Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Thursday, March 24, 2011

washed in the blood (3.23.11, feast of Oscar Romero)

Revelation 7:13-17
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

John 12
Jesus said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-- `Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last time; a few days later he will be tortured and executed for his ministry and for our salvation. Throughout his ministry Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going to be killed, but they don’t understand. The disciples see success the way the rest of the world does. Just before our passage, Jesus came into Jerusalem to loud shouts of welcome and praise. Crowds and cheering: that sounds like success. Things seem to be going well, but Jesus keeps talking about death.

He keeps talking about death, but not with fear or frustration. Instead he says, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus doesn’t see his death as a defeat; instead it is a victory. He says his death judges and drives out the ruler of the world. In other words, in death Jesus defeats the evil forces that surround us with such power.

Frighteningly, Jesus doesn’t just talk about his own death; he also calls his followers to take up their cross and follow. Our passage from Revelation shows us a vision of heaven with huge crowds of people from every nation and language cheering for Jesus and his victory over evil. These witnesses washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. Other white-robed people in that heavenly scene just before our passage begins were killed for their witness to Jesus.

John’s Gospel talks about struggle between light and darkness, the world and God. The writer of Revelation saw deep conflict between God’s Kingdom and Rome’s Empire. Followers of Jesus were persecuted or killed for their witness to Christ. When God’s values and the world’s values are in direct conflict we have to choose sides: we can be for God or for the world, but we cannot be neutral. Usually, it looks like the world is winning, but God’s love conquers through weakness.

In El Salvador during the 1980’s there was no place for faithful neutrality. The government, in the name of fighting Marxist rebels, tortured and killed thousands of peasants. The poor of El Salvador were under attack not just by poverty or hunger but also by soldiers and police and pro-government militias.

The institutional church in El Salvador claimed to be neutral; they said they weren’t involved in “politics”. Of course, if you stand by while the powerful murder the weak, you’re not neutral; you’re an accomplice to murder.

Romero hadn’t planned to be political, but he listened to his parishioners and studied the world around him. He saw the oppression and violence used against the poor, and he refused to be silent. As the threats against him increased he clung to Jesus. Jesus said: “Now my soul is troubled, and what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour." Romero said: “If they kill me I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”

They did kill Oscar Romero along with many others who spoke out for justice, like the religious and political powers centuries earlier killed Jesus. But death is not the end. When the seed falls to earth and dies it bears abundant fruit. The blood of the martyrs, and the blood of Jesus, is the seed of the church. Those who bear witness to Jesus Christ, those who wash their robes in the blood of the lamb, will have God wipe their tears away.

We are not all called to die for our faith, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are called to put our faith into action. We are called to serve others, especially the poor. We are called to stand up for the vulnerable even when it is uncomfortable or risky. We are called to follow the one who went willingly to the cross for our sake. In his death the evil powers of the world are judged. In his resurrection the oppressed see new life. In his love all who follow find peace and freedom. May it be so for you and for me.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Living Water (3.20.11)

Romans 5:1-11
1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

John 4:5-42
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

The woman in our story doesn’t understand right off what Jesus means by living water. That makes sense since I’ve been reading scripture for years and am not exactly sure myself. Maybe she thinks it’s funny that this traveler who needs to ask her for a drink since he showed up empty handed is claiming to have living water to offer her. Jesus elaborates to say that the water he gives will become a living spring inside the believer. It sounds like we’re talking about the Holy Ghost here. Jesus pours out living water on his followers; he baptizes them with the Holy Spirit like John promised he would.

Instead of simply satisfying us spiritually for a little while, like a good hymn or a single prayer can do, a deep relationship with Christ becomes a living, flowing spring inside us. That Spirit of Christ inside us bubbles up and fills us with love for others and desire for God. It fills us with spiritual gifts and keeps us going. Our spiritual batteries need recharging from time to time; sometimes the spring gets blocked up with debris of trauma or pain or neglect. But the Spirit’s spring is still bubbling on up inside us. It’s filling us with what we need not only for the daily journey but for eternal life with our Lord.

Like a mountain spring, the living waters within us keep on flowing, and they come from a single, deep and hidden source of fresh, cool water. God’s Spirit is one throughout the world, but each of us has a piece of that Spirit inside us; each of us can connect to God’s life because God’s Spirit lives in us.

16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Jesus tells the woman that Jews have a clearer understanding of God through their long history of covenant. Then he goes on to say that even the true (Jewish) way to worship God isn’t ultimately important. What he’s getting at is that worshiping God isn’t about where or how we worship. It doesn’t matter if we’re worshiping in traditional or alternative style. It doesn’t matter if we sing hymns or praise songs. It doesn’t matter if we worship in the sanctuary or airport or outside. What God wants from us in worship is spirit and truth.

That means that we come to God spiritually: we come with our whole self, with open hearts and open minds. It means not going through the motions, but expecting God to show up. That means we don’t worship out of obligation or routine or guilt. We worship because we want to worship. We feel the calling deep in our souls to get in touch with God. Worship can mean being overwhelmed by the glory of God’s creation and giving praise. It can mean the feeling of gratitude for the love in our lives surging over us and lifting our spirit to God. It can mean the feeling of drowning in sorrow and calling out to God with desperate hope. It can mean the shudder of conviction when a prayer of confession speaks right to the parts of yourself you try hardest to hide and the assurance of pardon reminds you that God already knows about it and welcomes you anyway.

Worshiping in truth means that we come to God honestly. It means we bring our need and our hope when we worship. It means we look for deeper truth together instead of accepting easy answers. Worshiping the Father in truth means putting all our pretense aside and honestly seeking the Lord.

27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.

Here’s where the story breaks open for me. The woman doesn’t totally commit to Jesus yet. She’s still not sure if she’s seeing what she thinks she’s seeing. She’s only heard Jesus talk; she hasn’t seen him perform a miracle. She hasn’t entirely made up her mind yet, but she still runs off to tell her neighbors. She leaves so suddenly that she forgets to take her water jar.

This woman just met Jesus; most of us have been worshiping him for years. We spend most of our Sundays in church; we probably invest a good percentage of our income in the church’s ministry. We believe the central claim of the church, which is that Jesus is Lord. How often do we run and tell our neighbors about Jesus? How often do we invite coworkers to come and see a man who reveals our deepest secrets? When the woman tells others, the people from the town come right away to see what she’s talking about. I’d love to see what God would to in our community if we followed her example and urgently shared Jesus with others.

31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

When the disciples return, Jesus tells them he already has food. First he claimed to have living water, now he claims to have food too. Here he’s very explicit: his food is doing God’s will. When Jesus faces off against the devil in the wilderness he says the same thing: we don’t live by bread alone but by every word of God. When we seek and follow God’s will we find our needs satisfied. When we come to Jesus he makes springs of living water flow inside us. We seek sustenance in all kinds of places and activities. We look for meaning in sports or TV or success, but only following God really sustains us.

Don’t get me wrong, food is good and important for sustaining not only physical life but also relationships and community. Jesus isn’t replacing food with faith, but he is redirecting our focus. In the same way he takes an agricultural example to point out where the disciples fall short. They know by the weather that its time to bring in the harvest from their fields, but they don’t recognize when the community is ripe for God’s harvest. Even though the disciples don’t know it yet, God is gathering new people into the kingdom right before their eyes. Even there in the unlikely and much disparaged area of Samaria people are coming to God in a new way.

In God’s harvest no one person can claim the credit, and no one person has all the responsibility. In this case the harvest will arrive right after the disciples return to Jesus. They didn’t do the planting, but they get the fun job of welcoming a new crop in. Other times they will have the role of planting seeds for the first time and will have to move on without seeing a harvest.

Jesus’ point is that there’s different work to do for God’s kingdom and the harvest will be joyful. Each piece of work is important and it’s all part of the same ministry. Sometimes it’s hard because we minister without seeing results. We can trust that our faithful, loving ministry is planting seeds in some way, even if it takes a long time for anything visible to sprout and we may never know what ends up growing. Other time someone walks through our door with strong spiritual growth planted and tended by someone else and we get to enjoy the harvest. In the end we are all laborers in the same field and the harvest is God’s, so we can all rejoice.

39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

The villagers went out to see Jesus because of what the woman told them, but they become transformed by Jesus himself. This is exactly how we want our witness to others to work: we may invite a friend to come with us to church, but what will really connect them to God is encountering God in community. When we invite someone they have an opportunity to meet Jesus for themselves.

Jesus speaks for himself. The woman was drawn in enough just from a short conversation with Jesus that she went and told her neighbors. The others came right away to see for themselves and were not disappointed. They spend a little time with Jesus and can tell that he is the savior of the world. Whenever we encounter Jesus in scripture we sense that there’s something important going on. There’s something about his words that draws us in even when he scares us.

Paul sees things more theologically. He almost never tells stories of Jesus’ life and ministry. Instead, he offers insight into what God has done for us through Jesus and what he’s doing for us now. Today, Paul reminds us that even before we knew Jesus he died to bring us back to God across the divide created by our sin. Since we know Jesus was willing to die for us at our worst, now that we’re at peace with God through that saving death what possible barrier could stand between us and a new life in God?

Christ died for us when we were sinners; now that we’re made righteous by his sacrifice he will not stop working in us until the new life we have in his resurrection is complete. In our new life with Jesus we labor and we rest; we plant seeds and we harvest; we welcome others and find welcome ourselves. We invite new friends into Christ’s story and we seek new roads God is calling us to walk. The road might take us to Samaria or Goodman Street or back to our old job with a new outlook. Jesus calls us and we follow in the joy of people at peace.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

the gift of righteousness (3.13.11)

First Reading Genesis 12:1-4a
1Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

Romans 4:1-8, 13-25
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7“Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

23Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

             We don’t use the word “reckon” very often. I remember my southern relatives saying they reckoned something was true. A lot of the people I’ve met from Australia and New Zealand say the same thing. But in Philadelphia or upstate New York we don’t reckon much of anything. That unfamiliarity can make it hard to hear the passage clearly.

            In this passage reckoning is almost an accounting word. Imagine a giant account book with every person in the world in it. God keeps track of each of us in that big book; he adds up credits; he figures, reckons our balance in a book.

            The question Paul answers in this part of Romans is how God reckons or figures our account. How does God determine our status, our credit, our righteousness?

            In Paul’s time the leading opinion in the Jewish community was that our righteousness was based on following the Law. God gave us the Law as a way to please God, to show us how to stay in the good column in God’s giant account book. Since Christianity was a movement within Judaism, the same idea was common in the church. The Law tells us how to be righteous with God like our 1040 form shows us how to keep our account right with Uncle Sam.

            There are some similar ideas today about how we keep our God account in the black. Maybe the most common belief is that we please God by being good people; by keeping our promises and being nice to others. Some people add to that going to church, giving generously and doing good deeds. Those are all good things, by the way; I’m not discouraging being nice or going to church.

            Paul says that’s not how God does math; that’s not how God reckons our righteousness. He looks back at Abraham’s story, because Abraham is our main ancestor in the faith. He remembers God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. He remembers that God promised to bless all the families of the world through Abraham. Since we are all Abraham’s spiritual children we find an important clue to our righteousness by looking at Abraham.

            So we get to the key phrase in our passage: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham did plenty of good things in his life, some not so great things too, as we read a few Wednesdays ago, but plenty of good things. But that wasn’t what gave Abraham a good balance in God’s book. The foundation of Abraham’s righteousness with God was faith, trust in the God who called him, trust that God would keep his promises, even when Abraham couldn’t understand how that was possible.

Friday, March 18, 2011

holiness and perfection (2.20.11)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
13You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Matthew 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holiness and perfection; those are two pretty intimidating words, but they are our calling in scripture today. Moses declares God’s calling to the people to, “Be holy, as I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Jesus teaches the crowd, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s dig into these passages and see what God’s calling to holiness and perfection means for us today.

Holiness is a word we don’t use very much anymore, except when we talk about holidays, which are really holy days. Sometimes we think about holiness in negative terms, like when we say someone has a “holier than thou” attitude.

So what does this passage from Leviticus have to say about holiness? It doesn’t talk much about specifically “religious” issues. You might have noticed that we skip a few verses in the middle of this passage. The verses we skip do touch on more traditionally religious law. To be holy we observe the Sabbath as God commanded. We also honor our parents and make our offerings in the right way.

But the focus of this passage is how we live our everyday lives. Holiness is about how we live everyday, not just on Sundays. That’s easy to say, but what does it actually mean? In Leviticus it means making some strange choices like not gathering all the grapes in our vineyard and not harvesting the grain all the way to the edge of the field.

That’s a strange idea because it means giving up some of what we’ve paid and worked to plant. But that unharvested crop provided security for the most vulnerable members of society. The story of Ruth shows a practical example of how gathering the left-behind grain at harvest allowed two women who were alone in the world to survive.

What does it mean to leave the edges unharvested today? Maybe it means rejoicing instead of being resentful of the part of our taxes that go to support those in need. In some ways that is the edge of our field because it is part of our work for which we don’t reap the benefit.

Leaving the edges unharvested might also mean buying fairly traded products even when it costs more. Maybe it means investing in companies that build up peace and justice rather than those that “profit by our neighbor’s blood.” Maybe it means shopping for others too when we go to the store. Maybe it means donating to charity and justice. What do you think it means for you today?