The Resurrection Is…?

Scriptures: Daniel 12:1-3 Psalm 42 John 7-11 Luke 24:13-48

Don Elly, D.Min.

“Resurrection” is the central focus of the Gospel readings for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Easter and it is a fitting reality to ponder.  Starting with Easter itself we looked at the experience of Mary Magdalene at the tomb in the Garden.  Have you ever thought of a graveyard as a garden?  Like Mary I suspect our tears and grief might get in the way of seeing it that way.  However, I think John’s Gospel wants us to think of it that way since in this Garden where the grave of Jesus was located God is continuing to create and offer to humankind a second garden. Remember, the first Garden was Eden where God having formed Adam and Eve who disregarded God’s mandate and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Doing so violated God’s hopes to enjoy a paradise-like relationship with humanity.  John’s Gospel proclaims God’s continuing desire for a deep relationship with humans. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s effort to once again offer us a garden. Resurrection as described from a dictionary search reveals the following synonyms: Rising, awakening from the dead, reappearance, reawakening, rebirth, restoration, return to life, revival.  All seem to illumine John’s understanding of the resurrection.    How would you complete this unfinished sentence? Resurrection is…

Magrey R. deVega, the author of Embracing the Uncertain, would say that the Resurrection is the miracle that all the Gospel writers describe.  He described Mark’s understanding of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8 in a fresh way.  When the women arrive at the tomb, they are prepared to honor Jesus and grieve his death in a traditional Jewish manner.  They are expecting to find the dead body of a dear friend, yet “when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back.  The stone’s removal does not engender joy but fear.  Put yourself in the place of these women.  Don’t we too miss God’s actions, presence and love because of fear? The women are alarmed and Mark’s gospel reflects their thought, “Jesus’ body has been stolen or moved.”  Magrey shares a further insight. “The implication is that Jesus has gone ahead of them and they (we) stay rooted in our fear of change at a tomb that is now empty. We as a church chose to remain behind rather than follow the risen Christ because we are more comfortable with the past than the future God is opening up for us.  David Bartlett, a New Testament scholar from Columbia Seminary makes the same point, “He (Jesus) is going ahead of you.” The resurrection is not so much a past event to be remembered, or even a present comfort to be celebrated.  It is a promise given by God that in the Risen Christ, God always precedes us into God’s future.  In life, in death, Christ goes before us all the way.” Jesus is clear. In facing this world you are in good company—God’s.  By God’s design Jesus says, “I go ahead of you to prepare the way.”

Second, resurrection is not just Jesus going ahead of us, it is redirection. What do I mean? Clarence Jordan, Co-founder of the Koinonia Farms in Americus, GA. in the 1940’s said well what I mean.  He wrote, “The resurrection of Jesus is simply God’s unwillingness to take our “No” for an answer. God raised Jesus, not as an invitation to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that God…has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth.  Jesus is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life.  The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with God, but that Jesus is risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty prisoner brothers and sisters with him.”  

Last week we looked at the Gospel of John’s description of the resurrection of Jesus, as the Risen Christ. In it the writer goes to great lengths to make clear that the resurrection involves the full person of Jesus–his body where wounds and scars are lifted up for us to see.  There is no avoiding them.  Secondly, the resurrection is a spiritual experience.  It included the full range of emotions from lament to affirmation.  Jesus does not suffer in stoic silence. We know he is choosing to die and that this experience is not faked. Finally, John also lifts up the mind of Jesus. Jesus’resurrection, despite the pain, involves his mind–remembering and recalling the full range of scriptures from the Prophets, Psalms and Torah.  When you are in pain and suffering it involves all of these aspects of your humanity doesn’t it? Reflect back on coping with the pandemic.  It involves the whole package of who you are, body, mind and spirit.   Luke in the resurrection experience has similar parallels to John. Luke also puts great emphasis on the truth that Jesus risen from the dead involves all of him. Listen and meditate on these words: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he said this, (Jesus) showed them his hands and feet.  While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, (Jesus) said to them, “ Have you anything here to eat?” They gave (Jesus) a piece of broiled fish and (Jesus) took it and ate in their presence.

Why this emphasis on the mixture of doubt and joy and on seeing Jesus’ scars and eating?  Luke was writing to a pluralistic, religious culture that involved not just religious understandings of life but also philosophical explanations for life. Many of these despised the body and elevated the mind and spirit over flesh and blood.  The resurrection is a full bodied event not just as spiritual experience—it is God’s claim on us as a sacred creation that is good.  It is as a colleague put it, “Jesus affirming humanity as a witness to resurrection to his divinity.”  Finally, the resurrection is not logical, proved by rational arguments—it is a human experience of Jesus  and a reality for all of  us that involves not doubt in the logical sense, but is an event of God that is a mixture of confusion and joy, with emotions that flow from absolute joy to profound wonder.   The resurrection is, above all, a down to earth experience that prepares us for a life beyond death that is centered on God in community with us now and an invisible community of the Saints we can look forward to.  Death, suffering, violence do not have the final word. God does.  God says “I love you” and my proof is a resurrection that continues after Easter.  Let us pray (I am closing with a beautiful prayer by my colleague and friend, Cindy Hickman who is the pastor for my wife, and me.) She summarizes in prayer what I trust the Resurrection is:

Lord of Our After-Easter Days, I want to hold on to Easter for a while. I want to remember the moment the stone rolled away. I want to experience it like a weight lifted off our hearts. I want to stare into an empty tomb and know you have gathered all that we fear and emptied our burdened souls. I want to wait in darkness, just at the edge of dawn and see the sun come up over roof tops and let those first rays shine in my face, a fresh morning making its way to us. I have been in the sanctuary this morning and the scent of lilies has filled up the room. I want that scent to linger. Their blossoms are open like trumpets ready to sound the good news. I want to imagine trumpet blasts, bold and loud, announcing “CHRIST HAS RISEN!” I want to remember the taste of communion bread and the sip of juice and see hands reaching out to receive and hear the words “Bread of Heaven, Cup of Salvation, for you.” For me, for us. And I want to recognize you the way we did on Easter morning, close and fresh, renewing us all. I want to rise in hope and joy with Christ in spirit. I want to live Easter for a while, I hope forever. Amen. Pastor Cindy Hickman, Child of Easter.

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“Experiencing the Resurrection!”

Don Elly, M.Div.

Scriptures: Isaiah 25:6-9 Psalm 133 1 John 1:1-2:2 John 20:19-31

“Have you ever experienced the Resurrection?” This is a question all the Gospel writers address directly. For themthe resurrection is not just a statement of belief to be affirmed as in the Apostle’s Creed which we shared this morning, “I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.” If you were counting, this affirmation of the resurrection is the fifth of six we find in last paragraph of the creed. An observation I would make is that while this belief is central to existence of the Christian Church, without which there would be no Christian community, it is the work of the Holy Spirit and is lived out as we participate in the body of Christ known as Union Park Presbyterian Church and as we practice forgiveness of sins. The Apostles’ Creed as we know and state it today first appeared in the 8th century. For the Gospel writers the resurrection is not just words to be spoken but an experience shared with the Risen Lord, himself. Experience is the foundation of biblical witness.

All the Gospel writers describe encounters with the Risen Lord, confirmed by Jesus’ own words. These words form the basis by which we can experience the resurrection. Jesus speaking to Mary in John 20: 1-18 is the moment she recognizes her Savior has risen.  In the text for today of Jesus appearing to the frightened disciples huddled behind locked doors afraid of arrest, it is Jesus speaking to them a word of Peace that opens them to receive the Holy Spirit.  This experience of God speaking can be traced all the way back to Genesis where God created the world by word and breath, and life began. 

This is, first of all, what stands out for me in the encounters of Jesus in the Upper Room where the disciples are hiding out of the fear that what happened to Jesus could happen to them.  It is this fear that is behind Peter’s denial of Jesus as the Messiah not just once but three times. It is why when Jesus appears to them despite the doors being locked.   This scene is powerfully described by John’s Gospel in these words,  “…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After (Jesus) said this, he showed them his hands and his side… Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”…(Jesus) breathed on them and said…”Receive the Holy Spirit.”  For anyone of the Jewish tradition this scene would immediately take them back to God’s gift of breath at the beginning of creation.  As God formed Adam, he then breathed into him the breath of life and humanity became a living being.  For the earliest Christians raised in the womb of Judaism this would be the signal that in the resurrection of Jesus God is bringing into being a New Creation. Paul put it this way in 2nd Corinthians 5:16-21: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…”  If there was ever in any promise of the Resurrection that we need to hear today.  Dealing with the pandemic of COVID-19 we are now reminded that in Jesus’ resurrection God is raising us to new life and giving us a ministry to be ambassadors of reconciliation in Jesus. We are to make known to the world.  We are being sent out to make known that though we might despair, God has not.  A resource I have found valuable in this time of disruption and upheaval is to imagine these words of Jesus as a breath prayer. Sitting quietly, I imagine Jesus breaking through the despair and depression that come with this time of increased violence, hatred and increased political division, and saying: “Peace be with you! Receive my Spirit!”   As I breathe in the words of peace I suddenly I experience the Risen Christ bringing God’s presence into my pain and I can exhale the anxiety and fear.  “Receive my Spirit!” inhaled then gives me a purpose that transcends what has been happening up to now.  I experience an infusion of energy, with peace, that renews my hope.   I no longer feel alone and powerless.  This experience connects to the memory of God’s creative power.   We need to keep in mind, as commentator and New Testament Scholar, Ron Allen notes, “that these words of ‘Peace be with you’ are said to disciples, not the twelve or a list of Apostles. These disciples represent all of Jesus’ disciples so the appropriate way to hear Jesus, ‘Peace be with you’ is to hear as spoken in the present tense, that is to each of us now. Our fears have no more been dispelled than were theirs, but the risen Jesus with his peace is present to us through the Holy Spirit, which stills brings his message of peace which passes understanding (Phil. 4:7).  The Holy Spirit again challenges us now as then to forgive. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven their sins; if you retain the sins of any they are retained. We often think in our fear that we are powerless.  Not so. As those who receive the Peace of Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives us power even in our fear to forgive (John 20:23). 

Secondly, John records that Jesus showed him the wounds of his crucifixion–the nail holes in his hands, the wound in his side.  The reaction of the disciples is not what one might expect. They are filled with joy, and Jesus repeats his blessing of peace. Remember that the words are spoken right now to us.  Could it be that Jesus enables us to live lives of joy in the midst of conflict, suffering and fear precisely because of his blessing of peace is the means of our receiving the Holy Spirit?  As Jesus disciples we are to be in the world as Jesus was in the world, bearing the good news of God’s salvation for all.  As a result of Jesus courage on the cross and obedience to his Father, God even suffering, crucifixion and death will not delay the Reign of God. 

Let us pray: God, these past months have been unreal, with deep anxiety and wondering what is going to happen next. The virus, the storms and the conflict sometimes make us want to lock our doors and, yet the isolation and depression and loss of community have marked us as well. As we explore the various resurrection stories with your truth and hope for us may we experience the resurrection as a truth in our lives by seeking your Holy Spirit in loving and forgiving as we are led by the Risen Christ. Continue to challenge us as your Church to be those who are called to be lights in the darkness. Amen.

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“Be Strong and Let Your Heart Take Courage, Wait for the Lord” by Don Elly, M.Div.

Scripture Psalm 31:1-9, 14-17, 22-24

Where do you go and to whom do you turn in your life when you are facing the most difficult and unknown times of your life?  This is a question that faced Jesus and his disciples in the days following the celebration of Passover, his betrayal, arrest, trialand crucifixion.  It is a question that has been an unwanted part of our lives since the onset of the coronavirus in March of 2020.  

In looking at Jesus’ response over the days following the experience of what we call Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I found myself looking over Jesus’ last words to us from the cross as he was dying.  I was especially touched by the final words from Psalm 31.  They were reportedly some of the last words he uttered.  Listen to these words from Psalm 31:1-5: “In You, O Lord, I seek refuge; and do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.  Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.  You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake, lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, and faithful God.”

These words came to mind as I sat down to think about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday because the words of this Psalm were fresh from the graveside service I was asked to officiate just recently.  Jim was eighty when he died of a brain bleed as result of stroke for which there was no treatment. He was kept comfortable and died after several days in the hospital.  One of his sons shared a testimony to his dad that got me thinking about the 31st Psalm.  I share this with his permission because what Bob shared is an affirmation we could all make as we ponder Jesus as our rock.   Jesus’ rock, as he faced Good Friday and the cross to which he points us in dealing with the difficulty and death, is God.  God is his fortress and refuge, his strength in the incomprehensible experience of the crucifixion.  

Bob wrote about his dad: “We talk of the path of life with its twists and turns, up and downs. Sometimes the path is sunny with jubilation and then there are times when it is so foggy that navigation is hard and treacherous.  Sometimes the trail is rainy and gloomy as in days when we are lost or days when the winds are so high that it causes us to veer off the trail…maybe the wind is telling us to stop and smell the roses.  Mom and we always talked about how Dad was a rock, for all of us apillar.  The word “cairn” comes from the Scottish Gaelic: carn.  Dad provided a rock or cairn for us…when the path got rough or unsure or unnavigable. Dad was a source of direction.  He was the physical manifestation of the cairn (marker) in those times of needed direction. Jesus is that for us because God, his Father was that for him.  

The word rock (Petra) is used in the Bible 129 times and most of the time is understood to be a foundation, refuge and source of protection. It is powerfully used in the 71st Psalm is a description of the variety of ways that God as a rock is foundational to the survival of Israel.  In the 31stPsalm the strength of God as rock reminds the psalmist of the intimacy of God’s care, “Take me out of the net that is hidden for me. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” These words are not cheap for the Psalmist. Just as we have been through very difficult times and felt the scorn of neighbors and adversaries, God has been our fortress.  For the Psalmist who has been shunned and the object of dread, God is a source of strength that helps him survive.  

“…I have become like a broken vessel.” Despite or maybe because the Psalmist internalized the reality of God as rock, he affirms his experience with these words: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” It’s true isn’t it in those moments when you feel most alone, and maybe misunderstood by others—even friends and neighbors–it is in those moments one can experience the mystery of God’s salvation and realize the truth that God never abandons us. Though appearing to be absent, God is with us in the midst of the pain and suffering—bringing salvation through others when we most need it. It is for this reason we can say with Jesus, and the Psalmist, these concluding words, as if they were spoken to us by God, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” And even on this day when we find ourselves looking out for pranks, this is no April Fool’s joke. Amen.

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#6 Jesus: The Way to Life. “Through the Eyes of a Blind Man”

Donald R. Elly, Min.Div.

Scriptures: Isaiah 50:4-9a. Mark 10:46-11:11.

How startling to begin our Palm Sunday reflection by looking closely at another blind man Mark describes for us. This blind one is Bartimaeus, and the fact that he is mentioned by name is itself unusual. Why? First, Mark wants us to connect some dots. Let me take you for a moment back to initial prediction in Mark 8:31-39. This was the healing of a blind man that followed Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Savior. This healing required a second touch by Jesus to be complete. It mirrors the disciples failure in understanding (maybe not wanting to understand) or see what God is doing through Jesus as the Messiah–the anointed one who is to save the world.

Last Sunday as we pondered the 3rd very detailed prediction of Jesus concerning his obedience to his Father’s purpose of dying at the hands of humanity to respond to violence with love. We are challenged by  the suffering, rejection, pain and death that following the way of Jesus entails.  The man we encounter, I believe, to prepare us for Palm Sunday and Holy Week is Bartimaeus, the blind, but very outspoken man of faith.  Why does Mark give us his story?  Bartiameausmay be physically blind, and  without sight, but he has more insight than the disciples who have traveled with Jesus on the way for three years.   Bartimaeus is an  outcast due to his  blindness that to many people and even some of the religious authorities believe to be a result of his sin, or that of his parents.  However, just because he has no sight does indicate lack of insight accumulated from listening and reflecting on what he  is hearing.  In contrast to Peter, James and John who hear Jesus predictions but deny or ignore it  because of their own false hopes and ambitions for power;Bartimaeus comes to Jesus with the only powers he has left—his voice with which he affirms the faith he has in Jesus. Listen to this portion of the story again. “Bartimaeus, sitting by the roadside (begging) when he hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth passing by begins to shout out (very loudly) and say, “JESUS, SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME.” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, BUT HE CRIED OUT EVEN MORE LOUDLY, “SON OF DAVID, HAVE MRCY ON ME!”   

How often do we ignore those who like Bartimaeus appear powerless, even useless to God and certaitntly useless to us?Often when they object or speak up with the truth as in this case, we react by telling them sternly and sometimes with discipline and anger to keep quiet. The way Bartimaeus is treated here should cause us all to rethink our assumptions about who God approves. Bartimaeus twice, blind though he may be, not only recognizes who Jesus is, but bears witness to it out loud. Jesus, for Bartiamaeus, is the one who can save him and so Bartimaeus will not be deterred from meeting Jesus. JESUS RESPONSE TO BARTIMAEUS IS HIS RESPONSE TO ALL OF US ON THIS PALM SUNDAY. JESUS STOOD STILL AND SAID, “CALL HIM HERE!” The people then eagerly respond, “ Take heart; get up he is calling you.” SO THROWING OFF HIS CLOAK BARTIMAEUS SPRANG UP AND CAME TO JESUS. JESUS SAID, “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO FOR YOU?” This is the exact same question with which Jesus responded to James’ and John’s request. Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus no doubt startled the disciples and maybe us as well, THE BLND MAN SAID TO HIM, “MY TEACHER (RABBI), LET ME SEE AGAIN.” JESUS RESPONDED , “GO; YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL.” IMMEDIATELY HE REGAINED HIS PHYSICAL SIGHT AND FOLLOWED HIM ON THE WAY…

*Where do you find yourself in this story as you get ready to follow Jesus on the way to life through Holy Week? What would you ask Jesus for? Where does your trust in God need to deepen? Bartimaeus we are told does not immediately go home to share this healing, BUT REGAINING HIS SIGHT BARTIMAEUS FOLLOWED JESUS ON THE WAY” What are your thoughts about why Mark gives us this story? Mark gives us this story to challenge our limited understanding of how God works? God does not just work through the proper religious channels or the approved authorities. Also those who appearto be the most unlikely candidates to follow Jesus may be the ones who are most attentive to Jesus and understand what God is doing. As we proceed past Palm Sunday into Holy Week keep in mind Bartimaeus ringing declaration andcommittnent to Jesus and how that contrasts with those we think God is working through—namely Peter, and Judas and all the other disciples.

Secondly, I like to think that Bartimaeus did not go home to celebrate this healing and keep it to himself or exploit it for his own ambition.   Having his deepest prayer answered  andhis faith affirmed by Jesus he, unlike the disciples and the crowd will follow Jesus on the way to life—even through suffering and death. After all, Bartimaeus had been surviving as a blind man on that road side for many years.  Suffering and rejection are well known to him.  For the compassion, courage and mercy of Jesus has made HOSANNA COME ALIVE.  HOSANNA  MEANS AT ITSROOT, “ GOD SAVE US!”  “GOD DELIVER US.”   We often think of the shouts of Hosanna as praise, but it is actually a request for salvation and confirms that Jesus—as the Gospel—is the living evidence of God’s reign.  We are expected to do the same no matter the circumstances.  “For those who lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the Gospel  will save it.”   The story of the Blind Bartimaeus forces us, writes Megan McKenna, to ask if we actually see. Whom do we shun or rebuke, or quiet to keep us comfortable? Like the rich young ruler who was asked by Jesus to sell his possessions that were keeping him from truly depending upon God.  Or are we willing like the Blind beggar to drop  our cloak (our possessions, masks and defenses we use to help us hide from the questioning of God)Even now, who is crying out for compassion?  Whose cries are we not hearing?”

Finally, I want to close with imagining with you what the formerly blind Bartimaeus saw and might have felt as he saw the crowds welcoming the one who had saved him(Hosannaed him).  I saw, Bartimaeus might say is I saw Jesus coming in power—not imperial power, but the power of God’s love, Jesus might ride into Des Moines on a tractor, (it could be a John Deere!), but not a tank.  And compassion and mercy that Jesus shared with me.  Bartimaeus saw Jesusriding into Jerusalem not as a Warrior King on a great Stallion, but on a lowly donkey, a beast of burden, a powerless service animal.  Today Jesus comes offering hope in a world doubled over in unrelenting grief, that often disregards that kind of power—peaceful, cooperative, collaborative actions that flow out of God’s love. Paul wrote in Romans 12 9-16 of the kind of love that Jesus, the Savior and Suffering servant calls us to exhibit:  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in sprit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer”.   Now less we think this is only to be an inside action just for strengthening our fellowship..Paul went on, “Bless those persecute you; bless  and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another;..Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all…No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Ann Weems in Kneeling in Jerusalem (1994) put the challenge of Bartimaeus in this poem entitled, “Between parades”. Let us pray: We’re good at planning!/Give us a task force/and a project/and we’re off and running! /No trouble at all!/Going to the village and finding a colt,/even negotiating with the owners/is right down our alley. /And how we love a parade!/ In a frenzy of celebration/ we gladly focus on Jesus/and generously thow our coats/and palms in his path. /And we can shout praise/loudly enough/to make the Pharisees complain. It’s all so good! /It’s in between parades that we don’t do so well. /From Sunday to Sunday/we forget our Hosannas. /Between parades/the stones will have to shout/ because we don’t. Amen.

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A REFLECTION (#5 Jesus: The Way to Life) “A Different Expression of Power!”

Donald R. Elly, M.Div.

SCRIPTURES Psalm 121 Colossions 3:12-17 Mark 10:32-52

The text for this fifth Sunday of Lent is the third prediction by Jesus of his rejection, suffering, crucifixion and death. This time Jesus is quite direct about who are the most important recipients of this message. “They (the disciples, the twelve) are on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus…takes them aside again…tells them what is to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, spit on him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” This 3rdprediction sits in the middle of two conversations. The initial conversation is with Peter after the rich young man who knew the law and whom Jesus loved has walked away shocked that Jesus would ask him to give up the one thing that is holding him back from trusting God completely—his wealth. Jesus says as he watches the rich young man depart, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” Seeing the confusion on the faces of the disciples, Jesus in good rabbinic fashion says, “Children(and that applies not just to the disciples then, but to us now), how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom.” “THEN WHO CAN BE SAVED?” It is impossible for any of us, whatever our wealth, knowledge or abilities to save ourselves. God makes salvation possible. Salvation happens when we become aware that it is up to God and God wants to make that possible. Peter then, thinking like many of us says, “But what about those of us who have been following you for three years or all our lives? Peter, I can almost hear Jesus say to him as God has said to me many times, “Salvation is not possible with human effort, but only possible with God and GOD IS DOING IT ALL THE TIME—LOOK AROUND, WHERE DO YOU SEE THE SIGNS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD?

I needed to hear this word from Jesus about the power of God when I find myself astounded at the number of people who will not listen to what the Scientists God has given us are saying about the need to keep doing what we have been doing to be safe until we have 80% of the people vaccinated and they refuse to do it. I need to hear Jesus say, “Salvation with humans, by humans, is impossible, but with God the impossible is possible” and then I need to give thanks THAT GOD IS AT WORK IN THOSE WHO ARE DOING THE VACCINATING, THOSE WHO ARE TAKING CARE OF THE SICK, THOSE WHO HAVE CONTINUED TO GET PACKAGES AND MAIL TO US, TO TEACH OUR CHLDREN AT A RISK TO THEMSLEVES.  In them God is doing the impossible. Thank you, God and thank you,Peter for being the person who speaks up.  Notice that Jesus does not rebuke Peter but assures him that THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS HERE NOW. 

The second conversation is one of the most familiar and famous in the Bible.   Here Mark describes in stark detail the difference between Jesus’ expression of power and that of the competing religious and political operations of power and leadership.  James’ and John’s request for sitting at the right and left hands of Jesus in the Kingdom God envisions a power structure that operates on the models of the kingly power of Ancient Israel and the Roman Empire.  Success and glory are the result of power and authority that is given by the King and maintained in relationship structures that depend upon the power of military force and oppression.  It is this kind of power and status that James and John are requesting of Jesus when he comes in his glory.   

In one of the other Gospels (Luke) James and John have their mother seek this special status from Jesus on their behalf.   This occurs as Jesus finishes his prediction.  When James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come forward they are envisioning receiving all the prestige, power and glory of past kingdoms.  These are the kingdoms that had oppressed Israel, i.e., the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian, and Hellenistic Empires that preceeded Rome.  Maybe walking through the City of Caesarea Philippi  with the Imperial Summer Palace had inspired visions of wealth, and power that the Palace represented.  It is clear that James and John, though hearing Jesus’ three predictions, had not listened to his decription of the glory that involved being last, not first. Discipleship and following the way of Jesus requires serving and welcoming others on behalf of God.  Is it possible that we, like Peter, James and John do not want to hear what Jesus is saying about the meaning of life being found in laying down one’s life in Jesus’ name (dying to self)?  

Jesus is calling us to a life of service that requires surrendering our cultural ideas of leadership, competitionand power so that God’s power of love might find expression in us.  Glory is not suffering that we might be esteemed, butfound in allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us to a life that works for the changes God wants us to undertake.  Jesus, in the Words of Isaiah 61 stated the mission of God’s Kingdom in these words:  “The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim release for the captives, and liberation for prisioners, to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”

What powerful expression of power, purpose and healing. Imagine a King and a Kingdom that understands the meaning and purpose of life in these terms. You see one of the most deeply rooted illusions of our culture of individualism is that we are responsible only for ourselves and those we love. Think how much time and energy we expend in service to—yes, in servicer to—the idea that we don’t have to serve anyone and that the meaning in life is found in having the money and power to pay and even compel others to serve us. Jesus puts it very plainly in these words also found in our text this morning as he responds not only to James and John, but to the anger of the other disciples at James and John. James and John are asking for what all of them were thinking. When Jesus comes in his glory I’ll be rewarded for my leaving everything behind to follow him.” Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-rankngofficials order them around. BUT THAT IS NOT THE WAY IT WILL BE WITH YOU. WHOEVER WANTS TO BE GREAT AMONG YOU WILL BE YOUR SERVANT. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and give his life to liberate many people.

Our Gospel lesson closes these predictions in a context similar to the first prediction. Let me take you back to Chapter 8 just before Peter’s Confession and Jesus’ first prediction. This was a story of Jesus’ healing a blind man that required a two stage healing. The man only sees clearly after Jesus touches him a second time. The third prediction closes with the healing of another blind man named Bartimaeus. Mark closes with the story of Bartimaeus because though he is blind he knows without seeing who Jesus is and will not be stopped in seeking Jesus’ healing touch. James and John think greatness and glory come from status and power and this is what they asked of Jesus. Jesus, Mark reports, asked Bartimaeus the same exact question he asked of James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “ Teacher, I want to see.” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has healed you.” At once he was able to see, and HE BEGAN TO FOLLOW JESUS ON THE WAY. WE ARE ASKED TO DO THE SAME. Amen.

Let us pray: Holy One, you created us in our mother’s womb. You know the core goodness residing in us. You also know our propensity for self-orientation. You see how we want others to grow and change. You know the thoughts and feelings that run rampant when we encounter someone whose behavior we dislike. If we say, “Surely we can get this person to be as we want,” nudge us insistently with your grace-filled messge: “Leave that other person’s transformation alone. Tend to your own aspects that needed to be altered.” As we move to the end of this LenternJourney, guide us to a clearer awareness. Lead us to move beyond a wish to transform others. Focus our attention on the personal renewal we resist. May we become more alert and accepting of the reality that the only person we can set about changing is ourselves (and that only with your help, O God.) Amen.

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Jesus: The Way to Life #1) “If you want to follow me!”

Scriptures Gen. 9:8-17 Psalm 25:1-10 1st Peter 3:18-22 Mark 8:22-38

Don R. Elly, M.Div.

As we examine what it means to follow Jesus as the way to life we begin with a story that most scholars believe is a turning point in Mark’s gospel. It presents the disciples as very human in having a difficult time seeing who Jesus is, and comprehending that in Jesus healing and teaching the Reign of God is already here. The disciples caught up in looking forward to the restoration of Israel are blind to the reality that Jesus is the sign of that reign now.   Listen to Mark’s story of the healing of the blind man, brought by people who begged Jesus to touch and heal him. “Taking the blind man’s hand, Jesus led him out of the Village. After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on the man, Jesus asked him, “Do you see anything?” The man looked up…”Isee people.  They look like trees…walking around.” Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again. …his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly.   We often think of the good news of Jesus as only spoken word, that heals immediately.  (To use one of Mark’s favorite words).  However, that is not always the case and sets the stage for Jesus to have a great dialogue with the disciples about who he is and what they can expect to happen as God continues to reveal God’s self.   The truth is that as disciples then and now we have a hard time trusting that God’s reign is here. So much of what happens in the society in which we live conspires to make us like, the blind man, after his first touch by Jesus. Seeing in hazy outline we often need a second touch.  

Following the healing of this blind man Mark then tells us that Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi.  On the way Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”  We are not told what raised this question forJesus.  It may well have been the walking around in the area of Caesarea Philippi, the location of site built  to honor the ruler put in power by Rome.  Where would you place yourself in this story?  Are you in the position of the blind man, you have been touched by Jesus, but do you need a second touch?  Are you one of the disciples who has been traveling with Jesus witnessing his healings and listening to his announcement of God’s reign breaking in?  Through Jesus, as the way, God is calling us to be more than spectators viewing life from a safe distance. The deepest meaning of life is being touched by God and discovering new levels of trust. Letting God through the Holy Spirit shape us into the instrument of God’s love,  peace, hope and healing.  This Lenten season is a very important opportunity become more aware of what it means to open your eyes to Jesus as the way to life—not as an ordinary passing of time but extraordinary moment when we might become aware of what God’s kingdom means for us.  

So as the disciples, surprised as they are by Jesus question,ponder who he is put forward some of the popular ideas about him. If Jesus is not John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets, how do we describe who Jesus is?   Peter answered, “You are the Christ?”   Now we know that Peter, touched by the question and the Holy Spirit responded unexpectedly and without full understanding.   It is only as Peter continues to interact with Jesus, that there is a change in Peter.  He is transformed from a strong, stubborn, impulsive man to one who is shaped to be a rock on whom Jesus is depending to see God’s hopes realized.  It strikes me as I read of the blind man having to be touched by Jesus a second time to be fully healed and made whole, Peter too, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is touched a second time by Jesus. Peter’s first touch by Jesus happened with him, Andrew, James and John as they hear Jesus’ call and follow him to become fishers of people.  

This second call takes us deeper into the reality that faith is relationship with Jesus that calls for us to keep growing and changing so that our lives are not about what we accomplish, but about what God can do in us.  As we allow God full reign in our lives, God uses us in unexpected ways. 

This second call to conversion is the call to the cross.  Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man has to suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and teachers of the Law.  He would be killed, and after three days rise again.  Peter, once again reacts and takes Jesus aside, like a child, rebukes him.  But just as Jesus did in the wilderness turning his back on Satan, Jesus rejects Peter’swords and makes this unforgettable response: “If you would be my follower (Disciple) you must take up your cross and follow me.”  I’ve always read these words thinking that Jesus is asking us die for him. However, I think the exact opposite is true. What do you love so much that is worth giving up your life? Most of us would do this for family members.  Often without thinking we would risk our life to help or save another.  The second call demands that we can only discover fully who God is if we give up our old understandings of God so that God can be revealed anew in the midst of change and challenge.  Refusing to lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake is to be ashamed of Jesus.  The cross for Jesus is the way of being fully human as his Father desired.The Cross is the means by which the inhuman ways we causesuffering can be changed.  The cross before Jesus was seen as a way of maintaining human power and control; the cross after Jesus becomes the symbol of God’s unconditional love. 

Instead of being a symbol of human control through cruelty and violence, the cross becomes a means through which Jesus displays obedience to love’s power.  In taking up my cross (not Jesus’ cross), I like Jesus, put God’s love on display letting the world know that God is at work still loving the world and not condemning it. What does it mean to be a Christian? Mark is clear that to be a Christian is to follow Jesus on his costly ways of letting go of life not just for yourself.  You are letting go of self-focus and self-absorption for God’s larger purpose.  The Message put Jesus’ challenge to all of us in these words: “Anyone who intends to come (on the Way) with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it.  Follow me and I will show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.” 

Prayer: Jesus, as you affirmed Peter’s confession, a gift of the Holy Spirit, and rebuked his desire to play it safe youchallenged him to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel. Give me the courage to do the same. Amen.

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Jesus: The Way to Life #2) “Who is the Greatest?”

Don R. Elly, M.Div.

Scriptures Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16 Ps. 22:23-31 Rom. 4:13-25 Mark 9:30-50

A surprise emerged for me from last week’s focus on Jesus as the way to life. In Mark 8:27-38 we read what happened as Jesus conversed with the disciples about what they were hearing about his ministry.  Remember this happened, according to Mark, while Jesus with the disciples weretraveling in Northern Galilee near Caesarea Philippi, acenter of Roman power and a symbol of the Roman Empire. It seems almost out of the blue though probably it was provoked by this display of the Rome’s oppression, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” What followed were various answers.  Some say you may be John the Baptist.  Others think of Elijah or one of the Prophets. In the time Mark wrote some thought the Messiah (anointed one) would oppose Rome and return Israel to its former glory and power. Others thought the Messiah would rescue them from their current oppression and institute a time of peace.  

When you read Peter’s response, what are your thoughts?  Maybe a better question would be what difference does it make today that Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah?  Almost as if reading their minds, Jesus then asks, “What about you? Who do you say I am?”  Peter’s immediate response is that Jesus is the Messiah!  Peter does not talk about what Jesus being the Messiah means to him.  He is immediately told by Jesus to keep quiet.  We learn that this is impossible for Peter who reacts strongly to Jesus’teaching.  Listen: “(Jesus) began to teach that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This teaching is the core ofMark’s  Gospel (Good News). In Jesus, the Messiah the reign of God, is not a future event but happening right now. Reflecting on it last week made clear that though we react to Jesus’ words as if they are about dying, it is really about what we are living for. “For what will it profit them (us) to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Life is not about dying, but what or who we are giving our life to? If you are going to be my disciple and follow me as the way to life, you must join me in picking up your cross and bearing witness to God’s reign right now.

Mark 9:30-37 our text for today makes clear that this teaching had and has further implications for followingJesus as the way to life.  Mark does not hide the fact that the disciples do not understand and are afraid to ask Jesus any more questions.   Peter’s interaction with Jesus and Jesus’strong words of rebuke might deter them from asking for clarification.  However, Mark again is direct about the disciples problem with understanding Jesus. They are not listening.  They don’t want to hear it. They have turned out. The disciples are practicing selective listening. We all do this when we don’t understand or because we don’t want to hear the message.   Mark does not excuse them but tells us plainly,” They are arguing with one another about who is the greatest.”   

Karoline Lewis, commenting on this passage says, “The relevance of Scripture continues to amaze me. …Case in point!  This week’s Gospel lesson with it’s timeless question, “Who is the greatest?” …This is a question that will never get old, or run its course. Why? Because the measure of greatness always seems to be up for grabs, and at times very subjective or in the eye of the definer.  Remember, Muhammad Ali’s signature boast of “I am the greatest!” Paradoxically even though he lived up to that boast professional boxer that did not protect him from rejection when he became a Muslim and opposed the Vietnam War (astand that cost him his boxing title, and millions in earnings). However, his greatness, it seems to me (and this is subjective) was the courage with which he lived as fully as possible with Parkinson’s disease. This led to his retirement from boxing.  Despite his disease he never retired from public life and in 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta he ascended the stadium steps and with hand trembling but never wavering he lit the lamp cauldron signaling the opening of the games. That greatness was reaffirmed when he was honored at the London Summer Olympics of 2012 for his humanitarian contributions to bringing peace and standing for Civil Rights.  

The struggle to be named the greatest is not something the Christian Community is immune to. One of the reasons people sometimes will choose a particular Church has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with attaining greatness. Many years ago in my first congregation this issue took an amusing turn.  The First Presbyterian Church of Burnsville,   N.C. was known by the name of the man and family that helped build it in 1964. In 1968 when I began my pastorate I was told that someone once asked where he/she could find a Church of God.  The man he asked was alcoholic and did odd jobs around town to support himself and his addiction.  Curly pondered the question and responded, “The Methodist Church, that’s Pastor so and so’s Church, the Baptist Church is “Pastor McDonald’s Church, the Presbyterian Church, that’s Mr. Shepherd’s Church, he built it.  “I don’t think God has a Church in this town.”

Jesus identifies as he deals with the disciples misunderstanding of greatness three ways in which we who are following Jesus as the way to life are to demonstrate greatness .  First, Jesus called the twelve and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.”  You become the greatest not by being first or most powerful, but by being willing to serve everyone first.” The Community that follows Jesus as the Way of life is to lead by relationship and reaching out to meet the needs of the community.  In the recent tragic winter storm in Texas it is the Church that has reached out and through prayer and giving has been able to serve the most vulnerable and the least able to support themselves.   

Secondly, Jesus picked up a small child and Mark reports, “ …taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This act shocked the disciples. In Roman culture at this timechildren were second-class citizens along with tax collectors and sinners.  The scandal of Jesus here is that he pays the child any attention at all. Considered unproductive and a burden (especially if you were a girl) small unwanted children as infants might be discarded and even left outside to die or be eaten by wild animals.  For Jesus to receive a child was to lower himself in the world’s eyes.  This attitude still persists today and in conflicts around the world children are used as human shields, killed, maimed and recruited to fight. And we are not exempt as a society for mistreating children by providing a bare minimum to exist on and judging those who use these services as somehow not worthy of more.  

So, when Jesus says to welcome a child it is not just to welcome him, but God who sent him. Jesus is sending us a noticeably clear message about what it means to follow him as the way to life.  Jesus clearly wants us to know that God’s reign is one of welcome to all from the bottom up, not just the top down.  With this awareness in mind listen then to the verses 38-41 and 49-50.  To follow Jesus as the way to life is to be aware that greatness is much larger than our human ideas of greatness and competition.  

This passage closes with the following statement: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Where does this come from? In Jesus’ time salt was used for many purposes. One was for seasoning, another for preservation and the third could be used to destroy. Remember that in Matthew’s sermon on the mount being blessed was to be salt and light. Mark is giving us a very powerful way of maintaining our greatness as we follow Jesus. Amen.

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“Lent: Repent and Seek God’s Healing & Renewal”

Don R. Elly, M.Div.

Scriptures: Hosea 6:1-6; 11:1-11; Luke 10:25-37

Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten cycle of preparation for Easter. In Lent we walk the way of the cross where Jesus’s obedience (listening) to God leads to healing and hope. Life is given new meaning. Lent gives us time to get ready for the gift of the Resurrection. May we discover the power of God’s love to overcome death, violence and any oppression that distorts God’sintense love and hope for us. Usually we focus on Lent as a sacrifice by God of Jesus as a redemption (down payment) for our sin or sins. This evening I want us to hear about the overwhelming love of God described by the Prophet Hosea. Hosea’s description of God’s intense love for us becomes a powerful lens through which we can see God’s healing in this very familiar story of the Good Samaritan. Despite the barriers of history and religious hatred and difference, the Samaritan reaches out to meet the needs of the robbed and beaten man despite his National or religious identity.

Hosea is not a prophet we usually lift up in Lent.  However, Hosea has some of the same complaints as God against the life and worship of the People of Israel.  Even though the people of Israel gloried in being “God’s Chosen People” their life together as a community in worship and treatment of one another was a direct contradiction of the Ten Commandments and the Covenant God had with them when they were rescued from Slavery in Egypt.  Remember the Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses was an expression of God’ s hopes for them. Their religious prayer and practice was set up to never forget what God had done. (Duet. 6:4-9). Remembering was done in acts of worship and good deeds.  The people of Israel violated the covenant first in their worship, often seeking out other gods. They forgot the grace of God who rescued them from slavery.  Also, even though they enjoyed the identity of being God’s chosen people the way they treated each other often violated the Ten Commandments and broke the Covenant. 

Hosea’s career as a Prophet spanned twenty five years.  Asecond the people broke the Covenant was turning to outside military power rather than depending upon the Lord God to protect them. This second way of breaking covenant is the context of our reading of Hosea. Even though the people turned away from God by depending upon other tribes and Nations to provide protection this was also a breaking of the covenant. Remember how David as King and also a deeply religious man sought God’s support when faced with threats of violence or invasion, this established Israel as whole nation.  Chapter 6 is Hosea’s description of how God reacts when we turn to other gods and powers for safety.  When we break God’s covenant with us this leads to destruction, instability and chaos in ourpolitical structure. Hosea graphically presents Israel’s fear and breaking of the Covenant with God.  Hosea presents God as letting them suffer the consequences of their failure to worship and depend upon Covenant.   However, even though God uses Israel’s historical choices to punish them, God also hopes for the people to repent and return. God does not rescue them or us from the consequences of our sin. God holds out hope and continues the bond of deep love despite our sin.  God’s love and hope described in Chapter 11 is one of the most powerful portrayal’s of God’s love for us in all of scripture.  This same love is later revealed in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.  The picture of that love is told by Jesus in one of his most famous parables. Jesus describes love’s compassion as a Samaritan cares for a beaten Jewish man.  Though the Samaritan is considered an enemy, his love and compassion echo the love of God in Hosea for the people of Israel.  As we enter Lent and prepare for Easter may we reflect on God’s call to love intentionally and show compassion.  May God’s compassion and love soften our hearts and make us witnesses like Hosea and Jesus.

God in Hosea is described as the Father of people God rescued in the past, but that love has been forgotten and taken for granted. As the nation led by Moses through the Wildernessrebels against God’s guidance the covenant is broken. In Hosea one can hear the heartbrokenness of God in the review of this history yet God does not let go of sinful Israel. The word used by Hosea for love is “Hesed” meaning unquenchable, unbreakable. This kind and quality of love is found in the beautiful story of the Good Samaritan where the religious leaders, despite their professed love and worship of God go over to the other side of the road and leaving the beaten man for dead. The love of God described by Hosea is the quality of love the despised Samaritan exhibits to the beaten man. The Samaritan compassion overrides hatred and difference. We are presented a Lenten Challenge: Can we model the love of God described by Hosea and illustrated by the Samaritan? Will we let the God of Hosea presented in Jesus’ love renew us and our society? As we travel with Jesus on the Way of the Cross what will we need to surrender to allow the God of Hosea magnified in Jesus to renew our hearts? If we can with God’s help, dothis, how might our celebration of Easter be renewed?

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Star Gift #6 Choose to Listen, Love and Heal

Scriptures 2 Kings 5:1-14 Psalm 30 1st Cor. 9:24-27 Mark 1:49-45; 9:2-7

Don Elly, D.Min.

This final focus on the Star Gifts of Epiphany that began on January 3 concludes with an abundance of gift choices for today.  My title lists four gifts that if received can make the rest of this year unique.  The Star words for this Sunday are: Choose, listen, love and heal.  My reflection is organized around these four—lifting up the power in each gift.   

February 14 is Valentine’s Day and it may help us to think of the depth of the love given in Jesus that contrasts with our cultural obsession with romantic love. Before we look at what God has given us for this Sunday, let us review the words that have already been considered from the 3rd of January to February 14:

▪ January 3 we kicked off the Star Word reflections and each member of the congregation, with the hard work of Sandy Newton, Chair of the Outreach and Missionand her grandchildren, received a Star word to reflect on for 2021. We are celebrating Epiphany which is the light that comes from the birth of Jesus.

▪ January 10 we remembered our Baptism and the affirmation of God who is revealed in Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. We also looked at the difference between John’s baptism and that of Jesus as described and witnessed to by Mark’s Gospel. John’s baptism focused on repentance; Jesus is focused on what God will do in us through the Holy Spirit.

▪ January 17 the words “come” and “see” are words of invitation by God in Christ to be open to the fulfillment of Israel’s purpose. Jesus proclaiming the “Reign of God is here right now” declares how that reign will make a difference in the world. Power will be reversed and those marginalized will be empowered.

▪ January 24 Jesus calls his first disciples and in their call we hear Jesus consecrating us work for God in all we do.

▪ January 31 The importance of “Remembering the Sabbath Day” is necessary for spending time in prayer and being renewed in our service to God. All we do on this day is meant to restore life as God intends.

• February 7 Laurie Berry stressed the reality of “Wilderness” as a time of discovering our dependence on God. Time alone with God provides the strength to see God meeting our needs.

How has your Star word experience deepened your awareness of God’s light illuminating the darkness and providing hope? My word “renew” pokes itself up in unexpected places like a Des Moines Register article on an attorney who has been a tremendous advocate for the renewal of downtown Des Moines. When I see the word I often experience an infusion of the Holy Spirit’s energy restoring my vision, not of what I want to do, but of what God is calling me to do. Also renew has reminded me that I cannot renew myself, but a growing relationship with God and gratitude for those around me—family, and the greater family of faith is a source of strength when I am discouraged and wonder, “What will happen next?”

▪ The first of the four star words choose is found two times in Mark 1:40-45. As Mark describes the healing ministry of Jesus it is a sign to remember the reign of God is active in Jesus and therefore open to us. Mark writes, “a leper came up to him, begging Jesus and kneeling”…”If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, …saying, “I do choose. Be made clean. Jesus in many different ways makes clear that the reign of God changes everything. “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out in a loud voice, “Unclean, unclean…He shall live alone and his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Lev. 13:45-46). Furthermore, so as tonot spread the infection he is not to be touched. Think about our experience with COVID-19 virus and how isolated we have all felt, or how reluctant people were to touch AIDS patients, even though it was clear the disease could not be transmitted by touch. Some manuscripts indicate that Jesus did not just reach out incompassion, but was angry—not at the leper—but at the barriers that broke human bonds. Jesus might well be angry at the rules that compounded the leper’s plight, having to dress in rags, call out to warn others of his approach and most of all to live outside the community away from human contact. Could Jesus be angry, as we should, at the burdens we often place on those who suffer and fail to exhibit the grace of God? Choosing is a powerful reminder that while God has chosen us to be his people, God now wants us to choose to display the grace we have received to others.

▪ The second passage is Mark 9:2-7. It is called the transfiguration and here too, God chooses to reveal Jesus’ presence as rooted in the Law and the Prophets.Even though Jesus is the fulfillment of what the Law and Prophets teach, we are not just to take that for granted, but listen to him—which means be obedient to Jesus as the presence of God and the sign of God’s reign at work. Listen here means to live as if Jesus is the authority of God that gives life its deepest value, blessing and purpose. “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from that cloud there came a voice, ”This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they (the disciples) looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, only Jesus.” To listen to Jesus means that God gives us power to act in his name, to teach, heal and demonstrate as a community gathered in Jesus’ name. God is the source and center of life. To listen then is to surrender to Jesus as God’s Word coming alive in us. What do you listen to? Will you choose to surrender to Jesus and let God reign in your life?

▪ On this day when we are surrounded by romantic love that brings energy, warmth, affection and color to life. We need to remember that the love God calls for is not just a feeling of affection, but a choice to give yourself to God’s service. In the same way marriage is a promise to be there in all circumstances for the one you love (and your family members) for better or for worse. This choice is given strength by being a call by God.

-Healing is a major sign in Mark’s Gospel that God intends for us to be whole. We find wholeness when we accept Jesus and share God’s love in our words and deeds. God gives us the resources of faith, hope and love that makes healing possible. Healing takes place anywhere and everywhere that Jesus is received. In Mark think of all the places healing happens, in the Synagogue, in Peter’s home where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, in an encounter with a leper. Healing happens when we meet, fall in love and marry and keep that healing going in sharing the joy of love in a holiday—named for St. Valentine–whose is remembered for reaching out to the poor and offering them God’s compassion.

Let us pray: Open our eyes, hearts and minds, God, to your unexpected epiphanies in our lives. Teach us to meet each new turn in your story with wonder and willingness to be transformed and see our understanding of you transfigured. Give us courage to bridge divides, to stretch out our hands to one another and follow where you would lead us. May we experience the blessing of knowing we are never alone. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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A REFLECTION Star Gift #4 “Jesus’ Sabbath Challenge”

Don Elly, M.Div.

THE SCRIPTURES Exodus 20:8-11 Colossians 3:12-17 Mark 1:21-34

Our Gospel lesson Mark 1:21-34 is set forth in a compact narration of Jesus’ ministry. The baptism sets in motion a series of events that is almost overwhelming. Tempted by Satan Jesus is supported by the Holy Spirit that sustains him in this time of testing. We are reminded that the Good News of Jesus is God’s source of strength for each of us in the difficult circumstances of our lives. The reign of God will never be defeated and is a refuge and strength in our times of distress. The arrest of John signalsthe completion of John the Baptist’s ministry and the continuation of God’s reign in the ministry of Jesus. The calling of his disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John, the Sons of Zebedee reminds us that the announcement of the Kingdom in the ministry of Jesus is a call to us to embody the Kingdom values in our lives and bear witness to God’s power and promises today. This succinct and intense narration leaves the reader breathless.

Our text is a detailed account of a day in Jesus’ ministry and reveals the fourth Star gift for us to unwrap.  To appreciate this gift I ask you to imagine how tired Jesus might be after all that has happened to him following his baptism.  Have you found yourself going through your life at a very rapid pace and finally stopping and wondering how did I do all of those things and not give in under the pressure?  Read verse 21 and the gift that sustains us from the beginning and through this full day ministry is identified as the Sabbath.  It is mentioned twice:  “They all went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the Synagogue  and taught.” After concluding his Sabbath in the Synagogue  and dealing with the man with the demons, Jesusheals Peter’s mother in law.  Finally “that evening, at Sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” What a day?  The star gift for this 4TH Sunday of Epiphany is the importance of Jesus’ practice of remembering the Sabbath day and making it holy.   Each of the Gospels portrays Jesus’ ministry lifting up a different theme.  Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as a teacher and leader modeling the leadership of Moses. Luke’s compassionate Jesus inaugurates Jesus’ ministry with a mission statement drawn from the Prophet Isaiah where the Messiah will be the one bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.  In John’s Gospel the public ministry of Jesus begins at a wedding in Cana in Galilee where the first sign that he is God in the flesh is the turning of water into wine. Mark makes clear on this first full day of Jesus’public ministry that faith involves a cosmic battle with the demonic forces that oppress and disfigure human life.  We already have a sense of this following his baptism and the wilderness encounter with Satan.  Here in Mark a conflict with the demonic takes place in a religious institution—a synagogue where people are gathered to honor the Sabbath.  It is probably the last place we think we will have to deal with the demonic and the oppressed. We do well to lift up this truth that we are not prepared for the demonic to show up when we worship and praise God. This is the last place we expect the demonic to appear or be present.  Yet we know from tragic experience that the demonic and those with evil intentions come into places of worship and destroy lives. The young man who came to Bible Study at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., was welcomed into a Bible Study and Prayer group came not to worship but to start in his own words, “a Race War.” Mark reports that Jesus enters the Synagogue and begins teaching and people are astounded by the authority with which he speaks.  However, not everyone present is pleased with Jesus’ words.  A screaming match begins.  Jesus’ teaching is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit present in the assembly.  The demon who in the grip of the demonic cries out:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  It is one of the paradoxes of the Gospel that often those who claim to follow Jesus are afraid to speak up and oppose the demonic forces.  Secondly, the power of God revealed on the Sabbath shows up in places that people are least expected to be.    

What enables Jesus to deal with the demonic presence that is screaming at him in the Synagogue.  As I reflect on this story I believe that Jesus’ strength to stand up to the demonic and bear witness to the reign of God  is directly related to keeping the Sabbath. ”…and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the Synagogue.”  Jesus is able to respond to needs of this disturbed, disruptive, fearful and angry human being because he kept the third of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:8-11. This Commandment reminds us all to: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But on the seventh (which is one of the root meanings of Sabbath) is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath and consecrated it.”  Several aspects of this commandment stand out as we think of the importance of the gift this day has for Jesus and for us:  • This day is meant to be a blessing that restores and renews us after we have spent so much time working and responding to God’s call. The blessing of Sabbath is restoration and renewal not just for us as humans but for all of creation, including the animals and the land. • The Sabbath is not only a day consecrated to the Lord set aside to acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that is now revealed in Jesus.  Through the Sabbath God consecrates us and sets us apart for his service. • The Sabbath is set apart to remind us that life is a gift through which we find fulfillment first in our relationship with God as creator and then in community with our fellow human beings.  It is day in which we are meant ponder and reflect on the one who created us, gives us life and intends it for good. • The final gift of the Sabbath is a reminder that the source of the Sabbath, God, is always available to us and guiding us. The text goes on to tell us that after worship and instruction in the Synagogue Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law and then continued his work of being and proclaiming the reign of God.  Mark concludes this day in the life of Jesus’ ministry by reminding us of the importance of prayer.  We read, “…in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got us and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.”

Wayne Muller’s words about the Sabbath remind us of how important this gift is. “Sabbath, he writes, is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off when we catch up on television or errands. It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true. It is time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us…The practice of Sabbathis like the practice of taking refuge. Jesus put the deepest meaning of Sabbath in these words to his disciples. “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” The promise of the Sabbathkept in this spirit affirms that if we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, we will find ourselves abiding in God. Will you accept this Sabbath challenge given by Jesus? Amen.

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