Saturday, March 28, 2020

Lent 5A

Ezekiel 37:1-14

1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord God, you know." 4Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."

7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord."

Prayer

From all the corners of the earth, come to us, Spirit of God! Breathing Life of the Divine, descend upon your people and on your land and let us live again! In the Name of the One Spirit-sent to carry new life to the entire world, Christ Jesus, your Son and our Lord, Amen!

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

This has become a strange Lent (understatement). Lent comes from an Old English word for spring, and conveys a similar sense as the music tempo Lento. During this season of lengthening days, we've journeyed to the fifth Sunday in – but not of Lent – because every Sunday celebrates Easter. Next Sunday in church we would have been having(!) a dual observance of Jesus' Triumphant Entry (surrounded by palms and cheering crowds) into Jerusalem, followed by a reading of the Passion Narrative. Los Angeles County originally banned public gatherings through Sunday 19th April, so we definitely won't be together in person for Easter Sunday or for the second Sunday of Easter. However, every moment is Easter and the season of Jesus' resurrection is fifty days long, so hopefully we'll be back on the church campus during the Great Fifty Days.

Prophet / Seer

Sometimes we casually refer to foretelling future happenings as prophecy, but the OT differentiates between seer or visionary (roeh), who peers into the future, and prophet (nabi), who speaks truth to power.

Hebrew scripture uses at least three Hebrew words that translate into the Greek-derived English "prophet" that implies challenging the religious, political, or any establishment. Hospitals? Denominational headquarters? Libraries? County and city administrations? Nabi may be rooted in a word that means to pour down, or spring forth, so imagine the prophetic word as a stream that flows everywhere it goes. Besides roeh and nabi, Hebrew also has hozeh, with a similar feel to nabi.

Like Jeremiah and the 66 chapters of Isaiah, Ezekiel is very much within the classical tradition of Hebrew/Israelite prophecy that brings Spirit-breathed Words from heaven to earth. All three books belong to the writing prophets whose actual words got inscribed on scrolls—contrasted with former prophets whose actions we find in books like Joshua, Kings, Chronicles...

Ezekiel

Like 1st Isaiah (1-39) and like Jeremiah we've heard so much from, Ezekiel prophesied during the last days of Jerusalem before the Babylonian exile; along with Jeremiah and with the prophet we identity as 2nd Isaiah (40-55), Ezekiel also proclaimed the word of God into the exile.

Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem resulted in starvation, disease, and despair. A priest in the holiness tradition of the Jerusalem Temple, Ezekiel probably began his ministry in 592 BCE; he went to Babylon in 597 BCE in the first wave of exiles. For the next decade, Ezekiel preached sorrow and desperation to the Judeans (Ezekiel 1-24), and to the surrounding nations (Ezekiel 25-32). Ten years later, in 587/6 BCE after Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, they deported a second round of Judeans (including the king) to Babylon, and the monarchy ended. For the exiles, being cut off from the J-Temple meant being as good as dead. After news of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple reached Babylon, Ezekiel began to prophesy hope, revitalization, and restoration (Ezekiel 33-48).

Their world had come to an end. Not too different from our current situation. They wondered if the Babylonian gods had defeated their God. Or had God deserted them? [Consider the theology that literally located God's presence in a special way in the J-Temple.] How about us? Have illness, disease, climate warning, various inept administrations defeated God? Did God abandon us?

With its vivid imagery of new life, today's Ezekiel reading for Lent 5 comes from the time Ezekiel's proclamation shifted from sorrow to hope. Just as we do every year, we're moving toward Jerusalem and toward Jesus' trial, conviction, crucifixion, death—and resurrection! Unlike any year we've known, on this Sunday two weeks before Easter, Ezekiel brings words of hope for our current situation with this global pandemic.

Resurrection

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) that provides our scripture readings pairs this famous Ezekiel dry bones passage with Jesus reviving dead Lazarus from John 11:1-45. Throughout the bible, we find countless hints or "types" of resurrection from death that foreshadow Jesus' own resurrection.

All of us everywhere have been exiled from our conventional lives; not yet having an acceptable "new normal," we particularly need resurrection for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for our structures and institutions. We need to trust the reality of new life despite the reality of death! During this worldwide pandemic, we need to hear, we need to speak God's proclamation that assures us of resurrection from the dead, the word that brings a future.

Only God can perform resurrection; people and organizations will rise up out of their deaths when the Spirit of God restores them. However, in this passage we see how actions of the "Mortal" Ezekiel, (human one in many versions) help God's promise happen.

Divine initiative and human response interweave throughout this text. God leads Ezekiel to the valley, directs his attention and inspires his words. Ezekiel obeys and speaks God's word. As a result (with no help from the bones themselves—what could the dead do?), God gathers them together and breathes life into them. God loves digging up graves and calling forth new life!

Verses 11-14 place this passage in historical context of Israeli land and Israelite people. However, this text is renowned for applying to almost everyone everywhere in a multitude of circumstances. How about us, "mortal human ones" obeying God's command so God's promise of new life out of death's dry bones will come true?

The Word of God with the Spirit of God results in new life! This passage says prophesy/nabi 6 times; spirit/ruach 9 times. In verses 4 and 14, dabar is the word for God's word-action. In your studies you may have learned dabar is simultaneously both speech and action, just as in Hebrew, listen is both hearing and obeying.

We're in an unusual overall, literally deadly situation as we move closer to Easter; how does the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dead bones begin preparing us for the surprise of resurrection?

Cornel West: "We are people of hope. Why do we party on Friday night? Why do we go to church on Sunday?"

This Story Continues

You know the next chapter of the story of Judah and Benjamin: after the seventy-year long exile in Babylon (at the end of which Persia defeated Babylon), the Persian king gave the scribe Ezra permission to return to Palestine to re-establish Yahweh worship, and also to find officers to administer the land. After he arrived back in the land that included the city of Jerusalem, Ezra began that process.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Lent 4A

Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

NRSV

Psalm 23

1-3God, my shepherd!
I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

4Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I'm not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd's crook
makes me feel secure.

5You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

6Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I'm back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

COVID-19 – almost the same as last week

To maintain a sense of normalcy during the ongoing Corona Virus global pandemic with its social isolation and uncertainties, I'll keep blogging my SS class notes to send to my usuals. Typically I do that Monday or Tuesday after our discussion so I can include ideas from others – or myself – that weren't in my original notes, so I can add interesting details I didn't get to share with the group, so I even can omit anything that feels semi-irrelevant this time around.

The church's year of grace has reached the fourth Sunday in (but not of) Lent. Not belonging to Lent? Because every Sunday is a little Easter. This midway point has several traditional names and practices. In the North American church, Laetare – or "Rejoice" – probably is the best known. Each Sunday in Advent and Lent has a designation taken from the opening of the Latin Introit or entrance prayer: "Laetare Jerusalem" ("Rejoice, Jerusalem") comes from Isaiah 66:10. Similar to the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (that also means rejoice, be glad), the idea is to take a short break to lighten up before the somber season continues. As Steve V told us last year, Lent 4 is Mother's Day in the UK.

Fun One this time – Theological Comfort Food!

"The Lord is my Shepherd"—Psalm 23! Easter 4 is Good Shepherd Sunday every year; during our current Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Lent 4 is a good shepherd day, too. Besides translations and versions of the biblical text, there are countless paraphrases of Psalm 23. "The Lord is like my Probation Officer..." Did one-time shepherd King David write this psalm? That's unknown, but any sheep-tender would have known the words and imagery well.

The psalms or the psalter is the hymnal of the synagogue. The psalter was the hymnbook for John Calvin's Geneva Reform. The psalms probably are the Old Testament book most Christians know best. As we've mentioned, technically each week's psalm is our (ideally sung) response to the first reading that's generally OT, but during the Great 50 days of Easter it's from the Acts of the Apostles.

Many scriptural narratives originated in an agricultural setting.

• Abram/Abraham left Ur in Chaldea because of the land God promised: "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.'" Genesis 12:1
• God commanded Moses, "Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey..." Exodus 33:3a Milk and honey is a sign of the fullness of God's reign in justice and righteousness for all creation
• In the gospel of John, Jesus announces, "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me." John 10:14
• ...but Jesus of Nazareth lived and ministered in a mostly urban, completely colonial context. A well-tended garden or field grows into a city.
• Land is central in both OT and NT; land is central to our existence—well-stewarded land is necessary for our individual and corporate well-being.

We call our church leaders pastor, the Latin word for shepherd. The senior pastor I used to serve with told me whenever he thought of that congregation's founding pastor, he always remembered "pastoral" means "rural." Although green pastures and dark valleys are countrified imagery, we can translate those meadows and canyons into our recent or current psychological and physical realities; sometimes into wonderfully green fields and disappointingly devastated neighborhoods.

Most hymnals have three or four musical settings of Psalm 23. What one do you especially like? My all-time favorite uses the tune Resignation from Southern Harmony; I especially love Randall Thomson's choral arrangement. By the way, I no longer blog YouTube links because videos come and leave YT with the speed of lightning.

How would you express the ideas in this psalm for your current life?

What's in your 6-course dinner?

Please be well and stay well! Stay tuned for Lent 5!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Lent 3A

John 4:5-42

5So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water,

and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." 11The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"

13Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." 15The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." 16Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." 17The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, "I have no husband'; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"

19The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."

21Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

25The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."
26Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29"Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"

30They left the city and were on their way to him.

31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?"

34Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, "Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, "One sows and another reaps.' 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."

39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done."

40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word.

42They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."

COVID-19

To maintain a sense of normalcy during the current Corona Virus global pandemic, I'm blogging my SS class notes to send to my usuals. Typically I do that Monday or Tuesday after our discussion so I can include ideas from others – or myself – that weren't in my original notes, so I can add interesting details I didn't get to share with the group, so I even can omit anything that feels semi-irrelevant this time around.

Gospels Review

During most of this year of grace, from Advent through Reign of Christ, we'll hear from Matthew's gospel, but today we take an excursion for a story that's only in John and not in any of the synoptics. As we've learned, synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke view Jesus' life and ministry in a similar way: syn=coming together (synagogue, synthesis, synod, synopsis, etc.) + optic=about the eye (optician, optometrist, optimism, etc.). I often refer to John as the "rogue, outlier gospel that almost didn't make the canonical cut." Canon refers to a kind of gold standard or measurement.

John is the latest of the four gospels, most likely written down by a community gathered around John the Beloved Disciple, who probably was the youngest of the 12/13; tradition says John is the one without facial hair in Leonardo's Last Supper painting. The gospel according to John probably brings us the most realized eschatology—the right here and right now of the reign of heaven on earth.

Besides other unique literary material along with a few narratives common to all four gospel writers, John draws upon at least two written sources: Signs and I Am. The "I am" of verse 26 is the “I AM” of the sacred name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) and the first instance of I Am in John.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well

This encounter between Jesus and the unnamed woman demonstrates and embodies John 3:16, "God so loved [the entire] world," not solely one particular group. Jesus and the woman both know all the cultural, historical, and religious reasons they should not have anything to do with each other. Gender, ethnicity, cultural conditions, and religion all come together to forbid it; as John 4:9 informs us, "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans." Pastor Eugene Peterson's The Message reads, "Jews in those days wouldn't be caught dead talking to Samaritans." We know the cultural and social status of Samaritans in the Jewish world from Luke's parable of the Good Samaritan. From the perspective of most Jews, a "good Samaritan" would be a contradiction.

This incident happens during the midday desert heat, when the area probably would be isolated. Water is essential; water is life. The village well was a community gathering place where people went from necessity; a place where they well may have exchanged gossip and scuttlebutt.

For starters, this Samaritan woman is not a prostitute or a hooker or a harlot, not a street walker, a whore or a "lady of the night." She doesn't have a shady past. Jesus does not call her to repentance. We don't have the rest of her story, but she could be living with someone she had to depend on; she may have been in a succession of levirate marriages with a series of brothers after her first spouse died. In those situations, the woman was not always technically considered the brother's wife.

Although Jews and Samaritans shared the same founding history, they didn't share anything else. However, Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at Jacob's well, a geographical icon of their common heritage. The woman claims kinship when she says to Jesus, "...our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it."

• Scripture often uses water as a code word and symbol for the Spirit of God flowing out toward us, with God choosing and embracing us first.

• In 4:6 Greek "well of Jacob," is Jacob's spring –  a live spring fed the well with fresh running water.

• John 4:7 "Will you give me a drink?" Jesus didn't ask the Samaritan woman a literal question or directly command her; it was more of a rhetorical question, a polite exchange that recognized the other.

• 4:19 "I see you are a prophet" confesses trust in Jesus; John's gospel connects seeing or vision with faith, with believing. This outsider Samaritan woman is the first witness in John.

• 3:23-24 worshiping God in spirit and truth does away with the idea of a fixed, physical, institutional temple or other gated zone that might exclude individuals based on gender, ethnicity, or behavior. "Truth" here isn't about verifiable data or facts, but about a wide and broad sense of purpose and direction.

• 4:26 Jesus said to her, "I am [he], the one who is speaking to you." Jesus makes this first I Am statement in John not to insiders, but to an outsider: God so loved the world (including God's primal people Israel, of course).

• 4:28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city." Jesus never received the water he asked for, and the woman even leaves her water jar behind!

• John 4:29, "He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" carries the same rhetorical tone as Jesus' asking for a drink of water.

• 4:42 Only instance of the word Savior in John's gospel

• This year on the Day of Pentecost we'll hear a direct and highly resonant connection with today's gospel narrative:
John 7

37On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" 29Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Stay tuned! Stay safe!

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Lent 1A

Matthew 4:1-11

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4But he answered, "It is written,
    'One does not live by bread alone,
      but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

      5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
    'He will command his angels concerning you,'
      and 'On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
      8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
      'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Where we are: There are several ways to describe and organize the Christian year; one way begins by saying the church's year of grace just finished an approximately 3-month long section as we moved from Advent, with darker and shorter days into Christmas and through Epiphany, with more light and longer days, all of which emphasized Jesus as light for all, God as God of all creation and all people. That season also was about us as light to the world!

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent that's 40 days long—excluding Sundays. Lent was one of the church's earliest observances, apparently beginning with only a few days, gradually expanding into our current 40 days. There's no "right or wrong," but churches that observe the Three Days-Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, generally count Lent from Ash Wednesday through Wednesday in Holy Week; others go from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday evening. "Lent" comes from an Old English word for spring and refers to days getting longer, similar to the music tempo Lento or Slow. As a time of repentance and overall slowing, last year Pastor Peg observed Lent is a kind of spring cleaning for each of us. If you don't slow down, dust and cobwebs will relocate themselves rather than leave! Lent brings a special opportunity for confession and repentance; more than anything it's a season to confidently live bathed in grace as we confess, repent, and move in a new, better, direction. Historically Lent was the time of preparation for baptism, with baptisms at the Easter Vigil on Easter Eve or very very early Easter Sunday morning.

We're in Matthew's gospel year. In Matthew's, Mark's, and Luke's lectionary years, the first Sunday in but not of Lent features Jesus' wilderness temptation. This temptation narrative is that important! Jesus goes from his baptism in the wilderness of Judea [Matthew 3:1] alongside the Jordan River [Matthew 3:5-6] into a deeper level of wilderness [Matthew 4:1]. Matthew 4:1 begins with the word "Then" that didn't get into our Sunday worship bulletin. Then is immediately after Jesus' baptism. We need to remember Jesus did not receive our trinitarian baptism into his death and resurrection, yet his baptism by John still related to turning-around repentance and newness for the entire people of God and like ours, that baptism was identity-forming and affirming. A few weeks ago in the trinitarian theophany (demonstration, showing-forth/revealing of the three persons of the Trinity) of Jesus' baptism, God the Father declared Jesus Beloved Son.

Matthew's gospel emphasizes Jesus as the new liberator Moses and the new King David. Today Matthew brings us Jesus as the new Israel. Like Moses and like God's people Israel, Matthew's Jesus is called out of Egypt [Matthew 2:15] and goes through a wilderness testing time that necessitates his complete trust and reliance on God's gracious provision. In his interactions with the tempter [devil, prosecuting attorney, etc.] Jesus quotes scripture he has learned being raised as an observant, synagogue-going Jew. Jesus quotes from the Pentateuch book of Deuteronomy with its guidelines and instruction for living faithfully in community; Deuteronomy is supremely about the neighborology word about the neighbor we often talk about, particularly during Luke's lectionary year.