Sunday, May 18, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Readings for 6th Sunday of Easter, 5/25/14:
Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31:
  • This is a great passage - Paul's technique for pulling in the Athenians is marvelous, strategic, effective. He reaches them on their terms, where they are. He doesn't condemn them for their beliefs, though he certainly believes he has something else to offer. But he uses what they believe to lead to the good news he wants to share. Smoothly done.
  • "they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us." Hmm - I like this verse - Paul sees us all on the same ground - all humans essentially the same - searching for God. I think he's right on target - we're all searching for meaning. God is just waiting to be found by us.
  • "we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals." Yes - God is much more than we like to limit God to being. Even if we don't limit God through making graven images, we limit God in other ways, don't we?
Psalm 66:8-20:
  • Best to read the whole Psalm for some context. Mostly a praise psalm here, but with some specific perspectives. This psalm directly addresses God's hand in leading the Israelites out of Egypt into "a spacious place."
  • vs. 10-12 speak of all the 'testing' sort of tasks the people have endured at God's hands - the net, the burdens, through fire and water. Do you feel your trials have been laid out to you by God? That God has set you up to be tested? This idea has never set right with me, not quite.
  • "[God] has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me." I guess we often worry that God will do this, but I don't believe that God does this ever. Never rejects us, even if doesn't move heaven and earth for us as we'd like.
1 Peter 3:13-22:
  • "who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?" Unfortunately, the answer to that question is a lengthy list! But, the author encourages us, we are still blessed, sanctified in Christ.
  • "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence." What a great verse. What great advice! What is your defense for the hope that is within you?
John 14:15-21:
  • "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Do we love Jesus? Yes. Do we keep his commandments? Eek. I'm afraid we're not so good at this part. But Jesus reminds us that our obedience to the commandments is an expression of our love. So let's love Jesus well.
  • "I will not leave you orphaned." Sometimes I think we underestimate how lonely humans are. How often, despite the people in are lives, we feel we're on our own. That's why Jesus' promise is so significant and so meaningful. We're never abandoned.
  • "because I live, you also will live." These are words of promise often read at funerals. But remember that they are words for our lives now, not just speaking about some far off after-death hope.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter, 5/18/14:
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

Acts 7:55-60:
  • The martyrdom of Stephen - for what would you be willing to be put to death? Some kinds of martyrdom miss the mark, I think. Sometimes our lives are gifts not to be given in this way. But still, most of us, I think, would not be easily moved, even by our faith, to give our lives. Perhaps for our loved ones - that seems the most likely to inspire giving our own lives. The "greater love" of which Jesus speaks.
  • "they covered their ears" - do you sometimes cover your ears, literally or figuratively, to God's voice? God's messengers?
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16:
  • Rescue, refuge, fortress, save, rock, strong. This is a plea for God's protection.
  • Make sure to read the un-included verses of this Psalm, at least for yourself.
  • "My times are in your hand." Giving God our times. That simply, that completely.
  • "Let your face shine upon your servant." What does it feel like to have God's face shining on you? As a write, it is a gorgeous sunny day, where my cats are luxuriating in the sun coming through the windows. God's face shining on us must be something like that!
1 Peter 2:2-10:
  • "like newborn infants . . . so that you may grow into salvation." That's almost Wesleyan in sentiment, isn't it? We grow into salvation - a process, not a single one-time event.
  • "if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good." (see Psalm 34)
  • The author also references Psalm 118 - the "chief cornerstone" passage.
  • "once you were not a people, but now you are God's people." This is part of the Great Thanksgiving liturgy in the UMC Book of Worship for the Season of Easter, and it always grabs my attention. Our identity is as God's people. We share in the "chosen" identity that had shaped the people of the Jewish faith. We are chosen by God.
John 14:1-14:
  • "I am the way, the truth, and the life." This is one of those statements of Jesus that always makes me tense, because so often this verse is used to exclude others, to show that since Jesus is "the way" that there must be no other way to God. People argue that if there was more than one way, Jesus would have said, "I am a way." Personally, I think that's putting too much emphasis on the definite or indefinite articles from Jesus' Aramaic to Greek to English. But think of it this way, maybe: Jesus is more concerned about saying who he is than who others are not.
  • This passage is one, in parts, that I frequently use at funerals, guided by the Book of Worship. It seems to give comfort, knowing that we're expected. Like the calm of knowing you already have reservations made at a hotel, only better.
  • "Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." "Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?" I like this exchange between Philip (a highly under-played apostle) and Jesus. "We will be satisfied." What would it take from God for you to be satisfied? It seems we humans always need one more proof, one more sign, one more prayer answered as we want it answered. Jesus says, "don't you get it? I'm all you need to be satisfied." Do we get it?

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, "Resurrection Stories: Bless You," 2 Kings 4:20-35

Sermon 5/11/14
2 Kings 4:20-35

Resurrection Stories: Bless You

            If you’re thinking that today’s scripture lesson sounds a lot like last week’s scripture lesson, that’s good. It means you’ve been paying attention. Last week, we read about Elijah, who stayed in the home of a woman who had a son, who died, who Elijah then raised from the dead. Today, we’re reading about Elisha, who is staying at the home of a woman who has a son, and he dies, and Elisha raises him from the dead. A little confusing, right?
            Last week, remember, we talked about how Elijah’s prophetic words and actions weren’t very popular, since he criticized King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for their idolatrous practices. Eventually, Elijah is overwhelmed, exhausted from his prophetic work that keeps putting his life in jeopardy, and he turns to God for help. God tells Elijah that he’ll have someone to hand his work over to – a man named Elisha. For several years, Elisha journeys with Elijah as sort of a prophet-apprentice, and when Elijah prepares to leave earth, to be caught up into heaven, Elisha boldly asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. And it is given to him, just as he asks. What follows in the rest of the accounts of Kings is indeed, Elisha acting with a seeming double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and many stories of Elisha mirror and expand on things we’d read about Elijah.
            Today, again, our text opens in the middle of the story, so let’s back up a bit. Elisha is traveling one day through a town called Shunem, when he encounters a wealthy woman who urges him to stop and have a meal at her home. He does, and soon, whenever he passes that way, he stops for a meal. The woman suggests to her husband that they build an addition to their home, a small room, so that Elisha can stay with them when he comes to town. She does this, we read, because she believes that Elisha is a “holy man of God.”
            One time, while staying at the woman’s home, Elisha calls to his servant, Gehazi, and asks him to bring the woman to him. Elisha then asks her what she wants, as thanks for all that she has done for Elisha. He offers even to address the king on her behalf if she wants something. The woman, in response, suggests she has all she needs. So Gehazi suggests to Elisha that the woman has no son, and is unlikely because of her husband’s age to have one. Elisha then announces to her that she will bear a son, and she responds, “Oh no, man of God, don’t lie to your servant!” But, in time, she indeed gives birth to a son.
            Some years pass by – we’re not sure how many. But we read that “when the child was older” he complains to his father, “Oh my head, oh my head.” The child is brought to his mother to sit on her lap, and he dies in her arms. The woman doesn’t hesitate. She carries him and lays him down on Elisha’s bed – the “man of God’s” bed, the text says. She refers to Elisha this way throughout this scene. And she gets ready and goes to find him, “the man of God.” Elisha sees her approaching and sends Gehazi to ask if everything is ok. She says, “It is all right,” and keeps moving, until she gets close enough to the man of God to catch hold of his feet. Gehazi tries to push her away, but Elisha tells Gehazi to let her be. The woman says, “Did I ask God for a son? Didn’t I tell you not to lie to me?” So, Elisha sends Gehazi to go quickly with Elisha’s staff to try to raise the child. It doesn’t work. But meanwhile, more slowly, Elisha arrives with the woman, who has refused to go without him. Elisha goes to the child, prays to God, and performs something that might read to us like a medical intervention – almost like a version of CPR or mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation – although now the child has been long dead. But, sneezing seven times, the child opens his eyes. Elisha calls the woman in, and tells her “take your son.”
            As similar as this story is to the story we heard about Elijah last week, the differences are important. This story isn’t about idolatry, like last week’s story. The woman and her husband live in Shunem, a town in Issachar, a tribe of Israel. And the woman is married and wealthy, not a widow trying to scrape together enough food to live. So the focus of this miraculous raising of a child from the dead is different. We know what it isn’t about, but do we know what it is about?
            Like so many women in the Bible, this woman is never named for us, usually just described as “the Shunnamite woman.” But though we never get her name – or the rest of her family’s, for that matter, she’s the center of the story. She’s the one who recognizes Elisha as a man of God. She’s the one who suggests building a room for Elisha. She’s the one who scoffs at his announcement of her pregnancy. She’s the one who holds her dying child, who lays him in Elisha’s room, who commands the servants to ready her for travel, who pursues Elisha, who grasps his feet, who won’t leave without him, who holds him accountable, who demands action. Sure, Elisha performs the resurrection, but you almost sense he’d be in big trouble with her, the mother, if he didn’t. She’s confident. She’s bold. She doesn’t hesitate to go after what she wants. She calls out Elisha as a man of God, and knowing that, she knows what he can do and doesn’t rest until he does it.
            On this Mother’s Day, I can’t help but think of this mother and her determination and think about my own mother, and other mothers you know who might have acted like this woman. My mother is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. This week I presented my Doctor of Ministry paper in Ohio, and over the course of the quick two day trip I took there and back this week, I think she told me she was proud of me literally at least twenty times. I tease her about that, but if your worst quality is boosting someone up too much, really, you aren’t doing too bad. She’s the kind of mom that everyone thinks of as their mom. Really, even strangers seem to see her, and immediately want to share with her their life stories. She’s just inviting like that. But she can be fierce – don’t be fooled. Woe to you if you hurt one of her children! A few years back, I was dealing with a rather mean and cranky landlord, and when I was moving out, he gave me a hard time about everything. My mother came with me for my final inspection, and she only spoke a few words, but if looks could kill…let’s just say, my landlord became much more agreeable in my mother’s presence. And she can be fiercely protective when she has a child in danger. When I was in eighth grade, I managed to pin my leg beneath my family’s mini-van in a grocery store parking lot. How I managed that is a long story where I come out looking rather foolish, so we’ll call that part not important. But when my mom discovered me, pinned under then minivan, she, not seeing any available help, just pushed the minivan off me. Talk about adrenaline! When her child was in danger, she was totally confident and capable of doing what was needed – getting me to safety.
Mother’s Day isn’t a liturgical holiday – it isn’t a part of our church calendar. And I am so deeply aware of all of the mixed emotions all of us bring on a day like this. Some of us have mothers like mine – loving and kind. Some of us have lost our mothers. Some mothers have lost children. Some mothers were not kind or loving. Some of us were surrounded by other strong women who love us like mothers. Some of us were adopted or adopted to become mothers. Some of us have wanted to be mothers, but haven’t been able to. Some of us love mothers, without ever wanting the role for ourselves. But thankfully what we see to admire in this fierce, bold, confident mother in our text today is something we can all emulate in our lives. Because as much as she was motivated to act because of her love for her child, because of her desire to protect him by going to whatever lengths necessary, even demanding that he be brought back to life, I think her primary reason for her actions is because of her faith in God and her confidence in who Elisha is and who he represents. Seven times in this story alone the woman refers to him directly or indirectly as the “man of God.” She quite literally makes room for God in her house, building an addition just so Elisha will have a better place to stay when he’s in town. She is totally confident in Elisha’s ability to restore her child’s life. Her actions suggest entire confidence, complete belief that Elisha, with God’s power, will make her child live. Her faith, her confidence, her actions, her trust in God – that all transcends her role as mother, a response she makes as a faithful disciples, one who believes entirely in God and God’s resurrecting power.
How confident are you in God’s resurrecting power? How bold does your faith in God make you? How much are you sure that God is truly powerful, truly loving, truly acting in the world, truly holding the power of life, hope, resurrection? How much room have you made for God in your life, trusting in God’s power to impact your life deeply? On this day, as you reflect on some special women in your life who have been your advocates and supporters, your encouragers, going to battle for you, confident in you, proud of you, loving you, and on this day as you, men and women, everyone, as you seek to be these loving figures in the lives of others: on this day, know that you can put your faith in God, our loving parent, bold in claiming us as children, fierce in seeking what is good for us, moving heaven and earth to draw new life from us, even when we feel empty and hopeless and lifeless. Confident in God, trusting in God’s promises, don’t just sit timidly back, waiting for resurrection to find you. Seek out resurrection. Grasp onto life. Trust that new life is for you, offered by God. Be bold, and receive the gift of God. Amen.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Readings for 4th Sunday of Easter, 5/11/14:
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

Acts 2:42-47:
  • This is one of my favorite passages of Acts, where this early Christian community is depicted. When you look at this, and think of the church communities we have today, I wonder how far we've strayed from this model of community life.
  • "all things in common." We don't have much of anything held "in common" with people we are not related to these days. Maybe we'd (rightly) write it off as communism, but with our pejorative meaning added. How might we gain some of this "in common" life back? I have some friends in Tucson who've been fairly involved with a group of social-justice-minded people living in "intentional community." Hard work. But valuable.
  • breaking bread - sharing a meal together. Even if we can't live with all in common, we do still share together around the table in churches. To me, this time can be some of the most sacred time. Think of all the bible stories that are centered around shared food and drink. I think food/drink are so vital to life, to living, that they tie well in with the way God is vital to life and to living.
Psalm 23:
  • Ah, again the 23rd Psalm. Someday I'll have to count how often it shows up in our lectionary. Today, it corresponds well with our John 10 text.
  • This is perhaps the one passage of scripture that most people, regardless of their usual preference of translation, prefer to hear in the poetry of the King James version, myself included. Just a part of our identity as people of faith.
  • "I shall not want." Hmm. I think we skip right over this little phrase. We like to hear about our overflowing cup. Less interesting to us, less believable, is that we could be without want.
  • Have you ever tried writing this as a reverse Psalm? Verse by verse, reverse the meaning of the phrases. Not necessarily point for point, but in the sense of it. Instead of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," try, "I have no one to lead me, and my need is boundless." I've been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, "Why do it this way?" But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.
  • Like all well-known texts, there is a danger of it communicating nothing fresh to us. This psalm is often used at funerals - many people know it by heart. Many find it comforting and strengthening. What else can it be? Challenging? Guiding us?
1 Peter 2:19-25:
  • "it is a credit to you if . . . you endure pain while suffering unjustly." A verse like this must have fortified, for example, Gandhi and those in his movement when the British were attacking them as they attempted to collect salt from the sea, or MLK and other civil rights leaders, young and old, as they were beaten, imprisoned, sprayed with fire hoses. Have you ever unjustly endured physical pain? I don't think we want to stray into thinking that it is somehow godly if we are abused in relationships, but here I'm wondering more about civil disobedience, nonviolence - have you ever endured pain because you were standing up for a belief?
  • Jesus is the example of nonviolence: "When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten" - but again, lest I be misunderstood, let me say that I don't mean this to suggest/recommend inaction in abusive situations. But Jesus as a model of nonviolent activism.
  • The author is very much emphasizing Jesus in substitutionary atonement model - Jesus was sinless, but he bore our sins, so we wouldn't have to. This is personally not a central part of my theology. But certainly the emphasis for the author.
John 10:1-10:
  • This passage contains my favorite of all verses, 10b, "I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly." I latched onto this verse when I was in high school, and was amazed that Jesus wanted us to have such full lives. In high school, it led me to try new things, dream dreams, because I realized that God wants us to enjoy all the wonderful things about this life.
  • Notice Jesus mixing his metaphors in this passage - is he the shepherd? The gate? And who is the gatekeeper?
  • Remember, we tend to think of shepherds and sheep as warm and cuddly and wonderful today. But shepherds weren't exactly at the highest rung of society in Jesus' day. Their job was a smelly and dirty and lonely one perhaps. What images correspond for us today? What is a thankless yet vital profession?
  • How do you hear God's voice? How do you recognize it and distinguish it from other voices in your life?

Sermon, "Resurrection Stories: Widow's Son," 1 Kings 17:17-24

Sermon 5/4/2014
1 Kings 17:17-24
Resurrection Stories – Widow’s Son

            We’re continuing to look at Resurrection Stories in the scriptures as we move through the Great Fifty Days of Easter – did you know that’s one of the titles of this season? Not just the fifty days of Easter – but the Great Fifty Days of Easter. What greater thing can we celebrate than the power of resurrection? So we’re looking at Resurrection Stories in the Bible, and we’re hoping that they will stir up in us reminders of or motivation for or anticipation of the resurrection stories that take place in our own lives. In fact I spoke to someone just this week who is about to make some major changes in her life that will give her new life, that will resurrect her in amazing ways. I could feel the sense of hope and possibility in our midst just from listening to her talk about her plans. Resurrection, the new life God wants to give us, is so powerful.
            Today we find ourselves in 1 Kings, following the prophet Elijah. Our text today starts kind of in the middle of the scene, so let’s give ourselves some context. We’re in the 9th Century in First Kings, one of the books of history in the Bible, during the reign of King Ahab. In other words, this passage takes place a few hundred years before the text we read about Ezekiel and the dry bones last Sunday. King Ahab allowed the worship of a foreign god in the palace, building a temple for Baal, and allowing Jezebel, his wife, a princess from Phoenicia, to bring a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country. In other words, Ahab was allowing idolatry to take place, in fact, encouraging idolatry, worship of other gods, right in his very own home. Obviously, this was breaking the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, the most important of the commandments – love God – worship only God – in a big way. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.”
Elijah then appears suddenly on the scene. We don’t really know who he is or anything about him. We don’t know his background or his role in the society or why anyone would listen to anything he has to say. His name, Elijah, literally means, “My God is Yahweh.” So Elijah may actually be a title applied to him rather than his given name. But we don’t know anything else. So this Elijah appears on the scene and takes a number of bold, confrontational actions. It starts with Elijah declaring to Ahab that there will be a long drought because of Ahab’s idolatrous practices. Elijah delivers that news, and then gets out of town fast, at God’s command. God keeps Elijah alive despite the drought, eventually sending him to a widow in Zarephath. Zarephath was a town in Phoenicia – a town in a foreign land, a place where folks worshipped Baal. Elijah asks the widow for food and water, but the woman says she has only a very little. Elijah tells her not to worry, the God of Israel will not let the meal or oil fail, but it will provide enough for Elijah, the widow, and her son, until the drought ends. And it is just so – they survive. But then, as our text opens today, seemingly unrelated to the drought, the widow’s son falls ill and dies.
The widow pleads with Elijah, calling him a man of God who has “brought her sin to remembrance” and caused her son’s death. In other words, the woman feels that Elijah’s God, Yahweh, must be angry that she does not worship Yahweh. Elijah has called attention to her by staying with her, and she’s being punished. Elijah in turn pleads with God, essentially saying, “God, listen, you can’t put me in this sticky situations, so help me out.” Elijah prays over the son, “Let this child’s life come into him again.” And the child is alive again, and Elijah brings him downstairs to his mother. And she says, “‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth.”
This story of the raising of the widow’s son accomplishes several things at once. First, it serves as a “credentialing” story for Elijah. Often, the scriptures give us a “call story” for prophets. We see where they were or what they were doing before they began their work, or we know that they acted as an advisor to the king or so on. But with Elijah, we know nothing. So this story illustrates that God was with him and that he was speaking and acting on God’s behalf, as God wanted him to act.
But it does more than that. This and all the stories of Elijah demonstrate that Yahweh is God not Baal. The passage shows us God’s faithfulness and power. So this new life story is about new life through God rather than elsewhere. We’ll come back to that. But I want to point out something else really important about this chapter first. The widow, though she is a foreigner, living in an area that would worship Baal, seems to be convinced of the power of the God Elijah talks about. She talks about Elijah’s God, and witnesses how God provides for Elijah and her family during the drought. When her son dies, she believes in God – she believes, in fact, that God has punished her, that her son’s death is a result of her not following this Yahweh. So Elijah doesn’t raise her son so that she’ll believe in the power of God. She already believes God is powerful enough to bring about her son’s death as punishment! No, Elijah raises her son to demonstrate that God isn’t about death and punishment! God is about mercy, hope, and new life! God isn’t out to punish the woman for her lack of belief or even for having followed another god. No, Yahweh acts to demonstrate that God is the God of life, of living, of hope, of resurrection. The widow, then, is offered through Elijah an opportunity to witness the power of God, an opportunity to be transformed by the power of resurrection. The woman is expecting punishment. But as usual, God offers grace instead. And because of that, because of life, not death, the woman concludes: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
I wonder, when we’re trying to offer to others the gift of God that we have found – do we offer death and punishment, or do we offer grace, hope, and life? When we were driving down to Kentucky for our mission trip last week, my passengers Emma and Daija noticed some big billboards, proclaiming that hell is real, with the letter H filled in with fiery flames, suggesting that if you didn’t want to end up in hell, you better connect with Jesus really soon. We talked about whether or not these billboards were achieving their intended purpose. I think we’ve got some good news to share. Life-giving, hope-giving, resurrecting news to share about God. Most people find that death and despair is all around them – that’s not news. But resurrection? Life that can’t be conquered by death? That’s some good news. It was good news for the widow of Zarephath. And it’s good news for us, meant to be shared.
This passage also asks us a question: Where else are you trying to get new life from that isn’t God? Today we heard from Linda Loomis, who spoke about our stewardship theme for this year. And as we think about the family tree of our church, we think of what it means to be rooted. What are we rooted in that is giving us life? We’re rooted in Christ. Our life comes from God who breathes God’s own breath, God’s own spirit into us, and we’re given life, rooted in Christ. If we’re planted somewhere else, not by the water, our roots will be unhealthy, and we’ll never grow like we could. Elijah, in this story and in the other stories about him from 1 Kings, has one mission: to encourage people to stop turning to things other than God seeking life. Anytime we seek new life from something other than God, anytime we make that other thing more important to us, more of a focus for us than God, not only are we being idolatrous, but we’re also just engaging in futile behavior. We’re setting ourselves up for failure. Plant yourself by the tree. Seeking new life? Make sure you’re looking in the right place, seeking new life from the right source. As you think about your life, the places you are seeking resurrection, how and where are you seeking after new life?
Then Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’ So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’ Amen.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, 5/4/14:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

Acts 2:14a, 36-41:
  • This, like last week's reading from Acts, continues as an account of the reaction of the crowds to Peter's speaking at the festival of Pentecost.
  • "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." This is interesting phrasing by Peter - does he believe that Jesus was not innately the Messiah, but only chosen to take on that identity? Hmm...
  • "cut to the heart" from the Greek, katenugĂȘsan tĂȘn kardian, literally means "to be sorely pricked" - as far as I can see, this is the only place this words occurs in the Bible, and occurs rarely in other classical Greek texts. 
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19:
  • This text was just in our lectionary cycle for Maundy Thursday - hopefully it looks a little familiar to you! What makes it different to read this Psalm during Holy Week, and then during the days of Easter?
  • "I love the Lord, because he had heard my voice." I wish I knew Hebrew - I'm curious about the "because" word here. Do we love people "because" of something? Or does our love, even for God, go deeper and beyond a "because."
  • "I will pay my vows to the Lord" This phrase is repeated in this Psalm. It seems the Psalmist feels he must pay God back for hearing his voice, his supplications. Does God need to be paid back? Want to be paid back? I don't think God wants to feel "owed" as much as loved.
  • "loosed my bonds" - what has you bound up?
1 Peter 1:17-23:
  • "purified your souls by your obedience to the truth" - what does it mean to be obedient to truth? Does it mean to always tell the truth? To go out of your way to share truth? To act on the truth that you know?
  • "genuine mutual love" is literally philadelphian, in Greek, "brotherly love".
  • "love one another deeply from the heart" - the word 'deeply' is from the Greek ektene^s, literally, "intensely," "zealously," or "instantly." I prefer all of those translations to 'deeply'!
Luke 24:13-35:
  • "how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread" I like this phrase. There's so many accounts in the scriptures of Jesus sharing meals with people - isn't it appropriate that it is over a meal that these two recognize him after the resurrection? Methodists have a reputation for always having food at get-togethers - we love our potluck suppers! But it's not the food - it really is the community, the fellowship, being the body of Christ together.
  • "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures." Ah, if only that conversation had been recorded into the scriptures, eh?
  • I always wonder, in texts like this, and in Mary's seeing Jesus at the resurrection, and the disciples seeing Jesus walking on water - how can they not recognize one around whom they have centered their lives? What keeps them from seeing and knowing Jesus for who he is? Arguably, Cleopas and his friend may not have been as close to Jesus as Mary and the twelve, but still... I guess that Jesus is always showing up for them in unexpected ways and places, and that's why they never realize who he is. A theological happening, no doubt!

Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, "Resurrection Stories: Dry Bones," Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon 4/27/2014
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Resurrection Stories – Dry Bones

            Last week, as we gathered on Easter Morning, we heard The Resurrection Story – as we lingered with Mary at the tomb long enough to experience the resurrected Christ, as we pondered the difference between resuscitated lives and resurrected lives. But the celebration of Easter isn’t a one day event. As we sang last week, we are indeed Easter people, and every day to us is Easter because we always live in the promise of the victory of life over death. And so we always celebrate Easter, but we also have a liturgical season of Easter that is fifty days long – lasting from Easter Sunday to the day of Pentecost. These days represent the forty days that Jesus remained on earth after the resurrection, and the days leading up to the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit, which we’ll celebrate in June. Fifty days of Easter. During these fifty days, we’ll be lingering, so to speak, sticking with this Resurrection Story – as we seek out and listen to and learn to tell our own resurrection stories. The scriptures are filled with stories of resurrection – the victory of life over death, hope over despair – in many different forms. Each week, we’ll look at a different story of resurrection from the Bible, and we’ll think about what it means for us, and what resurrection looks like in our own lives.
            Many of you know that I was blessed to spend part of this past week with our Red Bird Mission team in rural Kentucky, where 18 of our youth and adults worked hard to repair homes, make improvements to ministry buildings, and do other projects to aid in the outreach work of Red Bird Mission. I knew I’d have to work on my sermon a bit while I was there with them, so I decided to take advantage of my captive audience, and I spent some time asking the trip participants questions about our scripture text today. I didn’t get to interview quite everyone, but I got many responses, and I’ll let you hear some of their answers, as we enjoy this way to be connected to them, even as they travel home today. They got to be my guinea pigs, since I am hoping that eventually we’ll all be more able to think about and share about God’s resurrecting power in our own lives.
We start our study of resurrection stories with a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, known as The Valley of Dry bones. Ezekiel was a priest living in exile in Babylon, with other Israelites. I think it is hard for most of us to imagine our whole community being conquered and living in exile in a foreign land, but the time of exile, in the sixth century BC, was Israel’s most devastating experience since their slavery under Egyptian rule. They were a people whose religious roots were deeply tied to their land – the Promised Land – and living in exile represented a great turning away from faithfulness to God.
Ezekiel, then, describes in this passage an image God brings to him that represents what the exiled people of Israel look like emotionally – like a valley dry bones – skeletons. “The 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. [The Lord] led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry,” we read. Then God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is smart, and says, “You know God.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that God will breathe into the bones and cause them to be covered with flesh and come to life again. Ezekiel does as he’s told, and it happens just as God describes, and the bones live again, given flesh and breath. These newly living beings say that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. But God responds to them: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord … I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Eventually, Israel does come home from exile, and slowly, they come back to life, and reclaim their identity.  
This passage is popular passage in the Bible. If you know anything from Ezekiel, chances are this is the story you know. And I think it’s so popular because of how easy it is for us to relate to the image of dry bones. How often have you felt like dry bones, piled up in the valley, no life in you, no hope in you? I asked our Red Bird folks to talk to me about the dry bones imagery.
Eric Holmes shared that he thought of dry bones as a metaphor for what happens when you don’t live the life God wants you to live. It’s like the “old boots in the closet that dry out and age,” he said. But then “you find them, and then you find the boot rub ointment, and bring new life into the old boots and bring them back to what they’re meant to be used for.” Marybeth talked about the hustle and bustle of life. When you get caught up in what other people are saying, when you feel useless, overwhelmed by stress, like you are at your lowest point. Kay Phillips said dry bones are when you feel like there’s nowhere to go. Like you might as well just die. “Have I ever felt like that?” she said, “Yeah! But when I start to feel like that, I look back over all the different times that I’ve felt like that where God has turned it around, so I know that [God will turn it around] again.” Dry bones come, she said, when we try to do it on our own instead of with God’s help. Mike Nortman talked about dry bones as “desolation. Isolation.” Sika said dry bones are when “you are sad and you don’t have anything to fulfill you and you don’t have anything to interest you and you don’t have anything to dedicate your heart to and you’re are stuck and you don’t feel well and you feel empty inside.” Sakari equated dry bones with that feeling you get when you’ve worked so hard that you’ve used up every bit of energy you have. Dominique, our animal lover, said dry bones make her think of bird’s bones, many of which are hollow. Dry bones are when it feels like our bones are hollow, she said, even though they aren’t supposed to be – that hollow, empty feeling. Emma talked about a recent challenging health struggle, where her long recovery kept her out of school for months and she had to sleep and sleep to recover. She felt like dry bones. Bill Mann talked about a time when he was a child and his uncles were fighting in World War II, and he lost sleep, worrying that they would never come home. Others talked about struggles with depression, or watching loved ones face that struggle. It seems like we can all relate to dry bones. Have you ever felt like dry bones?
            So I next asked folks what it felt like to have God’s breath breathed in to you. What does it feel like when you’ve been feeling like dry bones, and suddenly, God brings you to life again? Mike Nortman talked about climbing a mountain and how it feels to reach the summit and see the view. “I think it is because of the expanse of the view,” he said. “It’s huge yet comforting to be there, which is how I feel about God.” Kay said it’s like a brand new morning. “You see the sun and hear the birds and you know it’s gonna be all right.” Marybeth said it feels like a cleanse, refreshing. “I know when I’m doing something through God it just feels right – not high or low – just right.” Paula Lamberson said it’s “a feeling I know I can’t get on my own, no matter how hard I try to do it on my own – it’s not the same [on my own.]” Daija Dowe said she feels God breathes life into her when she helps other people. Lexie Ryan talked about building new relationships and working hard feeling like a new start. Dominique talked about “all the little things that fill us up that we may not even [realize].” Elliott Lawrence talked about his work with the Conference Youth – “[You feel] really good, like you are surrounded by people who care about you who also have God’s breath in them and you can feel God’s presence all around you.” Eric talked about getting involved with the LIFE Youth program, remembering how Mike and Janet Ehrhart convinced him to come: “All you have to do is be there. You don’t have to do anything.” And now he’s one of the primary youth leaders here. What about you? When and how have you been brought back to life by God’s holy breathe filling you up? What did that feel like? What made your experiences so life-giving?
            Finally, I asked folks about the verse in this passage that really caught me. God talks about planting the newly God’s-breath-filled people on “their own soil.” Of course, this language is literal – God’s talking about bring the people back to Israel from Babylonian exile. But it is also rich in metaphor. What does it mean to have God plant you in your own soil? That’s what I asked our Red Bird folks. Kay said her own soil is when she’s doing something for someone else. Kay got injured on the worksite on the first day at Red Bird. She ended up with 38 stiches and quite the story to tell, but remained in her irrepressible good spirits throughout the whole adventure. Kay said that her biggest frustration with her injury was that it disturbed the work folks were there to accomplish. She wasn’t there to be helped but to help! That’s her own soil. Marybeth said, “It makes me think of the word confident – confident God has me, that I can go out into the world, that I’m protected.” Mike said his own soil is when he’s at home – not necessarily the physical place – but when he feels at home. Bill feels like he’s on his own soil when he can help others, especially if he can do it without them knowing about it. He’s on his own soil when he can use the gifts and talents God’s given him to help others. Paula said it’s when you have that knowledge that you are where you belong, not wandering anymore, not frustrated, not on an island alone. A peace. Elliott said being put on your own soil is developing your own self, your own self-image, your own uniqueness, being different, but with God and others to support you. Dominique said being on your own soil is being “in the element that [God] created us for – like how Marybeth [is] an EMT – that’s her soil, she’ knows what she’s doing, confident, happy, to help people. With me, with animals is where I can help – that’s what God wanted me to do. [It’s] what we can really find ourselves in.” Emma said being on your own soil is when you are serving God. She’s noticed that since she’s committed herself to serving God, opportunities keep appearing in her life to do just that. Daija spoke of being set on solid ground. Sika talked about the soil being God’s plan for our lives. Eric said it’s being in the place you are supposed to be. Lexie said being planted on your own soil is being “somewhere where you belong and fit in and [you’re with] people who belong with you – like a chain – like this link belongs next to this link – these links go together. [Being in your own soil is being in] the right place for your link.” What’s your own soil? Where is God placing you, so that you’ll grow and live and feel God’s breath coursing through you, resurrected, hope renewed?
I felt like I should let some of my youth write my sermon more often. Some deep wisdom from all those youth and adults. I feel blessed by their stories. They all knew what I meant by dry bones. But they also all knew what it meant to have God breathe new life into them. They knew something about the feeling of being placed on their own soil. What about you, Easter people? We’ve heard Jesus’s resurrection story. We’ve heard Ezekiel’s story, and the story of the exiled Israelites. We’ve heard from some of our mission team. Now it’s your turn. What’s your story of new life? What story of God’s resurrection power will you share? Amen.