March 31, 2009

who were they afraid of?

The Passion Narrative (the story of Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution) is so well known to the preacher that there is a very real danger of missing the details.  Ignoring, for a moment, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, let's look, for example, at the second sentance.

"The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people."

Now, who do you think the chief priests and scribes were afraid of?  As I have read this narrative, it being so familiar to me, I've said to myself, "well obviously they are afraid of the people; that they will turn violent, and the lives of the chief priests and scribes will be in danger."

Ah, but remember that it is the Festival of Unleavened Bread.  The remembrance of the Passover and the Israelites Exodus from Egypt.  The streets of Jerusalem are alive with excitement, energy, and a sense of hope.  Maybe this year, God will restore them fully to their promised land and remove their oppressors from power.  Knowing this is a real possiblity, the Romans would have stocked the streets with soliders.  The Governor, Pilate, came to town to see that nothing happened.  Soldiers with itchy trigger fingers, or knife hands, as they case may be, are ready to quell any protest.  A riot this week, is most certianly a bad thing.  Not only would the Chief Priests and the Scribes be in danger from the people, but their whole way of being, the comfy, cozy relationship they've setup with their Roman oppressors would have fallen apart.  I riot means the thumb of Rome coming down on them, and that they can't afford.

So they find a way to arrest Jesus by stealth; by the betrayal of one of his own.

It never ceases to amaze me how a familiar story can have all sorts of deeper meaning when time and care are taken to read the details that fall between the lines.

March 30, 2009

Palm Sunday

Reginald Fuller, the late, great Biblcial scholar, says that one can't preach the Liturgy of the Palms on Palm Sunday and must, instead, preach the Passion.

"Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, while doubtless the major theme of this Sunday in popular estimation, is both historically and liturgically merely a subsidiary theme, serving only as a prelude to the passion. Any homily dealing with the entry into Jerusalem should make this clear." - read the rest here.

And with all due respect, I can't help but disagree.  The Passion Narrative has it's rightful place across Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but we don't get there without the "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem.  Jesus doesn't end up on a cross without shouts of "Hosanna!"

I've noted before how disfunctional I find the Palm Sunday service.  I know the tradition is there to read the Passion, but I know the tradition is there to tell the story of Jesus' entrance to the place where he would ultimately die.  I think both stories are worth telling, and they need not, and really should not, be crammed together as if we don't have time to really care about either one.

The onset of Holy Week is not about rushing to Easter with its egg hunts, baskets, crawfish boils, and oodles of peanut butter candies.  It is about taking our time; walking with Jesus in his last week and ultimately seeing the depth of God's love on Good Friday.  We'll get there eventually, but until then, let's be present as our Lord rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Readings for Palm Sunday, Year B

March 26, 2009

Jesus' Mission

I am thankful for my good freind, Bill, this morning, and his comment on my earlier post Dear John.  I am glad that his new status as parent, will not keep him from being my personal Johanine Scholar, and even more thankful for his pointing out the counterintuitive idea that the Cross is Jesus' "glory and triumph."

This is hard for "Mission Accomplished" oriented, high-speed internet, Americans to grasp.  We want things done, we want them done now, and we want them done is neatly and tidily as possible.  The Iraq war was no more finished when Presdient Bush stood on that aircraft carrier as Jesus' mission was done when he said, "now is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world will be driven out."  No, not yet.  More bloodshed had to happen.  More human rights abuses.  More lives had to be lost.  It makes us angry and uncomfortable.

But, it is in the messiness and ugliness of the Cross that Christ is glorified.  He his raised, quite literally, on a cross, and exaulted, quite really, by all of heaven.  In so doing, he brings all people to himself.

Or as one of our Collects for Mission says it, "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace..."

That is Jesus' mission.  To be killed in order to be exaulted.  To be nailed to a cross so that his arms might be opened to receive everyone.  As the Collect goes on to say, that mission, is now shared with us, His body in the meantime.  "So clothe us with your Spirit, that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name."

That alone is the mission of Christ.  How it is manifest post-crucifixion is myriad; from social justice ministries to apologetic biblical interpretation and everywhere in between.  All pointing back to that wonderfully horrible Friday when Jesus' mission was, indeed, accomplished.

March 25, 2009

True Joy

I am really stuck on the Collect for this Sunday.  I've probably said this about half-a-dozen others, but it might be one of the best weekly prayers the Church has to offer.

Last night, SHW and I read, amazingly enough, yesterday's devotion from Christ our Hope a set of meditations from Henri J.M. Nouwen.  Now that I look it up, I see it was Monday's - we read two to catch up.  Anyway, it was all about the mix of joy and sorrow.  It came to mind to me this morning as those "swift and varied changes" run rampant here at St. Paul's, as sorrow and unhappiness meet, there True Joy must still be found.

"For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. - Psalm 30.5

"Joy is essential to spiritual life.  Whatever we may think or say aobut God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit.  Jesus reveals to us God's love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete.  Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing -sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death - can take that love away.

"Joy is not the same as hapiness.  We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there becasue it comes form the knowledge of God's love for us.  We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together.  Taht isn't easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experiences, such as being present at the birth of a child or the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience.

"In a world hobbled by pain and distress, loving Lord, help me experience the joy of your unconditional love." (page 19, emphasis mine)

I have yet to experience the birth of a child, but I've sat and watched with families as dear, dear people have breathed their last.  There is that mixture of relief, joy, grief, and pain all wrapped up together, but as the waves slow down and catching our breath becomes easier, the joy of unconditional love always overwhelms.

March 24, 2009

Dear John,

Thank you for always being there to confuse me.


What a peculiar pericope we have for Sunday in John 12.20-33.   How do we get from some Greeks wanting to see Jesus to the time being now to the voice of God booming from heaven like thunder?  What does Jesus mean by "now is the judgment of this world"?  Why is the Jesus in Mark one who "came not to be served but to serve" but the Jesus in John promises those who serve him the honor of his Father?  And what in the world is Jesus talking about when he says, "And I, when I am lifted up, from the earth, will draw all people to myself"?

Preaching often means finding a kernal, slowly and patiently heating that one kernal, and then savoring the one beautiful piece of popcorn it creates.  I think that is very true for the preacher this Sunday if (s)he chooses John 12.20-33.  Which kernal will you choose?  The salvation kernal?  The servant kernal?  The hating life kernal?  The God talking kernal?

There are many ways to go this week.  The upside can be huge if proper exegesis is done.  The downside, well it might be even bigger, as a convoluted strange lesson can often leaded to a convoluted and messy sermon.  Prayers for those who preach this text this week - be faithful in you prayer and study and preach the word God has for you and your congregation with boldness.

March 23, 2009

Sermon for Lent 4b - Fun with Snakes

On Wednesday at Practice(s) Make Perfect we talked about how for those of us in the western church, the key sense used in spirituality is hearing; we listen for the voice of God.  In the east, however, the key sense is vision; they look for the face of God.  In a world so full of images; television, billboards, business logos, computer screens, it is worth noting what we stop to gaze at, what we pay attention to.
    This seems to be the key question on this the Fourth Sunday in Lent, what are you looking at?  What are you paying attention to?
    For three of the last five years, I have had the joy of joining 400,000 of my closest friends in Indianapolis, IN for the running of the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indy 500.  The track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a two-and-a-half mile oval, which means that at any given point on the track you can see, at most, two-thirds of a mile, about a quarter of the track.  So they key to having "good seats" at Indy is your proximity to a jumbo-tron that will allow you to see the action elsewhere.  Still, one has to learn when to pay attention to the track and when to be looking at the screen.  Last summer, during a series of pit-stops while the race was under caution, I was paying attention to the wreckage recovery on the jumbo-tron while A.J. Foyt IV's car caught on fire in the pit directly in front of me.  Clearly, I was paying attention to the wrong thing.
    The people of Israel had a similar problem.  The second generation since their exodus from Egypt is are nearing the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Even after all these years, they, like their parents before them, have a habit of paying attention to the wrong things.  This time we hear another story of their grumbling against Moses and God.
    "Why did we ever leave Egypt?  We may have been slaves, forced to work seven days a week without rest, but at least we had food and water, good food.  Now we are wandering in the wilderness without food and water, without good food, that is.  Why, oh why, did we ever leave Egypt?"
    You can almost hear God say, "I'll give you something to complain about" as the plague of snakes is unleashed.  These weren't just your garden variety snakes.  Depending on how you translate saraph these snakes were either firey, winged, of poisonous.  To make matters worse, the Snakes were everywhere; in their tents, their bedrolls, their cribs, and their food pots.  People were being bitten right and left, and people were dying.  It was, most certainly, not a pleasant time, and so the people are compelled to repentance.
    "We screwed up," they said to Moses, "we have sinned against God with all of our complaining, and we are sorry.  We paid attention to the wrong things, complaining about Manna, we should have been thankful to have food at all.  We should be glad to be free from slavery in Egypt.  We are sorry, please, talk to God for us, ask him to take away these snakes."
    Moses prayed.
    The snakes remained.
    But God said to Moses, "The people have not been paying attention.  They've had their eyes focused on the ground, on their taste buds, on their aching feet.  When I brought snakes they began to see.  Now build for them a snake made of bronze, attach it to a pole, and lift it up so that all may see.  When they are bitten, and they will get bit, they may look up, see the snake, and be healed."
    Remembering the Ten Commandments we heard last week, we know how troublesome this instruction is.  Under normal circumstances, making a graven image of a well-known symbol of an Egyptian fertility god that would perform magical healings would cause Moses some pause.  But not today, not with snakes slithering all around.  Quickly, and without any hesitation, Moses made the snake of brass, put it on a pole, and lifted it high into the air.
    "Look up!  Look up and live!"  he shouted.  "Look up and live!"
    It was, of course, not the bronze snake that healed the people.  It was YAHWEH who was behind the snake who healed.  It was the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt and freed them from the house of slavery.  It was the God who hears the cries of his people and has compassion on them.  It was the God of all mercy.
    And Jesus said, "I am just like that snake on a pole lifted high into the air, gaze upon me, believe in me and live."
    Ironically, it would take a snake lifted high into the air to save the people of Israel from the snake bites.
    Similarly, it would take the very public, very ugly death of the Word-Made-Flesh lifted high into the air to save humanity from the grip of sin and death.
    God didn't take away the snakes from the people of Israel, but called on them to look his direction for healing and salvation.  God doesn't take away the poisons, terrors, and traps of our world either, but the call remains the same, pay attention to God, look to Him, and you will be saved.  Or to use Jesus' language, step into His light and out of your self-imposed darkness and you will see the glory of the Lord.
    So often, however, we find our attention focused elsewhere, mostly on ourselves and the good things we have done.  We forget that our motivations were not always pure.  We fail to notice those whom God has called us to care for.  We focus instead on the fact that the freedom and the water and the food which God has provided isn't good enough for our taste.
    We fail to remember that it is only by the faithfulness of Christ that we are set free.  By the grace of God, once offered, in Christ Jesus lifted high into the air we have been saved.  As Paul says, "It is the gift of God" that heals God's people from of the sickness that comes from the snakes that prowl around our own lives; greed, pride, envy, contempt.
    Where does your attention lie?
    What are you gazing on?
    Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and be healed.

great post on the law

Ever have one of those morning where even as the world is still a little hazy you know God is going to teach you something?  I'm having one of those mornings.  It began with a great post by a woman, who I think I met once serving dinner at the Rescue Mission in Pcola.

Here's an excerpt:

This Sunday Sam continued his series on The Word, this time focusing on the Law. In Judaism, the law is hugely important. The 613 commandments from God in the Hebrew Bible are the way they understand what God wants from them and the best way to live His way. I think Christian tradition views it in a more strict and constricting way: "We have to do these things or God will be so pissed!" That's sad to me, as I doubt God keeps Excel spreadsheets with all the commandments in the Bible on one axis and all our names on another, checking off each box as we break different commandments."  Read it all here.

Then I opened up the readings for next Sunday and found this Collect just begging for me to pray it.

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Having rules and following the law isn't about an angry, vengeful god who is waiting for us to screw up so he can through an extra bill, a case of gout, or whatever punishment we can concoct our way.  It is about fixing our heart to the true joy of life in Christ Jesus.  Sure, it may seem fun to covet your neighbors wife, but God knows it is a heck of a lot more fun to enjoy one's own spouse.  It may seem like dishonoring your father and mother is the "in thing," but God's plan is big and He knows that in the long run that realtionship is worth more than a night spent having snuck out of the house.

God is teaching me something about the goodness of law today.  Maybe because I'm less than a month away from being a dad, a giver and enforcer of a set of laws.  It will be good, over the next 18, 30, 40+ years to remember that the law is intended to enhance joy not inflict punishment.

Readings for Lent 5b

March 18, 2009

I love Facebook

The new, new Facebook is really awful, but without it, discussion threads like this might never happen.

Thanks to all my friends who have been so very helpful in pulling together my thoughts for Sunday.

Steve Pankey hopes E-Fel can help me understand Numbers 21.4-9

Yesterday at 8:59am · Comment ·  · via Twitter
 Elizabeth Marshall Felicetti at 7:05am March 17
ooo--am I E-Fel?
 Steve Pankey at 7:40am March 17
yes you are!
 David Kendrick at 7:49am March 17
Help us, o help us all, E-Fel!
 Betty Glover at 8:04am March 17
yes, do tell!!!
 Elizabeth Marshall Felicetti at 8:27am March 17
Oh man. That's a weird one. I have our contemporary service this week which means a kids' sermon as well. Perhaps I do some snakehandling?

I am in love with my new nickname!
 Elizabeth Marshall Felicetti at 8:37am March 17
Hey, do you guys have the Olson Numbers commentary? Claims the Israelites only confessed in Numbers once before, in the spy story in 13-14. But then they revealed the shallowness of their confession because they set out to attack the Canaanites despite Moses' warning, thinking they could fulfill the promises on their own. So Olson thinks this background of Israel's earlier confession in Numbers helps explain why God doesn't get rid of the serpents immediately...

Anyway, that has Lenten possibilities, with confession?

But I am not going to be able to delve into it until at least Thursday! Still, this has potential, right? So don't wimp out and go with John!! Although you can tie it in since Jesus refers to the bronze serpent, and here's what Olsen says about that: "Thus, the cross in John's Gospel, like the pole with the bronze serpent, signifies both the posion of death as well as the life-giving power of God for all those who believe and look to God for healing and new life"
 David Kendrick at 8:39am March 17
Would you prefer E-Fel to QE1? ;-)
 Elizabeth Marshall Felicetti at 8:40am March 17
David,you may alternate.
 Elizabeth Marshall Felicetti at 8:56am March 17
Also, pn Textweek, there's a link to a 1994 Christian Century article (via ATLA which we all get as VTS alums) that I think has preaching possibilites!!
 Steve Pankey at 2:36pm March 17
ok E-Fel, master of all things, how do i get into ATLA?
 Elizabeth Marshall Felicetti at 3:49pm March 17
As a VTS alum, the log in is ATL0996A, and the password is alumni.
 Elizabeth Rees at 7:17pm March 17
I've been working on the John/Numbers interlinking there and am having trouble because later in Numbers the bronze snake is used as an idol so Moses destroys it. (Right, E-Fel?) So what does that do with John's comparison? We've turned the cross into an idol?? More like we've de-scandalized it, made it too palatable - covered it with roses as Moltmann would say.
 Steve Pankey at 8:12pm March 17
i think you are right in pointing out the part later on in Numbers, thanks for that. In my view, some have made the cross an idol, others the altar, the rails, the vestments, the clergy, even the Bible. All the stuff we use to worship God can easily become a god, the trick is stopping short, looking at the serpent, being healed, and thanking God for the healing.
 Steve Pankey at 9:09am March 18
just to be clear - King Hezekiah destroys it in 2 Kings 18.4 because it had become an object of worship - but it is directly stated that it was the bronze serpent which Moses made

March 17, 2009

interesting clarifying statement

In John 3 verse 17, Jesus says, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn [judge] it, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Then a few lines later he says, "This is the judgment, that the light came into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil."

Two things strike me.  First, people is a general and universal term.  While it was the religious authorities in cahoots with the Roman occupiers that brought Jesus to the cross, it was people, any and all, who love darkness who helped do the work of snuffing the light of the world.  It sounds harsh, like I'm judging, but I'm deep in the midst of people, and there are days in which I'd love the light to be just a little dimmer so that my underlying sins might not be seen.

The second thing I see this morning is that the fact that people loved darkness doesn't matter.  Jesus came not to judge the world but to save it.  It was a foregone conclusion that somebody somewhere would get angry enough at Jesus to try to extinguish his light, but it didn't matter.  Jesus was sent anyway, and sent to save the world that would rather he not have arrived.  Grace is a crazy thing.  God sent his only Son to a world that didn't really want him, knowing full well he would end up dead, and he did it anyway because he came to save it.

March 16, 2009

put the class notes away

Some Sundays I have an overwhelming urge to pull out my notes from my Seminary New Testament class and run with them, but I know that isn't an option.  As a preacher, I know that I can incorporate John's use of the cross as an almost throne upon which Jesus was raised in triumph, but I can't just site a text and say it is so - I've got to walk the people through it.

Still between John's raising of Christ like the raising of the serpent, Paul's "saved by grace through faith", and John 3.16 there is a lot of great material in my old notes.

Remind me to keep them where they belong - deep in the recesses of my harddrive.

2021 March Gathering - THIRST

Humans have a tenuous relationship with water.  It covers 71% of the earth's surface.  The human body is anywhere from 55 to 78% water.  We're told to drink at least 8 glasses of it a day.  Civilizations have historically formed around major bodies of water.  It is just a huge part of our lives, especially here in Baldwin County.  Rivers, bays, creeks, bayous, lagoons, canals, the intercoastal, the Gulf - water is a huge part of our lives.

Yet, like I said, our relationship is somewhat tenuous.  Too much or too little water, and things quickly go from balanced to wildly out of control.  Remember the lady in 2007 who died of water intoxication after the "hold your wee for a wii" radio contest?   Who can forget the pictures of a flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Even six inches of moving water can take your car from safely on the road to deep danger in a flash flood.  Too much of this good thing is most certainly not good.

And neither is too little.  Drought affects huge swaths of the earth in any given year.  Which leads to too little drinking water, even less crop production, and starvation.  Human beings can survive about 2 weeks without food, but only a few days without water.  Thirst is a condition known by too many.

In the fourth chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus finds himself thirsty.  Jesus had begun to gain the wrong sort of attention from the religious authorities.  So, Jesus decided to leave the Judean countryside and return to Galilee - home base for his ministry.  To get there, he had to pass through Samaria.  There were, in fact, other ways to get home, but the most direct route took you through the land of the half-bloods, the Samaritans.  For a religion based on purity of body, mind, and spirit, this trek through Samaria was a less than desirable one.  Jesus came into Shechem, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob later known as Israel had given his son Joseph.  The well that Jacob dug for his family was still there, and Jesus, already worn out by the trip, sat down at the well to rest while his disciples went into the village to buy food for lunch.

A Samaritan woman came, strangely enough in the middle of the day, to draw her water.  Himself quite thirsty, Jesus said to her, "Would you give me a drink of water?"

The Samaritan woman was shocked and asked, "How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?"  First of all, Jews in those days wouldn't be caught dead talking to Samaritans.  And secondly, men in those days wouldn't be caught dead talking to a woman without her husband present.

Undeterred, Jesus answered, "If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water."

The woman said, "Sir, you don't even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this 'living water'? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?"

Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life."

The woman said, "Sir, give me this water so I won't ever get thirsty, won't ever have to come back to this well again!"

The thirst that Jesus was talking about quenching really had nothing to the water that the woman could draw from the well.  Jesus was talking about thirst for life, for meaning, for love.  The sort of thirst every human being understands.  Even the youngest child thirsts after the affection of her parents.  Later on in life we thirst for friends that understand us.  We thirst for relationships that fill us.  We thirst for all sorts of things.

Jesus promised this woman, and promises us, that he has living water to offer.  Artesian springs that will gush forth with endless life.  [Show Cat Waterfall] 

And yet, so many of us us are still thirsty.  So often, the faith handed down to us leaves us wanting.  This Church, for its part, has spent a lot of time and energy bottling up the ever flowing living water, and selling it like a commodity.  Many of us have purchased those bottles over and over and over and in the midst of tough times found what is supposed to be an endless supply instead is merely another empty water bottle.  We find ourselves standing looking at the water source, but unsure where to get out of the water commodity market and into the everflowing stream.  We are often afraid or angry or unprepared to step in.  So we go about trying to find water elsewhere, but it is never as refreshing as the spring that Jesus offered - it is never enough.

I think a lot of us are here tonight precisely because we know that we are thirsty, we understand that God offers refreshment, but the faith tradition we've known has left us parched.  Over the next few months we would like to offer the chance to move from purchasing water bottles one at a time to residing permanently in the midst of living water, to address what has left you thirsty in faith, in church, and in life.  

What if we started meeting weekly to address our collective thirst?
Would you come?
Could you come?
How long?

I too am thirsty.  I long for the living water Jesus offers to overflow in my life, all the time.  I've tasted it.  I know it is good, but I know that from time to time I fail to drink it in; I fall back into the cycle of limiting God by purchasing water bottles.  I want to help you find living water, just as I want you to help me find it.

I want to move into the pool of living water, and I hope you do too.  In the next few minutes of silence, I invite you to reflect on the water sources in your life.  If you feel compelled to move into this terrible representation of the spring of living water, you can take a ridiculous fireman or policeman (sorry ladies, there is no gender equality in the world of dollar tree plastic toy people) and place it in there.  If you feel weird doing that, which you no doubt will, you don't have to.  Just ponder for a few minutes -

What am I thirsty for?
How can this community help channel the living water in your direction?

As we wrap up and move back into conversation and break bread together I will offer a prayer for refreshment, during which you'll have time to offer prayers for those who, for whatever reason, need the spring of living water.


O God, you have created all things by the power of your Word, and you renew the earth by your Spirit: Give now the water of life to those who thirst for you, that they may bring forth abundant fruit in your glorious kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.