June 17, 2018

Pentecost: Society

I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” says Jesus. It is not easy to live fully into this commandment. Yet, as Br. Luke Ditewig of the Society of St. John Evangelist, notes, “life is being restored, through love, as Jesus loves, no matter what.”

Laurie Brock states in her 50 Days post, “embodying this love will almost always cause us to run aground on the qualities the social culture values. Like Peter, Paul, and the early followers of Jesus, if we're loving right, we will find ourselves at odds with those who preach affluence at all cost, caring for the poor and needy only if they deserve it, and rhetoric that dehumanizes those people.”

Throughout these early weeks of Pentecost we have been considering the radical call of the Holy Spirit to a different kind of discipleship and to growth. We may have to change the way we live. We may find ourselves pushed to speak up for the disenfranchised. We may even find our comfortable and well-ordered lives turned upside down. It happened to the first disciples.

How do we start to live so that the world knows we are a follower of Jesus? In Acts 4:13, we read, “When [the Jewish leaders] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

Remember Peter and John had been arrested for teaching and healing in Jesus’ name. They are questioned by “Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family…‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’” (Acts 4:6-7)

The same Peter who was cowering in the upper room not so many days previously and who had denied Jesus in the courtyard of Caiaphas a couple months earlier, finds his voice. His response had nothing cowardly or quavering about it. “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:8-12)

Surely something has happened to turn Peter from the fear-filled, turn-tail who denied Jesus to someone who will tell that same man that he ‘rejected the cornerstone’. That same Someone is at work transforming our fear-filled lives so that we, too, can stand up to authorities and say ‘that is wrong’ and ‘there is no other name under heaven’.

Peter’s courageous response causes the leaders to decide they cannot punish Peter and John. Instead, “to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” (Acts 4:17) Rather than obeying, “Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.” (Acts 4:19-22)

Jesus promises that when “they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:17-20)

Does that mean that we all should be participating in protests and trying to find a ‘cause’? Perhaps, perhaps not. If that is your call and where your heart says, ‘I must speak out about this injustice’, then yes, go and take a stand!. However, there is also need for small candles of love. A little light in the darkness can be just as important. Josh Wilson, in his new contemporary Christian song Dream Small points to all the little things we do that are part of the Kingdom.

He sings of “a momma singing songs about the Lord…a daddy spending family time the world said he cannot afford… It's visiting the widow down the street or dancing on a Friday with your friend with special needs. These simple moments change the world.” The chorus summarizes, “So dream small/Don't bother like you've gotta do it all/Just let Jesus use you where you are/One day at a time/Live well/Loving God and others as yourself/Find little ways where only you can help/With His great love/A tiny rock can make a giant fall/So dream small.”
We may be called before ‘councils and governors’, or we may just have to ‘dance with your friend with special needs’. Both are ways to stand up to the society that marginalizes and separates. God’s love calls to unity and to one Body and to love.

Through the ‘new commandment’ to love God, love neighbor, love self; we discover as Br Luke says, “life is being restored, through love.”

Where can you ‘Dream Small’ to make a difference?

In what ways and places are you called to, as Laurie Brock says, “embody this love [that] will almost always cause us to run aground on the qualities the social culture values”?

Next time, we’ll look at what kind of courage it takes to live into God’s call to love. 

June 10, 2018

Pentecost: Love is Work

Last time we noted that God is asking us to step out of the security of our safe ‘boats’, built of our expectations and plans. The Spirit that blew through the upper room at Pentecost still blows through our lives and asks us to respond by letting go.

At the beginning of this series we encountered Laurie Brock’s words about Loving the Violent Wind [of the Spirit]. She warns, “The love of Jesus rocks the ships of our own schemes, running them aground and forcing us to enter new communities, to open ourselves and souls to new insights, and to act boldly to serve all in the name of Jesus. Walking, preaching, living, this love is work.”

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like the idea that ‘Jesus rocks the ships of our schemes, running them aground’. I prefer to think that I have everything neatly figured out. I’m perfectly happy with the status quo (mostly). As noted last week, we can get trapped in our own expectations and plans. We may be willing to call on God when things really get out of control, but not before.

The country-Western song Jesus Take the Wheel epitomizes our attitude toward letting God take over. Carrie Underwood sings, “Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass/She saw both their lives flash before her eyes/She didn't even have time to cry/She was so scared/She threw her hands up in the air/Jesus take the wheel/Take it from my hands/Cause I can't do this on my own/I'm letting go/So give me one more chance/Save me from this road I'm on/Jesus take the wheel.” Only when we are really stuck do we call out and say, ‘Jesus take the wheel’. 

When we realize we aren’t in control, we hear Jesus say, ‘I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ (John 13:34) This new commandment turns our plans and worlds upside down. We can no longer view anyone as ‘other’ or mark them ‘different’ for we are called to Love one another, as I have loved you.
The quote from Desmond Tutu, below, puts this kind of love in perspective, "God loves you! And God's love is so great, God loves your enemies too."
Br. Luke Ditewig of the Society of St. John Evangelist, notes we are called to have Agape Love for one another. “This is tough love, not a feeling of the heart but a resolve of the will. It’s the love God has for all of us, love no matter what. It’s the love Jesus had for his disciples and what Jesus speaks of [in John 13:34].”

Brother Luke agrees with Laurie Brock. “Love though it’s really hard work. Following Jesus is not easy.” Then he notes, “Yet Jesus always acts first. We give out of presence not absence. Having been blessed abundantly, we bless everyone. Having been loved abundantly, we love everyone.”

How can we possibly love everyone? Br. Luke asks readers to remember “how it all began, how Jesus invited you into relationship. Remember people who have been Jesus in the flesh for you…Remember how Jesus has loved you no matter what…Jesus doesn’t suggest or invite. He commands. Love one another. Love though you don’t like.”

Did you notice that last sentence? “Love though you don’t like.” We aren’t asked to LIKE everyone, or to tolerate differences. We are to LOVE one another! And that is indeed hard soul work. 

Love happens when we allow the Spirit to ‘take the wheel’. As Brock says God calls us to “new communities, to open ourselves and souls to new insights, and to act boldly.” I wonder what new insights we are closing our eyes to by not being open to God’s charge to LOVE. There are probably communities of new friends that we don’t know yet. And infinite ways to serve one another that we haven’t yet thought of. That is when, as Brock suggests, ‘love [can be] work’.

Br. Luke closes by stating, “The way is we love others no matter what.
The truth is Jesus loves us no matter what.
The life is being restored, through love, as Jesus loves, no matter what.”

Can you ‘let Jesus take the wheel’ and be open to new things in your life?

Will you allow the Spirit to act, and offer Agape love to others, no matter what?

How can we make loving, as we are commanded to do, a work of joy?

Next time, we’ll consider how loving in this way puts us at odds with society.  

June 3, 2018

Pentecost: Expectations

Last time I offered the suggestion that although the season of Pentecost is often called “Ordinary Time” it really isn’t ordinary at all. It is a time for growth and change in the natural world; and should be in our lives as well as we allow the Holy Spirit of Pentecost to invade our lives.

Laurie Brock, as noted last time, stated, “Comfort keeps us locked in the rooms of our own expectations.” I think that is an interesting comment. What does it mean to you?

For me, it is a reminder that I can want things to be a certain way, and that makes me resistant to change. It’s a normal human response. We like things to run smoothly and easily and don’t like to have a lot of turmoil in our lives; so we create a list of expectations of how life is going to be.

We might have the expectation that Christmas will be a fun, family time where everyone gets exactly what they want. That may or may not be the reality.

We could have the expectation that when we graduate we’ll find a perfect job and stay there for our entire career. More and more often, job change, is the norm.

We may have the expectation that we’ll meet the perfect person and live together in ‘good old-fashioned Leave it to Beaver’ style. Lives today are a little more complex than portrayed on TV.

We sometimes have the expectation that God will respond to our every prayer with a smooth-running life. God isn’t a fairy godmother to grant our every wish.

If all our carefully crafted expectations don’t create the comfortable serenity we desire, we can get discouraged and depressed. Yet we still live as though our expectations are going to happen. Every Christmas, we hope it will be better. Every relationship or job will be ‘the one’.

Where does God enter this equation of wanting to have a smooth, comfortable life that fulfils our own expectations of the perfect life? As we’ve seen in the lives of several men and women of God during the Easterseason, God is all about change and creating something new. God isn’t about maintaining the status quo or making us all comfy and cozy.

The wind of the Spirit of God blows through our expectations and brings about something much better. It’s not always obvious what God is doing in a situation, and it can be terribly uncomfortable. God may be bringing about healing in relationships by the interactions at holidays. God is helping us grow each time we have a new job or meet someone new. God doesn’t wave a magic wand and make everything smooth. God invites us to step out onto the waves of life and grow in our trust in God.

In the Gospels (Matthew 14:22-33) we hear about the disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is not with them because he stayed behind to pray. When a storm comes up they are terrified and then they see Jesus walking on the water. He invites Peter to come to him on the waves.

“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:29-30) Peter found himself trapped by his own expectations based on previous experiences. He did not expect the water to support him. He was unable to see past his own expectations of what happens when you are in and on the water.

Jesus, “caught him.” Jesus catches each of us when we allow our expectations to trap us into thinking that something won’t change, or a situation couldn’t possibly work out. To Peter and to us Jesus says, “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

You’ll notice in the story in Matthew, “when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.” Once we are able to release our personal expectations and let God act, we very often discover that the gales of our fearfulness die down as well.

That is what God is always asking us to do. We are invited out of the comfort created by our own expectations. We are encouraged to let go of the fear that keeps us trapped in those expectations, simply because we don’t know what’s on the other side, or what might happen. We are invited to step out in faith and walk to and with Jesus in a great adventure.

What are your expectations of living as a Christian?
Are you ready to step out of the boat?

May 27, 2018

Pentecost: Discipleship

Here we are in the Season of Pentecost. It’s the longest season of the church year, lasting until Advent. Sometimes called ‘Ordinary time’, we settle into these weeks as summer starts and the pace of life changes. No more getting the kids off to school and finding heavy coats. Instead there are plans for vacation and looking forward to sitting in the sun after work and relaxing.

However, in nature, the Season of Pentecost is a time of growth and new life. Look at abundance in the flowers and fields all around. Nests have little chicks and all sorts of baby critters are starting to frolic in the wilderness. Farmers are hard at work cultivating their crops. Some early harvests have already happened. Over the next weeks and months more and more crops will ripen and be gathered in. Fresh produce will show up at Grower’s Markets.

What about us? Is Pentecost a time of growth and change for us? It could be, it should be.

Last time I offered the questions, “How will the Holy Spirit act in your life this Pentecost season? What is God whispering in your ear and calling you to do? Is there a change of heart, outlook, mission or something else the Holy Spirit is urging you toward?”

Laurie Brock, in the final post of the Easter series 50 Days, responds to these questions when she states, “We – all of us who claim the faith of Jesus – are called to preach, to live, and to embody this radical, merciful, and eternal love. Each day, not just on Sundays.”

During the next few weeks we’ll be looking at what that sort of discipleship might mean as we look at what the Spirit may do to our expectations, our comfort, our commitments, even our whole lives.

Brock continues, “Make no mistake, this love is rarely comfortable. Comfort keeps us locked in the rooms of our own expectations. The love of Jesus rocks the ships of our own schemes, running them aground and forcing us to enter new communities, to open ourselves and souls to new insights, and to act boldly to serve all in the name of Jesus. Walking, preaching, living, this love is work, and embodying this love will almost always cause us to run aground on the qualities the social culture values. Like Peter, Paul, and the early followers of Jesus, if we're loving right, we will find ourselves at odds with those who preach affluence at all cost, caring for the poor and needy only if they deserve it, and rhetoric that dehumanizes those people. Living Jesus' love requires commitment, courage, and work.”
Symbolism by Estella Canziani
On the first Pentecost, the disciples were assaulted by a ‘mighty wind’ and ‘tongues of fire’, as dramatically portrayed in the watercolor by Estella Canziani. As the Rev. Dan Webster noted in his Pentecost sermon, “if that happened here, today, most of us would run for the exits.” Yet, if we believe Jesus when he said, “I will send you an Advocate”, we should be expecting to have our worlds shaken, our perceptions transformed, and our lives changed.

If we seriously take to heart the commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and your neighbor as yourself,” we will discover that we are going to become a different sort of person. We will find ourselves seeing Christ in the homeless pilgrim or the desperate drug addict or someone whose viewpoint we cannot understand as well as our good friend and those who think and look like we do. We may find our heart moved in new and strange ways to respond in new and strange ways.

Brock says this is “Work Jesus is convinced we can do.” She asks, “Will we make mistakes as we strive to live this love of Jesus? Yes, as did the disciples as we’ve read in Acts.” Further, “Will we all agree on exactly how we live this love of Jesus? No, and neither did the disciples, as we’ve read in Acts.” Finally, “Will being blown forward by the Spirit into this love lead us to new and extraordinary places, especially places far outside our personal comfort zones? Yes, as it did to the disciples, as we’ve read in Acts.”

Are you ready to be blown outside your comfort zone? Is the Spirit of the Living God burning inside you with a zeal for loving ministry in the Name of Christ?

Our discipleship is based in answering that call and responding to that wind. Who knows where that may take you or me? 

May 20, 2018

Pentecost: Change the World

Since Easter we’ve been looking at the various kinds of Change required by Easter. The Resurrection of Jesus changed the paradigm of the world, even though few noticed. Hearts and outlooks were renewed. The vision of mission was redefined. Last week we heard Jesus tell his followers to stay in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost we celebrate that amazing event. The Holy Spirit didn’t just ‘happen’ at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been active since the beginning. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

Pentecost isn’t a celebration that is the creation of the Christian church. Like many of our feasts, it has its roots in Judaism. The Jewish feast of Pentecost/Shavuot came 50 days (pente means 50) after Passover. It celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai; and is also linked to the agricultural heritage by celebrating the ‘first fruits’ of the fields. A Jewish explanation of Shavuot (Pentecost) notes that it is the GIVING of the Torah to Moses and the people that is celebrated. “giving of the Torah on Shavu'ot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality…We are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah, that we receive it every day, but it was first given at this time. Thus it is the giving, not the receiving, that makes this holiday significant.”

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

The Jewish celebration of Shavu’ot reminds the Jewish people that they are constantly receiving the Torah-the word of God. Pentecost, likewise reminds us that the Holy Spirit is continually being given to each of us. We are inspired and encouraged and empowered by the Spirit of the Living God. Jesus promised, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (John 14:15-17)

The Holy Spirit, as Paul later says, “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
The coming of the Holy Spirit was not a one-time, dramatic occurrence that only those in the Upper Room in Jerusalem experienced. The Holy Spirit is ongoing and always with us. We just have to be aware and willing to let the Spirit of God act.

How will the Holy Spirit act in your life this Pentecost season? What is God whispering in your ear and calling you to do? Is there a change of heart, outlook, mission or something else the Holy Spirit is urging you toward?

May 13, 2018

Change of Mission

Change has been our topic during the Season of Easter, which is the 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. It is a time to think about the direction of our lives as individual Christians, and as a corporate body.

At the very beginning of the Book of Acts, the author summarizes Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection. “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:3-5)

The disciples must have wondered about what being ‘baptized with the Holy Spirit’ might mean. As usual, they seem to have been confused, thinking that Jesus is going to do the work. They ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus sets them straight. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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 1:6-8)

Jesus tells his followers that they are the ones who will tell the story and change the world and even bring about the kingdom of God. Imagine the change of their definition of mission those words must have required. Instead of just following along as Jesus did things, the faithful men and women were now asked to act on behalf of God. Those who had been with Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee and Judea were not ‘movers and shakers’ of the 1st Century world. They were fishermen, shopkeepers, wives, husbands-just regular folks.

The hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God is one I learned in Sunday School. It was written by Lesbia Scott, a young mother who composed several children’s hymns. She published them in 1929 as Everyday Hymns for Little Children. Scott’s hymn says, “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,/And one was a shepherdess on the green…And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,/And one was slain by a fierce wild beast…” She goes on to note, “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,/In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,/For the saints of God are folk just like me,/And I mean to be one too.”
Like the first disciples, we are to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Like the first disciples we are ordinary women and men who are to live out a life different than the one outlined by the world in general.

In a letter from a Nazi concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, stated “[it is] through the resurrection of Christ that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world...If a few people really believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed. To live in the light of the resurrection — that is what Easter means.”
Scott sings, “They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,/And his love made them strong;/And they followed the right, for Jesus's sake,/The whole of their good lives long… They lived not only in ages past,/There are hundreds of thousands still/The world is bright with the joyous saints/Who love to do Jesus' will.”

How can we ‘live in the light of the resurrection’?

In what way can we live as if we believe God’s ‘love made them strong’?

Is there something you can do today or this week to be a ‘joyous saint’ who lives as if the ‘purifying wind’ of the resurrected Christ is actually blowing through the world? 

May 6, 2018

Change of Vision

Last time we noted that God sometimes doesn’t act like we expect. Sometimes, in fact, we may not even recognize that God is acting in a situation. It is only in hindsight that we begin to see that God was present and brought about a change of heart or mind.

As the disciples worked to come to terms with the dramatic changes in their lives, they spent a lot of time in prayer. The first chapter of the Book of Acts says that after Jesus ascended they were in the “upstairs room where they were staying…constantly in prayer.” (Acts 1:13-14) Before long, they were led to reevaluate their vision of their life and mission.

Peter “stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry… it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore, it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:15-21)

Apparently, there was agreement because “they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:23-26)

The disciples felt that they needed to keep the continuity of ministry with someone who had ‘been with us the whole time’. This implies that beyond the listed 12 apostles there were many others who also followed Jesus around Galilee. Peter, on the one hand seems to be trying to keep the original number of select apostles, while being open to the possibility of a need for more workers in the vineyard, as Jesus had once promised. (Matthew 9:38)

While it may seem odd that gambling (casting lots) was used to determine which man would serve, it is an ancient tradition dating back to the time of the early Levitical priesthood. It was then that the Urim and Thummim were attached to the priest’s ephod (breastplate) and used to reveal the will of God. (Exodus 28:30 and 1 Samuel)

There is nothing in the Bible about what Matthias ultimately did. Greek tradition says he founded churches in Cappadocia (Turkey) and along the Caspian Sea. Other traditions say he preached in Judea and later in modern day Georgia (Russia, not USA). There is even a marker at Apsaros in Georgia claiming to be his burial site. Still another tradition has him going south to Ethiopia or was stoned and/or beheaded in Jerusalem. The point of the story in Acts is not what Matthias did, but that God guided the fledgling church to call new leadership.

How do we determine what our vision of service is going to be? Do we cast lots, or like Gideon throw down a fleece with a challenge to God? (Judges 6:36-40) Do we pray and consult others, like Peter and the disciples? Do we just sit around and wait for something to show us the way?

What is your current vision of what God wants you to do? Where are you called to lead? Who can help you discern the path?
Next time we’ll explore the church’s call to mission, and what change God might require in me and you to follow that call.

April 29, 2018

Change of Outlook

The Easter story is all about change. Change of heart, of focus, of perspective, of life. The pair of travelers on the Road to Emmaus had not yet understood the totality of the change that had happened. As they walked along, “They were talking with each other about everything that had happened…Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24: 14-16)

Like Susan and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (CS Lewis) the travelers were confronted with something beyond their comprehension. Susan and Lucy see the Witch and her minions torture and kill Aslan. They keep watch throughout the night. As dawn nears, they start “walking aimlessly”. The girls don’t know what to do now that their beloved Aslan is dead. Then the Stone Table cracks! “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”
The pair on their way to the town of Emmaus are just as confused about the events of the past 3 days. They begin to explain to the stranger, “About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” (Luke 24:19-24)

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the girls get their answer immediately. “Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself. “Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad…”

Jesus doesn’t do anything as dramatic. Instead, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
Jesus reveals himself via the familiar task of breaking bread.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:30-32)

The pair rush back to Jerusalem where they relate “what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.” (Luke 24:35) It was in the sharing bread that the travelers understood who Jesus was. Their outlook changed. They no longer saw a stranger, they saw their beloved teacher and friend.

Have there been times when you have met someone in an unfamiliar situation, or out of the normal context and not recognized them until they reminded you of the common bond. Children are often astonished to meet their teachers at the grocery store because the teacher is someone who they only know in the context of the classroom. The idea that Ms. Jones has to go grocery shopping can amaze them.

Has there been a time or situation where you didn’t recognize God’s action right away because it wasn’t what you were expecting? How did you eventually understand that it was God?
Next week we’ll continue looking at how God makes us change our outlook and focus, and sometimes our vision of life and mission as we meet the disciples in the time of transition before Pentecost.

April 22, 2018

Change of Focus

Last week we considered how Mary hearing Jesus call her name changed her from grief stricken into an amazed and delighted emissary who proclaims the first Gospel to the disciples. Sometimes it takes a change of heart to recognize Jesus. Sometimes, it is the focus that needs to be adjusted.

We probably have all heard the story of Thomas, one of the disciples, saddled forever with the title of ‘Doubting’. It happens that Thomas isn’t present when Jesus makes his first Risen appearance to the disciples. His response to the disciples’ announcement of seeing the Risen Lord is somewhat scornful. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) His retort is honest and filled with frustration at missing the opportunity to see the Master. You can hear his hurt. Jesus didn’t wait for him to return before showing up and he was left out.

In truth, he was perhaps more brave and honest than the rest of the group. He was not cringing with them “with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders”. (John 20:19) Despite Mary’s announcement, the disciples still lacked the faith and courage to even go out of their rooms. Thomas, however, was out on the street, perhaps risking his life while getting food or on some other errand for the disciples.

Jesus doesn’t forget Thomas. “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-28)

Thomas didn’t really need to physically touch Jesus. He did need to know that he was just as valued as the other disciples. Jesus responds to his unspoken pain and confusion by offering to let him touch the wounds. Jesus then encourages Thomas, and those of us throughout the ages, when he says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

With Thomas and all the other saints, named and unnamed through the ages, we can claim the Resurrection Power that Chris Tomlin sings about. We are “Living in the light of Your goodness [for] You have given us freedom.” 

More than that, “I'm dressed in Your royalty/Your Holy Spirit lives in me/And I see my past has been redeemed/The new has come.”
Is there some part of you that needs to know that Resurrection Power? Are you begging Jesus to let you see his hands and his side, so you can believe? Know that Jesus WILL give you that glimpse if you are open to it.

Next time, we’ll walk the Road to Emmaus where Jesus helps a pair of travelers change their outlook on events. 

April 15, 2018

Change of Heart

The Easter season is 50 days--from Easter until Pentecost. As noted last week, the world returns to the normal daily round of work and play, triumph and tragedy. As Christians we still blithely mouth our “Alleluias”, at least on Sunday. What if we were really living like we believed something changed at the empty tomb?

Something did change for Mary of Magdala even before that first Easter morning when she went, with other women, to the grave to do the final anointing of her beloved teacher and friend. Jesus had healed her of 7 demons. (Luke 8:2) We don’t know what they were. Perhaps physical or even psychological issues. That doesn’t really matter. Her life was changed enough that she left Magdala, where she was most likely a prosperous merchant, (certainly not a prostitute) to follow Jesus and minister to him with the other women.

On that first Easter, the other women found that the grave was empty and fled. Mary, remained behind to grieve. Probably an even deeper grief than before because she thinks that someone has desecrated the grave. She cannot even do the last loving thing possible. Her heart is broken. 

When she sees a figure, she assumes he is the gardener and says, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him”. It is then that Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes him. (John 20:15)

Jesus speaks her name and she is changed. She understands that something new has come. Her heart is awakened. She “went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.”

This image has been making the rounds on FB since Easter. “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ…and when she announced his Resurrection to the disciples, [she] was the church on earth, for only to her had been revealed the Paschal mystery.” The church is only active and viable when we tell the story of the Resurrection. It is when our Alleluias resound in the broken world and our faith is seen in our lives that the Gospel is proclaimed. Mary, known as the Apostle or Evangelist to the Disciples was indeed the church in the world by herself, until she shared the Good News.

It was Jesus’ lovingly calling her by name (John 20:16) that made her recognize him. Did your parents have a pet name for you? Or was there a special tone when they said your name lovingly or proudly? Can you remember a deeper tenderness in their voice that told you that you were loved?

Imagine Jesus saying your name in that way. Revelation says we will have a new name, perhaps Jesus is calling you by a new name today. Calling you to reimagine yourself as God sees you. Listen for that voice. Hear that tender tone say your name.

Next week, we’ll meet someone else whom Jesus meets right where he is-in the midst of anger and hurt. 

April 8, 2018

Easter is Change

Easter Day has come and gone. In the eyes of the world, Easter is over. There’s a meme making the rounds on Facebook noting that Easter lasts 50 days-until Pentecost. However, mostly life has moved on. Even in our churches, the Easter lilies are drooping. Clergy and everyone involved in all the services of Holy Week and Easter are tired, and secretly glad that Easter 2 is a ‘low Sunday’.

What has happened to the Alleluias? Where are the burning bushes we noticed throughout Lent?

The streets have returned to their regular rhythm. The homes and people have returned to the daily tasks and struggles. The news abounds with shootings and disasters and conflict.

Where is the change that should have happened?

As the hymn Christ is Alive (#182, Hymnal 1982) says, ‘Christ is alive, let Christians sing. His cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. His Love in death shall never die.”

Brian A. Wren is author of the text. He wrote the words in April 1968. Wren notes, “It was written for Easter Sunday, two weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I could not let Easter go by without speaking of this tragic event which was on all our minds. . . . The hymn tries to see God's love winning over tragedy and suffering in the world. . . . There is tension and tragedy in these words, not just Easter rejoicing.’ 

The hymn goes on “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, he comes to claim the here and now and conquer every place and time.”

Since it is true that in Christ’s Resurrection, God has reclaimed the ‘here and now’, we should still be running around shouting ‘Alleluias’ to everyone we meet. It’s way too easy, though, to get dragged down by the appearances and challenges of the world we live in. But Christ is here, “Not throned above, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains, but daily in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns.”

As Wren’s hymn reminds us, Christ in right in the middle of everything that happens! That should be cause for an Alleluia or two. Even “in every insult, rift, and war where color, scorn or wealth divide, he suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, though ever crucified.”

We, as witnesses to the Risen One, are called to stand up against those things that divide, to speak up for those who have no voice, and to proclaim the victory.

With Wren we can announce, “Christ is alive! His Spirit burns through this and every future age, till all creation lives and learns his joy, his justice, love and praise.”

We have seen the empty tomb and are called to ‘go and make disciples of all’. Even more than in Epiphany, we need to ‘go tell it’.
Over the next few weeks, until Pentecost, we’ll consider some of the ways Easter might change us by looking at how the experience changed the early followers.

April 1, 2018

Happy Easter

And then he rose from the dead. Not everyone saw or believed. Most of them, to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning “sit around it and pluck blackberries”. The women at the grave and the disciples behind closed doors though, discovered that “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God.”

May you find the burning bush of God this Easter. 
Mary Magdalene & Jesus from the Saint John's Bible
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:1-21)

March 25, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Palm Sunday

Since the First Sunday in Lent we have been looking at ‘burning bush moments’ when Jesus’ encounter with someone or some situation dramatically changed the story. Today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week when in Christian churches around the world, the final events of Jesus life will be remembered in various way. There will be worship services, music, enactments, videos, sunrise services, vigils, prayers, and other activities.
Probably some participants at these activities will find themselves confronted with a ‘burning bush moment’-a time when God comes close and lives are changed. Maybe it will be you.

What about the men and women who were present during the events of that first Holy Week?

It started out normally enough with Jesus and his followers on the way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. One of the disciples goes to the city to find a room for them to hold the special meal, just like hundreds of others in the city and across Israel. Another disciple borrows a donkey for Jesus to ride. Then the dynamic of the day changes. Other pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem recognize Jesus and start shouting ‘Hosanna’.

Some of us are old enough to remember the song “Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), which sets the stage for the conflict between Jesus and the Temple authorities. And it seems a revival of the show will be on TV on Easter Sunday. 
As the events of the day and week continue, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and institutes what we now celebrate as Eucharist (Communion, Mass, Last Supper). This is remembered on Thursday of Holy Week during Maundy Thursday services. There will be foot washing ceremonies, rites honoring the sacrament, and probably other remembrances. Many churches will take time to revisit the time in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples cannot stay awake with Jesus before he is arrested. The Gospels tell us that ‘the disciples deserted him and fled’. We modern disciples are invited to ‘watch and pray’.

Then we come to the tragedy of Good Friday when Jesus is condemned and crucified. Only the women and John the Apostle are known to be at the cross. After his death, Jesus in buried by Joseph of Arimathea and the women in Joseph’s tomb. Imagine the despair.

Where in those events can we relate to any ‘burning bush moments’?

In the dramatic entrance into Jerusalem, maybe some in the crowd had a glimpse of someone greater than a ‘superstar’. Perhaps in the washing of their feet, some of the disciples felt a nudge of the institution of a new order where the teacher serves the students, where the leader is slave to those who should serve. Could it be that Pilate wanted to believe that more than a man stood before him as he asked, ‘what is Truth’? The Centurion in charge of the crucifixion recognized the ‘burning bush’. He states, ‘truly this is the son of God’. Joseph of Arimathea honors the man he had hoped was more than a man by offering his own grave. Did he have an inkling of the events to come?

Where will you meet Jesus in a burning bush moment this week? Try to take time to notice the “Earth [that is] is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God”. Let yourself “see, [and] take off [your] shoes." (Elizabeth Barrett Browning. If you are aware you will see beyond the blackberries in the bush! 

March 18, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: In the Storm

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s quote, “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries” has been our touchstone throughout this series. It can be fairly easy to find a bush that burns in the day to day living. It just takes pausing to look around. When we are sick, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we can find a burning bush in getting well. In our times of seeking, we can, with Nicodemus find a burning bush when we get answers. Martha, in her busyness of preparing dinner had a hard time seeing the burning bush, but she was changed anyway.

As we continue our Lent search for burning bushes, we might ask where do we find a burning bush when all hope seems lost? Where do we look for a burning bush when we are adrift in a storm? Jesus and his disciples were in just that situation. We hear the story in Mark 4:35-41, also Matthew 8: 23-27, Luke 8: 22-25.

When evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’”
Jesus Stilling the Tempest, James Tissot
It must have been a terrible storm. Remember many of the disciples were fishermen, used to the wind and waves on the water. For them to be frightened, the ‘great gale’ must have been pretty bad. Yet, in the middle of this storm, Jesus is ‘asleep on a cushion’. Sometimes there are storms in our lives and we feel like God is asleep or maybe not even in the boat. We think all hope is lost and are afraid. 

Because of the storm, the disciples lost their courage and their ability to remember Who is in charge. CS Lewis reminds us, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.”

There are scary times when we can all lose our center, our confidence, our courage. Then Jesus steps in and calms the storm and encourages “your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17) Ann Voskamp notes, “Courage births all virtue. Courage mothers everything good in the world. Without courage, everything good, in us and in the world, stillbirths…Needing courage is another way of saying Christ is needed…When you’re between God and a hard place, it’s God’s presence that transforms every hard place…Whatever place you’re in is a place of God. And when you’re in a place of God, you cannot displace your courage. Christ is for you, with you, in you!”

When Jesus asks the frightened men, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” he was offering the lifeline of courage. As Voskamp says, “You’ve got this—because Grace has you and Courage is in you and Christ is with you, so a tender and brazen joy could be even in this place.” Even in the storms of life, when things seem desperate, the light of the burning bush points the way and offers courage.

I think that after the storm was over, the disciples would have said a prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps similar to this one from d365, a daily meditation, adapted from a Jewish Sabbath prayer. I offer it to you for use in your times of stress when it seems that God is absent, until you turn and discover that really God is there all along ready to speak the word of peace.

“Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill my eyes with seeing and my mind with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which I walk. Help me to see, wherever I gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And I, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, ‘How filled with awe is this place and I did not know it.’”
Next week is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. Where might we find burning bush moments in remembering those events? 

March 11, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Martha

This Lent we’ve been looking at Burning Bush moments. Times when someone’s heart is changed because of an encounter with a ‘burning bush’ in the form of Jesus. Burning bushes can come in different forms. For SimonPeter’s mother-in-law it was her healing. Nicodemus faced his burning bush when he talked to Jesus. Burning bush moments transform our hearts and we are born anew.

This week, we’re looking at Martha of Bethany. Her burning bush moment came when she was frazzled and frustrated. In Luke we hear her story, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42)

Martha often gets pointed to as someone who couldn’t take time to be holy and pay attention to Jesus. I think rather she, like many of us, was ‘distracted by her many tasks’, and didn’t see the burning bush in front of her. As we’ve noted throughout this series, Elizabeth Barrett Browning stated, “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” Martha was so busy ‘plucking blackberries’, that is doing the work of preparing for the guests, that she missed the burning bush. 

It’s easy to be so focused on getting a task accomplished that you don’t see God in the work at all. Sometimes that happens when you are doing ‘church’ work, and sometimes when you are just getting things done. The end result becomes more important than pausing to look around for a burning bush in the area that might just be pointing in a different direction. That’s what seems to have happened with Martha. She’s entirely focused on being a good (or even great) hostess and doesn’t have time to see the ‘burning bush’. Very often, burning bushes require you to look up from your work to see them. Rarely do they spring up in some ‘important’ task. You have to take the time to see the ‘bush aflame with God’.

Like Martha, we get lots of second chances from God. Sometimes an encounter with a burning bush gives you a new insight. You may understand something about your relationship with God, or simply realize that you aren’t the same person you were a couple years ago. Martha was truly changed by her encounter with Jesus and later she can proclaim, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27)  This art by Corwin Knapp Linson shows that moment when Martha confronts Jesus. 

Our encounter with a burning bush may give us the joy of seeing what was dead brought back to life. Martha’s brother, Lazarus was dead. Then Jesus called him to come out of the grave. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:44) Jesus comes to our dead dreams and tells us, “unbind them and let them go”.

There is always something new waiting on the other side of a burning bush moment. For Martha it was an understanding of Jesus and God’s power. Martha was changed, just as we all are when we recognize the burning bush in our path.

When have you encountered Jesus and the Spirit’s flame and been changed, renewed, even resurrected? 

March 4, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Nicodemus

“Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Every so often we are aware when a burning bush pops up in front of us. Sometimes we have to go check to see if it’s really a burning bush or just a mirage.

Nicodemus was a ‘leader of the Jews’. He was a Pharisee, which was one of the two leading religious parties in Israel. The Pharisees were strict adherents to the Law. The other group, the Sadducees, was a bit more relaxed in observance and, even worse to some minds, they were willing to cooperate with Rome in the effort to keep the peace.

Nicodemus seems to have been more open minded than some Pharisees. He thought that just maybe the rabbi from Nazareth was a burning bush, so he went to see him. However, he was careful and went at night so his visit wouldn’t be seen by his compatriots.  

The Pharisee starts the conversation by hedging a bit. “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.” (John 3:2) Jesus doesn’t give him a straight answer. Often God seems to demand that we make our own decisions about faith and our response to the burning bush in front of us.

Jesus’s response, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” confuses Nicodemus. He responds, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4)

It seems a logical question. Perhaps that is really what happens when we confront a burning bush moment. We are reborn just a little bit. As Jesus explains, “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…The 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.” (John 5-8)
Burning bushes are like the wind, we don’t know their origin, but we experience them in our lives when we are aware that “Earth is crammed with heaven” (Browning) It can be hard to recognize the bush burning, even when it’s right in front of you, though. Nicodemus is confused, and Jesus goes on to tell him, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?...so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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” (John 3:12-16)

Then Jesus continues, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:17-21)

In the light of our burning bushes, we find that our deeds are exposed. What we see in that light may cause us to realign our priorities so that what we see is holy. Perhaps it starts with looking for the burning bushes in what we do every day. Instead of seeing endless emails as a challenge, perhaps in the light of the burning bush we can see them as opportunities to reach out in love across the internet, with uplifting and friendly responses rather than terse statements. While sitting in traffic, perhaps looking for the burning bushes and considering the humanity of those around us could help us stay calm. When faced with conflict or tragedy, perhaps we look for the burning bushes of hope. Fred Rogers is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

When you look, you can see burning bushes in every situation. You can find God’s presence in all things. Let’s look for them this week. 

February 25, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Simon's Mother-in-Law

During Lent we are looking at New Testament women and men who had a ‘burning bush’ moment. A time when they realized “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) Unlike Moses in the Exodus 3 story, they do not encounter a real ‘bush [that] was on fire [but] it did not burn up’. Instead, their encounter with Jesus transformed them, just like Moses was transformed by his meeting with God at the burning bush on Horeb.

Let’s meet Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She has 3 verses in Mark and 2 in Matthew that tell the same story:

“As soon as Jesus and His companions had left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever, and they promptly told Jesus about her. So He went to her, took her by the hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” (Mark 1:29-31)

“When Jesus arrived at Peter’s house, He saw Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve them.” (Matthew 8:14-15)

She is sick, Jesus touches, or takes, her hand and she is healed. She starts making dinner. Seems very straightforward and simple. How can this be a burning bush moment?

Simon’s mother-in-law is ill and then she is well. Her life is transformed. Rather than being an invalid, she is able to rise immediately and be a good hostess. We don’t know how long she had been ill, but she must have been very sick to remain in her bed when guests arrive. Nearly every woman I know would drag herself out of bed to welcome company, unless she was deathly ill. For a First Century Jewish woman this would be even more important. It was part of the code of hospitality handed down for generations from the time the Hebrew people were nomadic shepherds. The first responsibility of any household is to welcome the stranger and the guest. 
In the painting of Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter's Wife by John Bridges, we see Jesus reaching out to the sick woman. By taking her hand, Jesus crosses a ritual boundary. She is a woman, she is a stranger to him, she is sick (and therefore ‘unclean’), yet he touches her. In that touch she experiences the ‘burning bush moment’. Jesus acknowledges her humanity and in his touch; she receives healing as well as affirmation. Jesus offers her love and she has a new heart for service.

‘She began to serve them’, or ‘minister to them’ says the Gospel record. The Greek word is diakone√≥, meaning to serve or minister. There are many other places where the same word is used. One is Matthew 4:11 where we hear, after Jesus temptation in the wilderness, the ‘angels came and ministered to him’. It is also the word in Mark 10:45 when Jesus says, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t just get up and make supper, she offered ministry. In her healing, her burning bush encounter with God, she received empowerment to minister to Jesus and his disciples. In joyful offering, she gives of herself as she provides a meal. Unlike Martha of Bethany’s initial response, she did not find the task onerous because she was serving the Lord.

Sometimes work or serving or ‘doing one more thing’ can seem like just too much. We want to crawl into bed and pull up the covers. If and when we are able to change our perspective and see the ‘burning bush’ of Christ in those we are working with and for, the task becomes ministry. We are no longer the slave to our job description, we are diakone√≥, ministering and serving God in our work or conversation. We can look for God in everything we do.
As Browning states, "only those who see [the burning bush], take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries." What might help you see the face of Jesus in something that is difficult and doesn't feel like ministry? Look for the burning bush moments every day. 
When have you felt that you were offering ministry to God when serving someone else, or just doing your job?

February 18, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: New Heart

Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” I’ve always thought that is a beautiful quote. I think that as Browning says, we encounter burning bushes a whole lot more than we know. Sometimes, of course, the sun creates real burning bushes or blazing skies (like the one below from my backyard) to remind us of that truth. At other times, the burning bush may not be as obvious. It could be something we read or see. Perhaps it is found in nature or in listening to someone’s heart cry. Burning bushes can be found as we search for answers and when we find them, and lots of other places.
When we think of burning bushes, we think of Moses, yet each of us probably comes across a burning bush, or two, every day. In Exodus 3 we hear the familiar story. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:1-5, NIV)

Moses saw something unusual and he ‘turned aside’ as the King James Version says. It can be easy to be too busy to take the time to stop, or we may not even notice the ‘bush is aflame with God’ so we simply ‘sit around it and pluck blackberries’. When we do pause, we encounter the One who creates all things, who tells us that we are on holy ground and invites us to be part of the work of transforming the world.

The collect from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday says, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Lent gives us a chance to allow God to work on creating new hearts that are aware of the burning bushes we pass and willing to transform the world. St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:7) God is working all the time. Each day is a day of salvation, a day of new beginnings. Every day is a chance to encounter a burning bush and take the time to ‘see this strange sight’.

This Lent I invite you to meet some New Testament women and men who encountered a burning bush in the form of the Living Lord and were changed. Simon’s Mother-in-Law, Nicodemus, Martha of Bethany, and the Samaritan woman each recognized the Flame of God and were changed. They had a ‘burning bush moment’ and emerged with a new heart.

Have you ever been changed, even briefly, when you met God in a burning bush moment?