Looking Lectionary: Easter 6A

 

 

Reading: John 14:15-21

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18 NIV

John 14 is the first chapter of the “Farewell discourses”, John 14 – John 17, in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and resurrection and their post-crucifixion life. He delivers these discourses after the “last supper” on the eve of his crucifixion. The major themes include Jesus’ relationship to the Father, the believers’ relationship to the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the church and persecution.

Nestled in John 14, Easter 6A’s reading has a chiastic structure, leaving John 14:18 (quoted above) as the central thought. I think there are a few things we can tease out from John’s focus on this particular verse:

  • In first-century Palestine and other patriarchal cultures, widows and orphans were incredibly disadvantaged as they were typically outsiders to the large family structures that ordered life, power, position and wealth. Jesus would not leave his disciples and other believers as “outsiders” to the Kingdom of God – rather, they would be heirs (John 14:2).
  • “I will come to you.” John is teasing a few things here. On one hand, he’s probably referring to Jesus’ resurrection appearances (as in v19). But he’s also talking about the Holy Spirit (the Advocate mentioned in v16) and possibly Jesus’ return at a later date.

In a sense, then, it’s as if Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples at all.

But sight, as we saw in Easter 5A, is persuasive and fickle. In the same way that his disciples struggled to acknowledge that in Jesus they saw the reflection of the Father, they would come to struggle with Jesus’ identity as the Son. And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, who “will teach you everything” (v26). He staggers his promises of presence; drawing his disciples into him, into the Father, into the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches his disciples not to rely on what they see, but on what they know as truth: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

These days we tend to trust what we see rather than what we know. It’s our obsession with what we see that often leads us astray; that leads us to focus on externals, on snap judgments, on laborious theology, on prejudice, on what Jen Wilkin calls the “Instagram subculture of Christianity”. Vision-focussed, we demand bigger and better church services; we demand a kind of “Christian lifestyle” that’s big on visuals but not so big on content; we value presentability rather than honest brokenness, with little room or patience for anything that isn’t an immediate Experience™, that doesn’t play well or easily.

Jesus’ presence, on the other hand – his actually coming to us, his bringing us into his Father’s house – is an unseen, moment-by-moment, truth-by-truth thing. Like the twelve disciples, there will be many times that we doubt it. In these “blind times”, the times that wouldn’t make for a great Instagram post, we rely instead on Jesus’ promise that we won’t be left behind as orphans.

Blessings,

Lee

Looking Lectionary: Palm/Passion Sunday A

 

 

Texts: Matthew 21:1-11 (Palm); Matthew 27:11-54 (Passion)

Matthew 21 (NIV)

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew 27 (NIV)

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

You can’t separate Palm and Passion Sunday. You can’t separate the Jesus welcomed as “Son of David” to shouts of “Hosanna” from the man crucified as the “King of the Jews” alongside criminals. They are the same man, the same God, and part of the task of Easter is finding comfort in this duality and leading those who listen to your sermons or your podcasts or who read your blog or your devotions, or the people you share a breakfast or dinner table with to find comfort and meaning in this apparent dichotomy.

In fact, I would say the main task is coming to a realisation that there is no dichotomy at all, but that this is merely the reality of a suffering servant king, glorified.

For years Jesus’ ministry led him to this point: entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, bringing to bear the words prophesied by Zechariah (in Zechariah 9:9): “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, on the foal of a donkey.” Jesus enters the city near the time of the Passover; perhaps even at the same moment that, on the west side of Jerusalem the governor Pilate and his detachment of soldiers are entering with great pomp and fanfare in a show of power meant to cow the Jews during their most important religious festival, a festival commemorating their liberation from an oppressive power.

The contrast couldn’t have carried more of a kick had Jesus employed a skywriter to spell it out: Jesus, the Son of David, the Messiah, was different, and so was the Kingdom he had been proclaiming. Jesus was the new liberator, and this time he would lead the whole world in an exodus from sin and death and oppression, into a chosen land of grace, inclusion and service.

The people who had been travelling with Jesus knew this already; the majority of whom were probably poor peasants and social outcasts. They were the ones who spread garments and fronds over Jesus’ path, as one would for a king. This perplexed the Jerusalemites, the ones living in the seat of their nation’s wealth and power and who probably constituted the religious and economic top brass. Who was this man riding in on a donkey? “A prophet,” they heard, “from Nazareth in Galilee.”

These weren’t impressive credentials by any stretch of the imagination. Galilee was an area heavily populated with Gentiles, and so considered a sort of Jewish backwater. Nobody bragged about being from Galilee… Except for Jesus. Galilee – a poor area with frequent revolts against the Roman oppressors – represented exactly the people and the oppression Jesus had come to lever his Kingdom against.

We find ourselves, two thousand years on, still needing to ask this most fundamental question: who was this man riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? We ask it on Palm/Passion Sunday so that during passion week we can rediscover the answer: he was a king and a prisoner; a servant and an offering and a sacrifice; he was the Christ. There are no contradictions in his character because his character is love.

Blessings for your holy week,
Lee

Last minute lectionary (Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +26)

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This Sunday preachers will be preaching in a changed world. Whether you love Trump or hate him; whether you personally care about politics; whether you’re inside or outside the United States – Trump’s election as president has changed the course of world history. Whether for good or ill we’ll still see, but I believe for the latter: hate, exclusion and fear rarely bode well in leadership.

Do you believe in coincidence? I don’t. In the third season of BBC’s Sherlock, Mycroft Holmes says of coincidence, “The universe is rarely that lazy.” And so it is that this week’s lectionary reading is like bread to people starved by fear and thirsty for reassurance.

Luke 21:5-19 (NIV)

The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

The second temple was built by Herod the Great at the beginning of the first century CE, as much an exercise in self-aggrandizement as it was in appeasing the Jews under Roman rule. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the temple was firmly established as the center of Jewish social, religious and economic life.

It’s not hard to connect the dots between the second temple and our own modern-day temples: the bulwark of institutional Christian religion, which – instead of using it as a bridge to exactly the kinds of people Jesus reached out to – we tend to wear like an oilskin, to keep the “other” out, to keep it from penetrating our narrow little worlds. Christianity has become largely cultural: something we inherit, something we use to define ourselves, something to draw lines with and build walls on. The similarities to the second temple period are really quite astounding.

And it is of this temple of incultured faith, faith against rather than for, that Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

In our sermons this week, we are privileged enough to be in a position to ask: Are we ready and willing to be destroyed? If taking apart cultural Christianity and its structures and walls is the only way to grasp the hands of the marginalized and the hurting – if it’s the only way to reach the lost – are we willing to bulldoze the grand temples of our privilege to find and to comfort? To uplift and to heal?

Or will we, in our defense of our “temples”, persecute and betray the kind of people who need our help most?

In voting for Trump, I believe this is what more than fifty million Americans have done: they have pushed the pedestal up under him, hopeful that he will maintain their temple of white, evangelical, male-centric America. But pedestals are always built on something; and when that “something” is in fact people – women, minorities, immigrants, foreigners – little more has been done than a golden calf raised.

But a golden calf, as Israel learnt, is little more than something around which a nation can tear itself to shreds – and be torn to shreds.

Yes, this Sunday ministers, lay or otherwise, will be preaching in a different world. But thankfully it’s a world in which Jesus once lived; a world in which and for which he died; a world from which he arose, alive again, and ascended to heaven.

It’s about this kingdom, His kingdom, that we preach.

And it’s from this kingdom that we pray.

The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2 NIV)

Blessings for your sermons,

Lee

Last minute lectionary (Proper 21C / Ordinary 26C / Pentecost +19)

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“Last minute lectionary” is a series of brief thoughts on the week’s narrative lectionary reading.


Luke 16:19-31 (NIV)

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”


I’ve been reading Max Lucado’s “Experiencing the Heart of Jesus”. In one of the lessons he talks about the gift of unhappiness. He writes,

“Unhappiness on earth cultivates a hunger for heaven. By gracing us with a deep dissatisfaction, God holds our attention. The only tragedy, then, is to be satisfied prematurely. To settle for earth.”

This week’s reading isn’t an easy one. Here we have an example of two men, one satisfied “prematurely” and one satisfied in God, who nonetheless suffers while on earth. We could write or preach purely about seeking satisfaction in God alone, as Max Lucado does, and not be wrong once. We cannot be satisfied on earth, not totally; that’s true. But is that enough?

A few weeks ago there was a photo in one of our town’s local newspapers of the well-dressed head of one women’s organisation or another presenting a “gift purse” to a haggard-looking female car guard. Is that enough?

This morning a woman hiding from the berth of the sun beneath an umbrella stopped by my house, probably looking for work or food; I pretended not to see her. Is that enough?

If it is, our dissatisfaction with earthly things probably doesn’t run quite deep enough, nor our satisfaction in Christ. If we truly are satisfied in God I don’t think we could look at the world without feeling that same discontent with its strata that he does.

During the week Rachel Held Evans tweeted about how this reading had turned her proposed sermon theme on its head.

The temptation here will be to preach about the “them”, but as always, we need to start with God, and then ourselves in relationship with him: is God enough for us? If he is, then can we honestly stay inside our various dwellings while tragedy occurs at their gates?

Has the Risen Dead not convinced us after all?

Blessings for your sermons.

Last minute lectionary (Proper 20C / Ordinary 25C / Pentecost +18)

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“Last minute lectionary” is a series of brief thoughts on the week’s narrative lectionary reading.


Luke 16:1-13 (NIV)

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

6 “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’

7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’

“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.

“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”


This week’s reading presents the challenge of being both difficult to interpret literally and difficult to spiritualise and use as a metaphor for something more palatable than money. But when you read the parable end to end and understand it in context – wedged as it is between the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-31) and the story about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) – you realise there’s a greater thread running through these teachings: the disparity of wealth in this world, and the incarnational character of our faith.

If you’re a bookworm or a Reddit addict (ahem), then you understand the foolishness of trying to read while eating, especially if the book is large or unyieldy. Actually eating falls by the wayside as you concentrate either on reading your book or on wrestling it into a position so that you can read it. Our relationship with money and possessions and our relationship with God seems to follow the same pattern: you can pursue both, certainly, but one always loses out, and it’s rarely money!

That’s the bottom line of this parable: Jesus was talking again about keeping hearts faithful to God in a world that can be ruthless in demanding its affections. But more than that, Jesus was also urging his followers to keep their heads in the world. Our faith is a “feet on the ground” kind of faith. While our hearts should pursue only God and his love, our heads are to action that love into the world, without forgetting which kingdom it is we’re working for.

We sometimes tend to view God’s kingdom as something removed, as something “after”. But earlier, in Luke 12:35-48, Jesus spent time teaching about the imminence of his return, the imminence of the kingdom of God. There he gave the same warning he gives his followers after the parable of the shrewd manager: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (v48b). Thus the kingdom of God is not something distant; it is something to be expected and lived for every (worldly) moment, and it’s in living this way (the way that Jesus did) that the kingdom “comes near”.

I think the questions we need to ask ourselves and our congregations with this parable is about priorities and motivation. I was recently discussing tithing with someone and she talked about how some of her co-workers considered tithing ten percent a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. This got me thinking about tithing in general: ten percent is a relatively small sum; why do we feel we can give less or should give more? Either attitude suggests to me that money takes precedent and not God. God neither demands guilt nor supplication. These are patterns we fall into when our head space for the world outweighs our heart space for God.

But we might go further than that. This is an easy parable to push points across about tithing. But the harder questions to ask will be about those “true riches” in v11: how are we managing our abundance of grace, love and salvation? Are we stingy with it? Do we attach clauses to its distribution? Do we lend it out and charge interest? Are we “shrewd managers” with it – calling in debts because we still feel indebted? Inevitably how we manage these riches will determine how worldly riches are used, because it reveals our priorities and our motivation.

Blessings for your sermons.