Saturday, June 12, 2021

Pentecost 3B

Mark 4:26-32

26Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

30He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

The Good News According to Mark

As the church's year of grace moves into the green and growing Season of the Spirit or "Ordinary Time," we continue in the gospel according to St. Mark, the main gospel for Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Mark's year.

This gospel probably is not by Peter's ministry companion John Mark, but from an unknown author. Current consensus says Mark probably was compiled between 60 and 70, close to the destruction of the second Jerusalem temple. As the shortest gospel, Mark is the one for texting and tweeting.

Prior to Mark, good news or gospel was the returning Roman general's announcement of annihilating the other army's troops. This gospel according to Mark subverts that into the Good News of God's victory over the powers of sin and death, the triumph of the reign of life. The gospel of Jesus Christ is economic, political, religious, social, and cultural. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims life and brings new life – resurrection out of death – everywhere.

Mark has no birth narrative; no resurrection account. Mark particularly asks and answers where do we find God? We find God not in established religious, economic, political institutions, but outside the city limits, in the wilderness. We discover God in the stranger and outcast. On the margins rather than at the center. In, with, and under all creation. We supremely find God in the openness, exposure, and vulnerability of a condemned human dying on the cross.


Agricultural Parables

A parable is a comparison, analogy, illustration: the kingdom of heaven is like; the reign of God is like. Parable means to put something alongside something else, to make a parallel. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus had a particular meaning in mind; other parables lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Teaching and explaining with comparisons was common in Jesus' rabbinic tradition and in the Hellenistic world. Please note… a parable is not an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; if anything, a parable is a heavenly story with an earthly meaning.

As necessary as it is to plan, plant, and tend crops to feed and nurture people and animals, this Sunday's pair of parables of the Kingdom of God demonstrate the role of God's grace rather than human endeavors in the growth of the reign of heaven among us (and in the growth of some fruit of the earth).


Scattered Seeds

This simple story about scattered seed in Mark 14:26-29 is unique to Mark's gospel. Jesus says someone scatters seed (they don't carefully plant it) and while the farmer sleeps "…the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…"

14:28 "the earth produces of itself" literally is automatically; "spontaneously" also works. I found a couple of internet meme-worthy phrases: "While you sleep, the gospel will grow." "We sow – God grows."

It's important to stick to what the parable actually says and not expand it to what it doesn't say. Of course farmers need to take care of the earth; planters need to pay attention to seasons and agricultural cycles; most crops need to be watered; different types of crops do best in certain kinds of soil; some need particular fertilizers, but that's a concern for another time.

Both this scattered seeds account and the mustard seed story mainly describe God's inbreaking realm with images Jesus' agriculture-savvy audience easily could compare with their direct experiences or observations of farming. For sure we can equate the scattered (not carefully planted) seed with telling people about the good news of Jesus, with small gestures of love, caring, compassion, and service. All of these tend to multiply in close to imperceptible ways. People often resolve to pay forward a kindness or goodness, and they usually do, and that typically leads to further expansion of the Good Stuff.

Last week we mentioned Jesus calls us to be apostles, as people Jesus sends out (an apostle literally is a sent person) to continue his ministry of loving and reconciling the world. The Greek for "goes in with his sickle" in 14:29 derives from apostle.


Mustard Seeds

Besides Mark 14:30-32, synoptic gospels Luke 13:18-19 and Matthew 13:31-32 include the renowned Mustard Seed parable. You've likely heard the mustard seed is far from the smallest seed and doesn't grow into "the greatest of all shrubs," but it does get big enough to provide shelter for birds and small animals. Remembering this is a parable about God's kingdom or reign rather than a farming handbook, just as mustard seeds expand from something small and hard to notice into a big bush that's impossible to miss, the tiny seeds of love, hope, and care we (mostly randomly) plant ultimately grow into something big enough to fill the world. Like the sower in the first parable and the mustard planter in the second, we don't need to do anything more than take that loving action. We don't need to engineer, plan, or add on additional value. God's grace takes care of the outcome, which frequently is far disproportionate to the original input.

Maybe Jesus was being ironic with this story, because few people would intentionally plant mustard seeds. Mustard already was "there," and prolific most places, though just as now, mustard had medicinal value and culinary uses for seasoning and salads. Small mustard seeds grow into a shrub (technically mustard is a vegetable-not-a-shrub, "plant" will work) big enough to shelter birds and small animals and it can't easily be eliminated. I'm not sure invasive is the proper term, but from this non-gardener's perspective it appears invasive as it doesn't honor pre-determined boundaries or limits. This is a parable of the Kingdom of God, of the gospel that ultimately spreads everywhere, ignores established limits and conventions, and becomes part of every facet of existence.

Related to God's constant reminder for us to remember (I led you through the desert, I quenched your thirst with water from the rock, I fed you with manna, I zapped your enemies, I made you my chosen), I recently heard, "Remember! God runs in my direction when the whole world walks away." Like mustard plants that spread everywhere and can't easily be rooted up and done away with, God's boundless mercy and love is here to stay. Like mustard plants that spread everywhere, we can show God's mercy and love everywhere we go.

This is a parable of the gospeled reign of God in Christ Jesus. In the Old Testament, trees and sheltering branches are metaphors or images for political rule and sovereignty, and not always of the desirable divine kind. Jesus' audience would have recognized the symbolism and considered this parable a hope-filled promise of God's reign: a heavenly story with an earthbound outcome.


This Week's Questions

• What tiny seeds or other inputs can you think of that often result in a big outcome? I read the size of a COVID-19 vaccine dose is about the size of a teardrop. As more and more people get vaccinated, protection against getting infected will spread further and further, so herd immunity may become possible, after all.
• Birds can nest in the mustard tree's shade. What biblical images of shade do you remember? Especially consider the psalms. What are some contemporary twenty-first meanings of shade?
• Question to gardeners and famers: is there actually such a thing as a weed, or does calling a plant "weed" depend entirely on context?
• What part of nature would you compare or parallel to God's Kingdom or reign? An animal? Tree? Plant? Biome such as mountain, prairie, or desert?
• Around here mustard plants interspersed with California golden poppies create such visual beauty! Most California mustard is Brassica tournefortii (known as Asian, African, or Saharan Mustard), so a different variety than Jesus' who probably talked about Brassica nigra or black mustard. The mostly Southern cuisine I grew up with often served mustard, dandelion, collard, or other greens. My research into the mustard seed parable reminded me mustard is a cruciferous veggie and part of the cabbage family.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Pentecost 2B

Prayer: Hearing the Word

Gracious God, illumine these words by your Spirit that we might hear what you would have us hear and be who you would have us be, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.

By John Wurster; used with permission
Mark 3:19b-35

19Then Jesus went home, 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."

23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"— 30for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." 33And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Sundays after Pentecost

Today the Church's year of grace moves into a half-year of Ordinary Time, and we start counting Sundays after the Day of Pentecost. Ordinary refers to ordered and organized rather than mundane or commonplace, but we hold these Sundays in common with most denominations, church bodies, and traditions. During this green and growing Season of the Spirit, time of the church, we especially emphasize the contemporary Acts of the Apostles (that's us!).


The Gospel According to Mark

This is Mark's year in the Revised Common Lectionary that provides our scripture readings. Mark is the earliest and shortest of the four canonical gospels; Mark is particularly apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a revealing or uncovering—something like an epiphany. Apocalyptic typically employs contrasting dualism: light-dark; heaven-hell; empty-full; good-evil; near-far. Signs, imagery, and symbols in apocalyptic literature sometimes have an easily discernible meaning; other times it's best to consider its context within an entire passage.

Mark's gospel brings us the inbreaking rule or reign of God—the end of the world as we've known it. Mark answers the question "Where do we find God?" Not far away in an unreachable heavenly location; not enthroned in the temple; not in conventional religious, economic, political, social, and cultural persons and establishments. Especially in Mark's gospel, we find Jesus outside the city limits (remember the location of the Calvary cross), outside the center of almost everything, on the margins, in the stranger, the outsider, and the outcast, even in those falling off the edge of the edges. More than in the other gospels, Mark's Jesus acts outside of regulation and convention as he offers limitless mercy, inclusion, forgiveness, and grace. Jesus in Mark erases old boundaries and redraws them to include everyone.

Just as with Luke, Jesus' journey to the cross in Mark is especially intentional and incessant. Particularly for Mark, the cross is the ultimate revelation of Jesus' identity and mission; the cross also reveals our identity and mission as the church, as people Jesus sends out (an apostle literally is a sent person) in the power of the Spirit to continue his ministry of loving and reconciling the world. Related to the gospel reading for today, in The Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Lamar Williamson, Jr. makes the noun apostle into a verb, and declares we have been "Apostled for proclamation and the removal of demons."


So Far in Mark

Mark 1

• Good News / Gospel announcement (no genealogy, no birth narrative). "Gospel" is a short form of Godspell or God's Spell you may remember from the musical Stephen Schwartz and John Michael Tebelak based on Matthew's gospel.
• John the Baptist in the Jordan River wilderness
• Jesus joins John's riverside assembly and John baptizes him.
• Forty days of temptation in the even deeper desert wilds
• Back in his hometown Galilee, Jesus announces now is the time! The reign (kingdom) of God has come near.
• Jesus calls fisher brothers Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John Zebedee as his first disciples.
• In his first act of public ministry, Jesus drives out a demon after teaching in the synagogue during services.
• Jesus heals Peter's mother in law.
• Casts out "many demons" who recognize Jesus
• Heals a leper

Mark 2

• Another healing (the scribes don't like this)
• Calls tax collector Levi
• Eats with sinners and tax collectors (once again, scribes don't like this at all)
• Question about fasting
• About doing good deeds on the Sabbath

Mark 3

• Heals / does good on the Sabbath again. After this the Pharisee religious leaders conspire to get rid of Jesus
• More healing – this time by the water feature that's technically Lake Galilee, not a sea or an ocean
• Jesus specially calls and appoints twelve apostles. A rabbi would need ten disciples or followers to be credible; Jesus added two more to that number.


Kinship, Authority, Family

Today's gospel reading continues chapter 3. Cast of characters include a crowd, Jesus' family of origin, and hyper-religious scribes from Jerusalem. Verse 23 tells us Jesus spoke in parables, a type of story we know from Mark and from the other synoptic gospels Matthew and Luke. A parable makes us listen – and hear – beyond the immediately obvious.

In Jesus' time and place, biological family or household determined a person's social and economic trajectory. Family would be comprised of several generations and stretch horizontally to include cousins. It was far removed from the nuclear Western family of parents, grands, and offspring that started at the turn of the twentieth century, eons away from the post-World War II mid-twentieth century phenomenon of parents and kids that prevailed for (maybe) a couple of decades.

In Jesus' time and place, Jerusalem scribes were highly-regarded experts on everything Torah and Temple; they had extremely high religious and social standing. In this reading, Jesus has gone home to Galilee; that means those scribes had journeyed a distance to scope out and engage the itinerant rabbi who'd been making radical claims and causing crazy commotions. In this anecdote, both family and religious leaders mis-identify Jesus' person and purpose. By looking only at the surface, they simply perceive his actions as being outside of conventional kinship and religious behaviors and apparently never wonder about a meaning beyond the obvious.

Mark's Jesus brings us the inbreaking rule or reign of God—the end of the world as we've known it; Mark's gospel or good news often describes the world newly reordered by the Word in vividly contrasting apocalyptic images. In Mark, Jesus especially engages religious, economic, and political institutions: The Establishment. Mark particularly unmasks the systemic brokenness and sin that's within all institutions and structures that yet remain necessary for the world to keep spinning. In Jesus' first act of public ministry in Mark [1:21-26], he exorcises or expels a demon in the midst of a synagogue service. Talk about conventional, established religion! It even has its own fixed meeting place!

Although "house" in this scripture can mean a domestic dwelling, it equally applies to any structure or infrastructure that needs to cohere and function in order to function as intended. Thus, Jesus refers to a kingdom divided, a house divided, Satan against himself. (Satan is the prosecuting attorney in Hebrew anthropology, and not necessarily a personification of evil). As we've especially been learning over the past few years, systemic and institutional injustice, inequities, sin, ineffectiveness, and brokenness happen because of far more than inept actions of individuals, occurs from much more than good or bad or indifferent organizational or institutional pronouncements and activities—a type of dysfunctional disease pervades them. No single action or decision of an individual or corporate entity has caused them to break; no righteous move or loving resolve has enough power to breathe life back into them.

Today's reading doesn't say Jesus expelled another demon or incubus, but he spoke in understandable religious and cultural terms. Whatever our own location in time and place, words like "demonic, satanic" describe forces outside our control very well.


Where We Live: Today's Gospel

"A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to Jesus, 'Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.' And he replied, 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' And looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'" Mark 3:32-35

During this green and growing Season of the Spirit, time of the church, we especially emphasize the contemporary Acts of the Apostles (that's us!). Jesus invites us to join his new family configuration by claiming our baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit and following him into the world where he waits for us. Jesus apostles us to proclaim the end of the broken, death-dealing, dysfunctional world as we've known it and (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to remove demons. Yay!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Trinity Sunday 2021

Come, Join the Dance of Trinity

1 Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun—
the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.

2 Come, see the face of Trinity, newborn in Bethlehem;
then bloodied by a crown of thorns outside Jerusalem.
The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone;
when fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.

3 Come, speak aloud of Trinity, as wind and tongues of flame
set people free at Pentecost to tell the Savior's name.
We know the yoke of sin and death, our necks have worn it smooth;
go tell the world of weight and woe that we are free to move!

4 Within the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun,
we sing the praises of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free,
to shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity

Text: Richard Leach; © 2001 Selah Publishing Co., Inc.
Tune: Kingsfold


John 3:1-17

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

4Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

9Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Trinity Sunday…

…is the Octave of Pentecost. The church long has celebrated important events in octaves of eight days—you may know the musical octave of eight notes. Trinity Sunday celebrates a doctrine or teaching, instead of an event. Scripture strongly implies God as triune or three-in-one / one-in-three, yet never uses the word "trinity." The Trinity is a mystery, but our human brains insist on trying to describe it. That's not at all negative! In many classes in school, teachers have students write about almost everything. The idea is if you can talk/write about a concept, you essentially understand it.

You've probably heard the Trinity described in ways similar to "ice – water – vapor" // "son – friend – brother"? Those attempts end up with the heresy of modalism with its claim God manifests in different ways at different times, yet they still provide some idea of the variety of roles the triune God rocks. Instead of an analogy that never approaches the essence of the godhead, early church fathers and mothers frequently talked about the Dance or the Perichoresis of the Trinity. "Peri" refers to in the vicinity of, around, nearby–perimeter, peripatetic, pericope (a scripture or other literary passage cut out from its surroundings). "Choresis" has the same root as dance-related choreography. Father, Son, Holy Spirit interact with each other, collaborate, do life together so wonderfully we also want to dance in response! Maybe more than anything, the Trinity models our interactive and cooperative lifestyles and ministries. The Church [that's us!] is the Image of the Trinity; as the hymn sings, "Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free, to shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity."


Holy, Holy, Holy

"Holy, Holy, Holy" absolutely without a doubt is the most famous and best loved Trinitarian hymn. It acclaims a "Holy" for each person of the Trinity.

"Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.'" John 3:5-6

We baptize using water and the trinitarian formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Holy, Holy, Holy triune God. Matthew 28:19 is the only scriptural occurrence of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit baptismal formula; it was a later addition to the text. The early church probably baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, Jesus the Savior, or with similar words. However, the early church would not have imagined that baptism into the redeemer and savior Jesus would not also encompass baptism into the Holy Spirit of life Jesus bestows on us.

John 3:3, 5, 11 – the Greek original brings us John's famous double amens! Jesus says, "Amen, amen," that the Douay-Rheims retains, yet that dramatic phrase otherwise gets translated "truly, truly," "verily, verily," "most assuredly," or into other less evocative words. Pastor Eugene Peterson first phrases it, "You're absolutely right," and dilutes it more further on. In general I find his translations usually bring added dimension and understanding, but (editorializing) not this time.

John 3:3 is the only time the fourth gospel mentions kingdom/reign of God. Synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke say Reign of Heaven / Kingdom of God literally all the time, but John doesn't. This wonderful scripture passage contains other riches including verse 16, "God so loved the world," possibly the only verse some people have memorized; many claim John 3:!6 as their life scripture. The less familiar verse 17, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him," reminds us of God's inclusive longing and loving, and reminds us to help erase stereotypes and mistaken ideas too many people have about God and church.

If religious leader Nicodemus sounds doubly familiar, he's the same Nicodemus we read about in John 16, when along with Joseph of Arimathea, he anoints Jesus' body for burial and lays it in the tomb Joseph has donated.


Holy God, Holy People

One of the times God commands holiness to the people:

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 'Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.'" Leviticus 19:1-2

How does Leviticus describe this divine holiness God calls, commands, and promises (you shall!) us to participate in? This holiness reads like a summary of the ten words or commandments of the Sinai Covenant: keeping Sabbath; caring and providing for each other; equitable wages, marketplace measures, and legal judgments; stewardship of the land, welcoming the stranger and treating the "other" of any category as part of our own community. Final verse 37 in this chapter: "You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the Lord." We can be confident that God fulfills the charge and the promise of shall in the reign of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost.

More than anything, the Holy (Holy, Holy) Trinity models our interactive and cooperative lifestyles and ministries. The Church [us!] is the Image of the Trinity, after the way the Dance of Trinity hymn sings, "Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free, to shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity."

Next week we'll start counting Sundays after Pentecost as the Church moves into its own in the 6-month long, green, and growing season of Ordinary Time. We'll continue walking the talk as we follow Jesus into worlds around us as his presence. This year's Ordinary Time may feel less structured, less already arranged than most years. We're not yet post-COVID, yet the church worldwide necessarily will be experimenting with new ministry models, trying out new possibilities, and being more imaginative than usual. Baptized into the Dance of Trinity, we minister to the world as the presence of the Triune God.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Pentecost 2021

Acts 2:1-11

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

9"Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."

The Collect for Whitsunday

God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by the sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit; Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

From the Book of Common Prayer on the Church of England website


The 50th Day of Easter

Easter is 50 Days: Ascension Thursday is the 40th day of Easter; the Day of Pentecost is the 50th day of Easter. These events belong together.

The church's year of grace features three major festivals that relate to each Person of the Trinity/Godhead:

• Christmas/Nativity —> Creation
• Resurrection/Easter —> Redemption
• Pentecost/Whitsunday [common British Isles term, refers to white robes worn by people being baptized on Pentecost] —> Sanctification / Theosis / Holiness

In his Acts of the Apostles, the gospel writer Luke brings us the only scriptural account of the Day of Pentecost. The HS is prominent throughout Luke's gospel; the apostle Paul and the gospel of John also tell us a lot about the HS.

• Luke 4:18-19 begins Jesus' public ministry with the HS;
• Luke's book of Acts begins our public ministry with the HS.

Every year we revisit images of visible fire and audible wind as evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence among us and within us. Today's account starts with Jesus' followers gathered together. Strong tradition says they were in the same upper room as during the last supper on Maundy Thursday, but the actual physical location remains unknown. Everyone from everywhere was in Jerusalem for the Jewish Pentecost to celebrate the wheat/grain harvest and probably God's giving the Sinai Covenant of Ten Words or Ten Commandments via Moses. Parallel to Easter and Pentecost, Shavuot refers to seven weeks – "a week of weeks" – after Passover. The day of Pentecost is one of the three most major Christian festivals; the Jewish Pentecost was one of the three mandated festivals.

This all ends of the earth with devout Jews from every nation under heaven not only represented geographical diversity and inclusion; in addition, it was about historical inclusion. The Storytellers Bible explains this assembly was historically impossible for the first century because Medes had disappeared a couple of centuries earlier.

Starting with creation, the witness of scripture reveals innumerable ways the Holy Spirit always has been present. God always has been triune—this gift and reign of the Holy Spirit of life is nothing new! But… the Holy Spirit constantly is doing something new. As theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann explains so well, "…the Holy Spirit is…the creative and life-giving, redeeming and saving God… present in a special way."


Where We Live

Last week we discussed Jesus' Ascension and his conversation with his disciples beforehand. They asked Jesus if now he'd finally "restore the kingdom to Israel," and Jesus told them the question was wrong, because "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." [Acts 1:8] In other words, they would help "restore the kingdom." A witness sees, experiences, and testifies in words, often in action. With its senses the world can witness – see, hear, touch, taste, smell – the church, and in the church's activity the world will recognize the presence of God's reign.

Remember the Golden Calf Event in Exodus 32? God said, "Moses, your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt." Moses replied, "God, your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt." Which is it? Moses' people or God's people? It's both/and.

The wind of pentecost cleans, refreshes, clears, renews. The fire of pentecost sears, burns, purifies. A year after a wildfire, new seedlings cover the forest floor. Some seeds need to be singed by fire in order to open. The forest service regularly engages in controlled burns.

• Acts 2:3, 4, 11 "tongues" is glosses – you may know the word glossalalia for speaking in tongues some charismatic churches practice; when we find a phrase out of line with the rest of the content of scripture, we sometimes refer to the added words as a "gloss."

• Acts 2:6, 8 "tongues" is dialect, one of our English words for language.


Considerations

The Holy Spirit is constantly active, but it feels as if the Spirit nudges us more at some times than at others. The COVID-19 pandemic has been and remains an opportunity for increased scientific research and knowledge. Despite deaths, job losses, and overall economic devastation, this has been a year of phenomenal caring and compassion, of imaginatively figuring out how to move forward in retail, recreational, and educational venues. Sales of board games went way up. We've learned physical distancing and social distancing are different concepts!

Related to our life together:

• What changes do you imagine the HS nudging – or propelling – us toward between the first Sunday we gather again and (for example) Thanksgiving Day?
• Have you especially sensed the Spirit at work in your own life or in your surroundings during the past year plus?
• Specifically over the past few months as vaccines have been available and life slowly has opened up? Or not?


Holy Holy Holy

Next Sunday we'll celebrate the Holy Trinity (tri-unity) and then move into a six month long, growing greening segment of (ordered, arranged, structured) Ordinary Time as the church blossoms and blooms as Jesus' presence in the world. The indwelling Spirit we receive in our baptism into Jesus Christ's death and resurrection engulfs us in God's creative power of resurrection; we live and serve as a Pentecostal people filled with gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Easter 7B • Ascension

Psalm 47

1Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples!
Shout to God with the voice of triumph!
2For the Lord Most High is awesome;
God is a great King over all the earth.
3God will subdue the peoples under us,
And the nations under our feet.
4God will choose our inheritance for us,
The excellence of Jacob whom he loves. Selah

5God has gone up with a shout,
The Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
7For God is the King of all the earth;
Sing praises with understanding.
8God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.

9The princes of the people have gathered together,
The people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
God is greatly exalted.

New King James Version (NKJV). © 1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Acts 1:3-11

3After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to the apostles by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

6So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

Backtracking…

…through the church's year of grace so far. During Advent we anticipated God's arrival in our midst; then we celebrated Nativity /Christmas with Jesus' birth as God-among-us. Next, the day and the season of Epiphany demonstrated God for all people of every culture, ethnicity, and situation—not exclusively for God's original people Israel. Then with his disciples alongside, Jesus ministered publicly among people of all types. Toward the end of Jesus' earthly life he reached Jerusalem; the week we now call "Holy" included Maundy Thursday with foot washing and the Lord's Supper; Jesus' trial, conviction, crucifixion, and death on Friday; waiting again on Saturday (but with a sense of defeat, loss, and sorrow rather than Advent's hopefulness); finally the astonishment of Easter/resurrection Sunday.

Post-resurrection Jesus first encountered people he knew during his earthly ministry, and then drew a wider circle embracing people from everywhere. At the end of those forty days, all four gospels record Jesus' charging and commissioning his followers (that includes us!) to continue his ministries as his presence in the world. In the fourth gospel, the gospel according to John, Jesus makes a round-trip from heaven to earth, from earth back to heaven.


Ascension / Easter 7

Easter isn't a single day; Easter is a season that's a week of weeks, (the biblical number of) 7 times 7. Next Sunday on the fiftieth day of Easter we'll celebrate the Day of Pentecost. The pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit enables the church to do the "greater works" Jesus promised. During the green and growing season of Pentecost, a l-o-o-o-n-n-g segment of Ordinary Time, the church really comes into its own.

Three days ago on the 40th day of Easter, church and world (to some extent) celebrated Jesus' ascension with its declaration and confirmation of Jesus' authority over everything everywhere. The Feast or Solemnity of the Ascension is always a Thursday, but since most people don't go to church on Thursdays, today for Easter 7 we're hearing about the Ascension.

Although we sometimes refer to a balloon or a plane ascending, or we may mention a person has ascended to a better job or fancier house, "ascension" isn't a common word. In easy theological terms, Jesus' ascension refers to his reign, rule, sovereignty, power, authority, stewardship. Not "domination" as people sometimes misinterpret dominion in Genesis 2, but caretaking and responsiveness to creation's needs. When we read about Jesus seated at God's right hand, this is a way of saying Jesus ascended, or assumed authority over all creation. Unlike with human governments and organizations, Jesus' authority has no checks and balances. It is supreme. It is absolute. Jesus is "King of all the earth," as Psalm 47 says.


Today's Reading

In our passage from Luke's Acts of the Apostles, the disciples ask Jesus, "is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus' disciples somehow still imagined maybe a warrior king who'd zap their enemies, possibly a ruler like David or Solomon who'd reside in opulent splendor far away from the thick of things. After they ask Jesus if now he'll finally remake their world with the end of brutal Roman imperial rule, poverty, injustice, and death, Jesus essentially informs them their question is wrong and replies, "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

The disciples still imagined a warrior who'd zap their enemies, or a ruler like David or Solomon. But instead the crucified and risen Savior told his followers they would receive power and be his witnesses—people who had seen and therefore could testify to his resurrection. In the power and reach of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we become Jesus' presence on earth and begin restoring God's reign over all creation. The Spirit of Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from death to new life.

The Heidelberg Catechism asks, "Why is the son of God called Jesus, meaning Savior?" And then, "Why is the son of God called Christ, meaning anointed?" And then: "But why are you called a Christian?" Answer: "Because by faith I share in Christ's anointing, and I am anointed to reign over all creation for all eternity."

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Easter 6B

Love That Commandment – John 15:9-17

Keep my commandment:
that is, give heed to, observe—
doing it with joy.

Keep my commandment:
by its daily exercise
love one another…

Keep my commandment
by bearing fruit that will last:
abide in my love…

Keep my commandment
so that your joy may be full:
serve one another.

Jeff Shrowder, 2021

Prayer from The Billabong, a lectionary worship resource by Jeff Shrowder, Uniting Church in Australia

John 15:9-17

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Easter is Fifty Days! On this sixth Sunday of Easter that's day 36, we're back again with Jesus on Maundy Thursday and his concluding discourse (speech, talk, homily, reflection, sermon). Although we're in the season of Easter, this passage describes an event before Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Just as in last week's gospel account, this week we hear more about obeying and abiding in Jesus Christ. Abiding means staying put.

During the Great Fifty Days, readings from John's gospel and from the Acts of the Apostles particularly reveal the shape and form of the servant church God calls us to be—and in the power of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, God enables us to be. But this is not a solitary endeavor; our lives correspond to last week's image of God as the vinegrower, Jesus as the vine, us as the intertwined (inter-vined?) branches that support, complement, and compliment each other.

In Jesus' time and place, the unbending relationship between patron / sponsor and client / servant was heavily constructed and pre-determined. In this reading Jesus tells us our relationship with him mainly is friendship with the intimacy and closeness friendship implies. In the twenty-first century global West, we acknowledge many degrees of friendship, yet both the deepest and the most casual friendships have a sense of unstructured spontaneity.


Words of Love

As I first learned via C.S. Lewis, the bible uses four different Greek words for love (and the Greek language has at least four more). In today's account, Jesus loves his disciples with the unconditional agape love we know as divine; Jesus calls us to love one another with God's agape love. The word for friends in verses 15 and 16 incorporates the affectionate, companionable love that's philia in Greek. We know "philia" well from the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia; we recognize the phil root in philosophy that's love of wisdom. It's interesting that contemporary English with its extremely large, nuanced vocabulary that usually has many synonyms or same-meaning words for almost every noun, verb, and adjective, is impoverished when it comes to writing or talking about love. We love a friend, a spouse, or a child. We love God. Many of us love a particular city or a favorite food. I love that song! However… given the nature of cities, maybe loving some cities and towns with the same quality of love we have for some people isn't out of line at all.

• Here's some of what I discovered about origins of the English word love from Online Etymology Dictionary:
love (n.) Old English lufu "feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of God; from Proto-Germanic lubo (source also of Old High German liubi "joy," German Liebe "love;" Old Norse, Old Frisian, Dutch lof; German Lob "praise." Old Saxon liof, Old Frisian liaf, Dutch lief, Old High German liob, German lieb, Gothic liufs "dear, beloved"). Germanic words are from root leubh- "to care, desire, love." The weakened sense "liking, fondness" was in Old English.

love (v.) Old English lufian "to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve," from Proto-Germanic lubojanan (source also of Old High German lubon, German lieben), a verb from the root of love (n.). Weakened sense of "like" attested by c.1200.

Love One Another – COVID-19

God gifted Israel with the ten Words or Commandments of the Sinai Covenant after they'd been liberated from slavery, been freed from production quotas. Out of imperial Egypt, into the exodus desert, on their way but not yet at the promised land, they'd learn to keep and maintain that freedom by keeping and obeying the commandments. Slavery to empire no long would be their frame of reference; instead they would reverence God by serving the neighbor.

As I've mentioned countless times, we discover the neighbor at the heart of the Torah, we meet our neighbor when Jesus of Nazareth summarizes the ten commandments into two: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. God gifted us with commandments (ordinances, precepts, statutes, laws, torah) so our lives would harmonize with the late Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber's definition of love as responsibility of an I for a thou.
"This is freedom. This is a weapon greater than any force you can name. Once you know this, and know it with all your being, you will move and act with a determination and power that the federal government cannot ignore, that the school boards cannot overlook, and that the housing authority cannot dismiss." Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, 1966
• Obedience / Freedom • Once you know [the power of freedom]…

Early in the COVID-19 mask-wearing mandate people started to protest. Over a year into masks, people haven't stopped complaining, with some refusing to mask up because they insist masks take away their personal freedom. Now that vaccines are available, some people make the same argument and say getting vaccinated robs them of their supposed autonomy. As the commandments (the law!) and the prophets (grace!) reveal, life's not about a supposedly autonomous "me" individual because no one lives by or for themselves. Polite suggestions or municipal demands to mask or get vaccinated don't remove anyone's freedom; freedom always has limits and boundaries because no one can be an autonomous "law unto themselves."

Life is about me, a person connected to the other – to my neighbor whose neighbor I become – in love that regards their greater good as my privilege and obligation, that perceives the neighbor's good as my own. Loving our neighbors brings the Ten Words of God's Commands to life; love in action helps obliterate and reverse the reign of death. Love in action bears fruit that will last!

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:17

Once we know freedom of obedience, we will know love in action. Justice, determination, power – and responsibility – come alive when we love God, neighbor, and self. We have opportunities to love by continuing to wear a mask even after we've been vaccinated. The experts still don't know about transmission from vaccinated individuals; besides, even if there was zero risk, wouldn't you feel safer if everyone around you wore a mask? The etymology for love says the Proto-Germanic word "lubo" also is the source of the Old High German word liubi that means joy. Jesus tells us, "I have said these things [keeping the commandments and abiding in love] to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." John 15:11

Next Sunday on Easter 7 we celebrate Jesus' Ascension; the following Sunday is the Fiftieth Day of Easter, the Day of Pentecost.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Easter 5B

Prayer for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Vinegrower God,
through the raising of your Son to new life,
you broke the power of death.
Do not forsake those who call on your name;
do not be far from those we name today,
and those whose groanings are known only to you.
Loving God of all generations,
hear the cries of our world;
in Jesus' name…

Prayer from The Billabong, a lectionary worship resource by Jeff Shrowder, Uniting Church in Australia

John 15:1-8

1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

The Gospel According to John: Abiding and Obeying

Christ is risen, Alleluia! This Fifth Sunday of Easter is the 29th day of Easter; Easter is 50 days,

The Revised Common Lectionary that provides our weekly scripture readings has a year each for the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Every year the lectionary intersperses sections of John, particularly during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. With Mark being shorter than Matthew or Luke, we get more John during Mark's [current] year B than during Matthew's year A, or Luke's year C.

This is very shorthand, and also broadly accurate.

The gospel account we have from the community gathered around the beloved disciple John conveys a different worldview from the synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark, Luke, and Matthew essentially view Jesus' life and ministry in a similar way (syn=together, as in synthesis, synod, synagogue, synopsis, synergistic; synchronize; optic= vision, as in optician, optimism, optimal, optometrist). Despite each of them having some unique content and a particular perspective, synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke all bring us law and gospel—God's holy demands and God's merciful, loving grace. We roughly can place the synoptics in the Torah/Pentateuch and Prophets traditions of the Old Testament.

John is very much about the here and now of the Reign of Heaven on Earth. With a focus on God's ongoing presence and on the commandments, especially encapsulated in the charge to love, John's community offers ways to live faithfully and fruitfully with speech and action, rather than the articulation of law and gospel we find in the synoptics. John's gospel emphasizes abiding and obeying; it has been called the gospel of abiding presence. To continue the OT parallel, we can locate the Gospel according to John in the tradition of the Wisdom literature.


7 I Am Sayings + I Am the Vine

Today we hear the seventh and last of Jesus' I Am declarations where Jesus places himself within YHWH/God's Old Testament identity I Am—pure being. unmediated presence. We've discussed how each gospel writer and others who wrote down the words of scripture drew upon dynamic oral traditions and existing written documents or sources. Scholars clearly identify two sources used by John's community: Signs and I Am (and suggest there may have been a third). Today's I Am the Vine – You are the Branches passage comes from Jesus' farewell discourse on Maundy Thursday, after he washed the disciples' feet, before his death and resurrection. However, we are reading it during the Great Fifty Days of Easter, after we've again experienced Jesus death and resurrection.

Jesus' seven I Am statements:

• "I am the bread of life." John 6:35, 41, 48, 51
• "I am the light of the world." John 8:12
• "I am the door of the sheep." John 10:7,9
• "I am the good shepherd." John 10:11, 14
• "I am the resurrection and the life." John 11:25
• "I am the way, the truth, and the life." John 14:6
• "I am the true vine." John 15:1, 5


Where we Live: Vine and Branches

Because Jesus lived in an agricultural, somewhat agrarian setting, he used a lot of farm-related imagery. Today? Grape vines! Most Californians get the importance of soil, sunshine, shade, and pruning in vineyards / grapes / harvest. We understand how critical time, temperature, cask, and added ingredients are to wine production. Methods of wine transport and storage, too! In addition, grape vines are one of the seven agricultural gifts of the promised land. We find the people of God as branches of the vine in Old Testament scriptures; Jesus' listeners would have sat up and noticed because of agricultural and historical references.

In this trinitarian passage, Jesus brings us God the Father as vine planter and grower, Jesus the Son as the vine itself, the people of God in the power of the Holy Spirit as branches of the vine; Jesus charges us to abide in him in order to bear fruit. How do we abide as branches in Jesus the Vine? By obeying, especially by loving God, neighbor, and self. Although we primarily abide in Jesus the vine, we remain interconnected with all the other branches. It's interesting that at this time Jesus doesn't describe any other aspects of fruit-bearing.

Do we always abide in Jesus, or do we sometimes settle deeply into family, societal, cultural, and church traditions, practices, customs, and habits? That can be a tough discernment, because as people of history and people with histories that the God of history has shepherded (remember last week's Psalm 23?) us through, we need to stay connected with our own individual pasts, with the identity-forming histories and practices of communities and groups we belong to. We need to contextualize the gospel so newcomers will relate Jesus to their own geography and history.

But what do we make most important? For starters, Jesus commanded us to take, bless, break, and give bread, bless and share the cup of the fruit of the vine(!), and to baptize. But do we insist on a particular type of bread, brand of wine or grape juice? Does the baptismal venue need to be the same every time? Sprinkling, pouring, or immersion?

For other instances, can the format for recording and distributing minutes from a meeting vary? What about flower varieties at Easter? Some churches no longer use lilies because of human allergies and because toxicity to pets can be a major problem if people take their lilies home with them. Does Strawberry Festival always need to be on the Second Sunday in June? Do we even need an annual Strawberry Festival? All churches and organizations worldwide will trial-and-error experiment as they rebuild and partly reinvent themselves post-COVID. As we interpret scripture for our new context, our direct or anecdotal knowledge of grape-growing and wine-making gives excellent counsel regarding Jesus' reminder on this Fifth Sunday of Easter to stay connected to him and to each other.