thoroughly uprooted, they are now open to understanding, and believing, Jesus.  They are transformed from being perplexed to being messengers – the Greek word Ανγγελοσ ισ clearly embedded in it – the word we transliterate as ANGEL.   They run, and they report.  That is their task – and they fulfill it.  But even though these men, these disciples knew these women, had been provided for by these women, their witness was scoffed at.  Peter at least went and looked – but while he went home amazed, he was not transformed into a messenger – not yet.  

The foundational understanding of Easter is based on this conundrum of being perplexed, and amazed.  Paul summarizes this conundrum: if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.   OUR faith has been in vain, if in fact that tomb was empty because someone stole Jesus’ body, hid it away somewhere in secret.  

I do not even want to develop the absurdity of that argument, except to note that Jesus’ dead body would have been extremely valuable because it would have been the one thing that could have ended the rumors of His resurrection.  The recent movie Risen does a great job of showing just how much the Romans and the Jewish leaders both wanted to find that Body.  But there WAS no Body.  Not a dead one, anyway – a resurrected Body, a resurrected Jesus, who now does indeed sit at the right hand of the Father.  That fact continues to perplex and amaze us today.

The task has come down through the ages – go, report, tell, proclaim – be messengers – be ANGELS to this lost and broken world that needs this perplexing truth, this upsetting of our reality so we can be open to amazement, to being transformed by God’s reality.  God’s reality is about love, about forgiveness, about redemption and salvation.  It calls us to confess, to resolve to try again, to lean into God’s leaning, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to redeem others by caring for them: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – both jails and the psychological prisons that restrain people.  As we live into God’s grace with gratitude and love, we too will be transformed, just as those women, and later, the rest of Jesus’ followers, into Ανγγελοσ.  The kingdom of God will continue its inbreaking, until at last Jesus comes again in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Remember – He IS risen!  He is risen indeed!!  Amen.

March 6, 2016: Opened Eyes

2 Kings 6: 8-23

One popular storytelling genre is war/espionage stories.  Spies, the idea of using our wits to help the good guys defeat the bad guys, intrigue us.  There are 24 James Bond films, for example.  Adjusted for inflation, that film series is the highest grossing series of all time.  The first was made in 1962, and starred a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery, in what became his breakout role.  One key to this genre is the understood need for secrecy.  In film and especially in real life, a key to success is not letting the other side know what our plans are.  That is what propels the action in today’s story of the on-going conflict between the kingdoms of Aram and Israel. 

 8Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9But the man of God [Elisha] sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.”   The king of Aram, who has laid his plans carefully, gets frustrated when, in spite of the secrecy surrounding his plans, the Israelites remain one step ahead of him.  How is this possible?  Is there a spy?  No, one of his officers says; rather, 12.....it is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”  13He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.”   The Aramean spies advance party come back with a report, and the action picks up.  The king of Aram sends 14.... horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. 15When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” 16He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” 17Then Elisha prayed: “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So He struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. 19Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. 20As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O LORD, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The LORD opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria.  21When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” 22He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” 23So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.  

God opens the eyes of the Israelites, so they will not be afraid, as God reveals the source of their protection.  God then temporarily closes the eyes of the threatening enemy, only to reveal to them grace and mercy: Elisha leads them into Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, Israel and there, where they are entirely at the mercy of the Israelites, with the King of Israel champing at the bit to slaughter this enemy, Elisha reveals that grace and mercy:  “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” Who is responsible for the Arameans’ blindness?  How did they fall under the control of the Israelites?  It wasn’t because of the Israelites’ might, their weapons, their prowess.  It was all because of God first reassuring those with Elisha by opening their eyes, then God closing the eyes of their enemies, and then opening those enemies’ eyes to reveal their vulnerability to the Israelites.  The Israelites follow Elisha’s command to show grace and mercy.  23So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master.  What happens?  And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

Elisha redirected the Israelites as he also reminded them from where THEIR help comes.  Where might that be?  The same place where our help still comes from today.  Psalm 121  I lift up my eyes to the hills.   From whence does my help come?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved, He who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.  The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.  The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

Opening our eyes, really opening our eyes, is hard.  When people tell me to open my eyes, they usually mean that I am being naive, and that I need to get a dose of reality.  Grace and mercy?  Really?  Sounds good in practice, pastor, but it’s not real life.  Real life is about protecting what is mine, getting my share, coming out on top.  It’s about NOT taking prisoners.  It’s about eliminating prisoners.  It’s a dog-eat-dog.  Better to be the first one to strike.  Better to turn those “not like us” into “others” – “others” who, if they fall into our control, should be kept out, kept away, or eliminated for the good of the community, the nation.  Right?  But especially in this time of Lent, we remember who uttered sentiment about the good of the nation:  John 11: 49-52:  49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.  Using the rationale of those who put the Son of God to death does not seem like a good idea to me.  The wisdom of the world is not always what God calls us to live into.  It is precisely because we have opened eyes that we are supposed to extend grace and mercy.

Johnny Nash, who was one of the first non-Jamaican songwriters to record reggae music, wrote a song back in 1972, “I Can See Clearly Now,” that has been playing in my internal play list all week.  Way back in 1972, it was #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.  It is not overtly Christian, just as most reggae music is not overtly Christian, and yet it sums up our attitude of how we are to live our lives.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I've been prayin for
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.

Look all around, there's nothin but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothin but blue skies

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.

We CAN see all obstacles in our way precisely BECAUSE God has opened our eyes.  When we release our expectations, our desire to kill our enemies, either by inflicting spiritual and psychological harm through slander, lies, hatred, or by inflicting physical harm, our pain and bad feelings can disappear.  As we come to this table, may we remember that we are called to follow Jesus, the One who came not to judge and condemn, but to redeem and save.  May we remember that we are called to live and love like Jesus, as we continue to do that which is pleasing to Him, until He returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen

February 28, 2016: Obedience

Last week was Scout Sunday.  We got to celebrate being the charter organization for both Cub Scout Pack 1980 and Boy Scout Troop 1980, and also celebrate the way we support the local Girl Scouts through their local council, the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey by serving as a training and meeting center for the council and also serving as a meeting place for some of the local troops.  As part of that, the Scouts helped us remember both the grounding for what Scouting is in scripture, which some of our Girl Scouts read, and the twelve parts of the Scout Law, which some of our Boy Scouts and Scouts from the pack recited in response.  The seventh part of the law has to do with obedience.  This is what the law says:  A Scout is OBEDIENT: A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and pack. He obeys the laws of his community and country.  Obedience.  An important idea.

Obey is a powerful verb – it is a strong action word.  It implies hearing, understanding, and doing.  Two descriptors, obedience, and obedient, grow right out of the action of following, of doing, or of NOT following, not doing – which is where DISobey, DISobedience and DISobedient come from.  When we are expected to obey, we have two possible behavioral responses: to do, or to do not.  That is some of what today’s reading is about.

Naaman is strong, powerful, respected, successful – and also afflicted.  His social contact with others was necessarily afflicted by the skin disease that is translated “leprosy.”  The key here is not the actual disease, as we understand it now, that he suffered from – it is that he was socially isolated even as he was also strong, powerful, respected and successful.  What to do??  When he hears, through a slave girl, an Israelite captive who serves his wife, that there may be hope in Israel,he asks for, and receives, support from the king of Aram to go and see.  The king of Aram sends him to the king of Israel – but the king of Israel was not the prophet the slave girl had in mind.  So there is a course correction, and Naaman is sent to Elisha, the prophet who followed Elijah.  Elisha merely sends out a messenger, who tells Naaman to go and bathe in the Jordan, seven times.  Naaman was enraged by all that happened:  he’s strong! He’s powerful! He’s respected! He’s successful!  Why isn’t Elisha coming out and honoring all of that!?!  And what is the Jordan compared with the waters of HIS hometown!?!  His servants refocus him: why are they there, again?  Why refuse such a simple order?  Why NOT obey?  What have you got to lose, Naaman?  (Well, pride and pridefulness loom large here.  Also hope – coming to Elisha was a desperate measure.)  So, probably grumbling and complaining under his breath he follows Elisha’s instructions – and is healed, probably again way beyond all of his expectations and desperate hopes.  And the Lord God of Israel gains a powerful, obedient follower.  That’s why he asks permission to bring back two wagonloads of dirt – because in that time and place having some of that particular soil was key in being able to offer right worship.  The Lord God gained a powerful, OBEDIENT follower, when Naaman decided to obey the man of God.

Obedience matters to God.  In scripture, there are 299 references to the word obey, obedience and obedient – which also includes the references to DISobey, DISobedience and DISobedient.  Time and again the people promise to do what God says.  One of the first references comes from Exodus 24:7:  All the Lord has spoken [after the giving of the Ten Commandments] we will do, and we will be obedient.   We know how THAT worked out.  The role of the judges and the prophets was to call the people back to obedience – and we know how THAT worked out as well.  So in the fullness of time the Word became incarnate, became flesh – for US and for OUR salvation.  Yet, when even the wind and the seas obeyed Jesus, as told in Matthew 8:27, Mark 4:14, and Luke 8:25, when even evil spirits obeyed Jesus and came out, as told in Mark 1:27, we are shocked.  The wind, the rain, evil spirits – they obey Jesus.  What about us?

Obedience is hard.  Obedience means we have to sacrifice OUR way of being, doing, following, leading to instead follow Jesus’ way of being, doing, following.  We have to be willing to accept grace.  Naaman did that.  He accepted grace, and because of Elisha’s generous response, because Elisha refused to accept any kind of payment for the healing Naaman had received, Naaman learned another valuable response – go, and do likewise – extend grace, and the message of God’s grace, to others.  That public act of ongoing worship Naaman proposed was part of that – a testimony of God’s ongoing grace, a grace that was not bought by wealth and precious clothes and jewerly, but a grace that was freely given to all who would set aside their expectations and be obedient.

Obedience is hard, because our obedience is often framed with expectations: if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.  God doesn’t work like that.  This old poem, “I Asked GOD,” attributed to an unknown soldier, shows us the fallacy of expecting tit-for-tat from God:

I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey... 
I asked for health, that I might do greater things; 
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be 
I was given poverty, that I might be wise;
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God... 
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…
I got nothing that I asked for- but everything I had hoped for; 
Almost despite myself, My unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed. 

May we too learn humbly to obey, continuing to do the things Jesus reminded us to do in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – both jails and the psychological prisons that restrain people.  May we be as obedient as Naaman, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

© Readington Reformed Church  2015