Lectionary

Easter Sunday to Doubting Sunday

Easter Sunday has passed.  Doubting Sunday is around the corner.

I love how the Revised Common Lectionary places the second half of John 20 the Sunday after Easter.  It’s unfortunate for those regulated to always preaching the Sunday after Easter, when many senior pastors take the day off, and as one who has preached many times on that Sunday, it can get tiresome.  Thankfully, it’s a day when even in some of the more formal Protestant traditions won’t bat an eye if you go off-lectionary.

But I love this day because I need it after Easter.  Easter is often a time when long-held understandings (or misunderstandings) of the Christian story are upheld formally, even if every other Sunday strict blood-atonement theologies are challenged.  It’s the Sunday when everyone’s family is in town and the C & E people come and so the same message is often shared.  The tomb is found empty.  Christ is Risen!

It’s not a bad message by any means.  But where is the room to ask the questions?  Where is the space to say, “Could that have really happened?”  Where is the challenge to the old formulaic answer that because Adam sinned, we are born into sin and need Christ to save us, so Christ had to die as a sacrifice?  Is it safe to question on Easter Sunday, either in the pew or in the pulpit?

Thankfully, we have Thomas, who was no different than Peter who denied Jesus or any of the others who fled.  And we have this Sunday, when the C & E people have gone back home, when others are out of town and it’s typically a low attendance day, perhaps there is more space in the pew and pulpit to speak those challenges, those questions and doubts.

In my Christian Faith journey, the questions and doubts have flowed and ebbed over the years, going from the extreme of coming forward to accept/rededicate my life to Jesus about four times in my teen years, to considering forgoing Christ and exploring Unitarian Universalism and Judaism in my first year of seminary.

But Christ always calls me back.  Despite my rejection of theologies presented to me in my youth and at times doubts of the resurrection stories in the Gospels, I have never been able to leave Jesus behind.  Like Thomas, at times I want proof, I want answers, but it is through encountering Christ I am compelled to stay within the Christian tradition, and through relationship with the Body of Christ, I am compelled to stay within the church—even if that means at times facing traditional simplistic explanations and theories.

Christ is Risen!  And praise God for the space and room to doubt, question, and challenge.  And thanks to Thomas, who paves the way for questioning believers, who keep coming back even when the doubts and challenges pester our hearts.

Pacifying the Inevitable Resurrection

Change is inevitable, or so it has been said.  There are many types of changes, and preparation for change is also inevitable.  The classic metaphor of preparation of change is the nursery for one’s first child.  As we prepared our son’s first room, we researched what we may expect and need.  Once A.J. moved into his nursery we were prepared for the change, or as prepared as any parents could be for such a huge change. Parenting has many changes, and some are easier than others, and sometimes there are changes that you do not expect.  I recall Mindi, my wife, did not want to use a pacifier, however on the second day of A.J.’s life I was sent out to find what will become known as his “binky.”  The first two years A.J. seemed to always have his binky.

We discussed different methods of getting him parted from his binky.  Originally it was based around reasoning with him, such as giving all his binkies to a younger baby who needed them or perhaps a little trickery that included the “binky fairy.”  However, A.J. to this day still does not communicate (part of his autism) on the level one would need for either of those plans to have a chance to work.  We got him into a Headstart program starting shortly after he turned three, and while we had at least weaned him to only have the binky when he slept or napped, he would not be allowed to have one for nap time at the center.  He would rarely fall asleep without the pacifier in place.

We dreaded taking the binky from him, but if we wanted him to nap at Headstart he was going to have to learn to sleep without it. Not to mention we knew he was sometimes going to “nap” just to have the binky time, but not sleep.  We considered just not giving it to him, cold turkey, but how could we explain why since he does not communicate?  My wife found a great idea-- she was going to cut off the nub and hand him the binky and say it was broken.  So that was the plan.  We kept putting it off, for we liked him sleeping at night and an occasional nap.  We were terrified and convinced he would not sleep well, and thus keep us up.  Since we felt we knew what this change would entail, we even picked a week where it seemed less of a burden.

So we even threw out all binkies, save the one Mindi cut the bulb off, no turning back.  She handed him the broken binky at bed time as she usually would, saying, “Mama broke it.”  He looked at it and laughed and laughed.  He held it and fell asleep almost as quickly as normal.  The next night he laughed as well.  By the end of the week he wasn’t even looking for the binky.

We delayed this process for fear of what we knew certainly would happen.  Honestly, we can often predict our son’s behavior, and it is smart to be prepared, hence the diaper bag filled not only with pull-ups, but snacks, books, straws, crayons, coloring pages, and of course wipes for any sort of mess.

During the Transfiguration, Peter came up the mountain saw the great event and assumed making booths to contain and hold this event was the answer.  This assumption came out of fear, as it says in the scripture, and I believe this not only refers to this specific moment on the mountain, but the inevitable resurrection.  Jesus even tells them to hold onto this sign and God’s command to listen to Him, after He had been raised from the dead.

We know what Peter witnessed, that the tomb was empty and the change was not the change we were terrified of—death—it was resurrection.  To contain the church of the good ol’ days, to believe we know the Bible, to worry about change we are terrified of actually doing, having programs without vision--this is how we try to put Jesus in a booth.  We need to share the empty tomb, the great change, the laughter over death, the Resurrection!!!

The Way of Peace -- A Lectionary Meditation

This second Sunday of Advent is known to many as Peace Sunday. Peace is, of course, difficult to come by. The world is certainly not at peace, and if truth be told the same can be said of our communities and even families. Peace is in the minds of many a utopian dream that will never see fruition. The realist in me recognizes that peace is not something that can be easily attained and that perhaps there will be interim measures to keep order, if not peace, in the land. But that’s the realist in me, but that realism must be tempered by God’s vision of peace. It is a vision that is clearly espoused in Isaiah 11. But even if a direct appeal to peace is not as clearly present in the Romans and Matthew passages, what all three share is a vision of the Way of the Lord, which according to Matthew, John the Baptist has been called to prepare for.

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A Candle of Hope -- A Lectionary Meditation

We begin the Advent journey by lighting a candle of hope, and hope is in the biblical scheme of things more than wishful thinking. The hope that the season of Advent holds out to us as we light this first candle is rooted in the promises of the God who is ever faithful. It is rooted in the covenant relationship that exists between God and humanity. Therefore, we can gather and sing with a sense of purpose the final stanza of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” (Chalice Hymnal, 119). And so as we begin the journey we do so in the company of Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew’s Jesus. Each of these texts for the first Sunday of Advent speak to the hope that is present in us, and reminds us that we should continue to stay awake and live according to the promises of God.

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Envisioning the Reign of God -- Lectionary Meditation

There are very few true monarchs left in the world. Most are of the sort that “rule” in England. They’re mainly figureheads who are trotted out on special occasions. True power is held by someone else, whether Parliament or the Prime Minister. Americans don’t very much like monarchs, whether constitutional or not, though we seem to have an interest in things royal, as long as we don’t have to support them with our taxes. So, for moderns, the idea of proclaiming Christ the King Sunday might seem rather odd. Yet, this is the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ as King, as the one in whom and through whom God creates, sustains, and rules the universe. In observing this particular Sunday, we conclude another liturgical cycle. When the church gathers a week later, it will begin the cycle once more with a season of waiting, a season waiting for a king to be born. These two realities – the hope and the fulfillment can be found present in these three texts that hail God’s king, the one who according to Jeremiah will execute justice and righteousness. One of the things that we must realize as we observe this particular event is that God’s idea of a realm or a kingdom often differs from what we might have in mind.

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Stand Firm -- A Lectionary Meditation

We hear complaints here and there that Christians in the United States face persecution. Usually the complaints center on rules prohibiting crèches or Ten Commandment monuments on civic property, or maybe the inability to have Christian prayers at high school football games. Most of these complaints have to do with loss of power and market share. Rarely, if ever, do Americans face true persecution. That is, their lives are not on the line, in the way that, for instance, the Chaldean Christians of Iraq are facing persecution at this very moment. In the lectionary texts for this week, believers are called upon to stand firm and to keep true to their faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. The passage from Isaiah speaks to post-exilic Jews who are facing difficult prospects for the future, while both the epistle and gospel speak directly to the reality of persecution. Where then does faith fit in this equation

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Take Courage

Theologian Paul Tillich believed that courage and being were inextricably related. He writes: Courage as a human act, as a matter of valuation is an ethical concept. Courage as the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being is an ontological concept. The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation. (Tillich, Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 1952, pp. 2-3).

Tillich’s definition may sound a bit abstract, but he reminds us that courage is something that is expressed from the very center of our being in the midst of trying circumstances. We go on with life, despite the realities that press against us. As the Spiritual puts it: “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”

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The Coming of the Lord -- Lectionary Meditation

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

The Coming of the Lord

Whenever preachers look at the week’s lectionary texts they tend to look for any common threads.  Sometimes, in our eagerness to find the threads, we push the envelope, and I suppose that I could be accused of that in titling today’s meditation.  Except that each of the texts, even the Gospel text, speaks of the coming of the Lord.  It is true that in Luke’s gospel, the Lord is simply inviting himself over for dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, but it still has that “eschatological flavor” that is present in the other two texts.  In the Lord’s coming, there is salvation.  And salvation involves or leads to righteousness – a word that needs defining.

The Habakkuk text closes with the phrase “The righteous shall live by faith,” a phrase that is repeated in Romans 1:17 (not the lectionary reading for the week).  This phrase proved troubling to Martin Luther, who saw in it the possibility of “work’s righteousness,” and so he wanted to emphasize the faith part of it, and insist that whatever righteousness is involved, that righteousness comes from Christ and not our own works.  But that doesn’t seem to be the concern of Habakkuk.  In these two brief selections from this so-called Minor Prophet, we hear the cry of a suffering people, who were witnessing in their midst violence, wrong-doing, and trouble-making.  Indeed, considering the political bickering of the moment, these words stand out:  “strife and contention arise.”  The prophet is wondering when God will respond, going as far as declaring that he would stand at his watch post and keep watch until God answers his complaint.  It is then that the Lord responds, telling him to write down a vision on a tablet that the runner can take around to the people.  And the word that came to the people was this:  “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.  It will not delay.”  And then comes the kicker – be sure to look at the proud, for their spirit isn’t right – but “the righteous will live by faith.”  And what is faith?  It is living by trusting God?  What is righteousness?  It is God’s justice – God’s commitment to the poor and the marginalized of society.  It may not have been what Luther had in mind at the time, but that seems to be what was on Habakkuk’s mind.

The second text, the one that comes from 2 Thessalonians serves as a response to concerns that the “parousia” or the return of Christ had already come.  To use the title of a recent series of “apocalyptic themed books” they were afraid they had been “Left Behind,” and so the author (presumably Paul, but there are questions about authorship) offers a word of assurance.  Don’t worry, because before anything like that happens you’ll start seeing the signs of rebellion and the rise of the lawless one, who will seat himself on God’s throne in the Temple, declaring himself to be God.  But, don’t get too concerned, and don’t be alarmed by any “spirit, word, or letter” claiming to be from us declaring that the “day of the Lord” is already here.  The Lord is coming, but don’t believe everything you hear.  But the word that we need to hear comes at the end, in verses 11-12, which offers a word a judgment against those who take “pleasure in unrighteousness.”  That is, those who fail to believe the truth and follow the Lawless One by living lives of unrighteousness.  And what is meant by unrighteousness?  Surely the definition is rooted in the message of the prophets, who call on the people of God to act justly toward those who are poor, to the widow, and the orphan.

Finally, we come to the story of Zacchaeus, one of the best known stories in the New Testament.  We know this story because Zacchaeus seems to always be the butt of “short-people” jokes.  He’s so short, he has to climb a tree to see Jesus.  But it should be noted that this story falls on the heels of the previous week’s lectionary text where the attitudes of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are compared.  The Pharisee is sure of his own righteousness and needs no help from God; while the tax collector humbly asks that God take mercy on him, for he is a miserable sinner.  Now, in this text, which follows on that parable, we meet up with a real tax collector who is keen on seeing Jesus.  And, as a result the Lord decides to come to his house.  Although the “righteous” folks in town are scandalized that Jesus would hang out with a sinner, Zacchaeus, the chief tax agent in Jericho, is so pleased by Jesus’ willingness to come to his house that he vows to change his life.  And how might he do this?  He commits himself to giving half of his possessions to the poor (an act of righteousness) and will repay those he has defrauded four times the amount that he had taken from them (considering that this is how he made his money – the profit that lies beyond what he had to give to Rome, he was essentially doing what Jesus asked of the rich young man (Luke 17:18ff) – he committed himself to giving everything he had and in return Jesus says that salvation had come to this house.  He had committed himself to live by faith and doing so had become righteous.

The two messages that are embedded in these texts are these:  First, the day of the Lord is coming, so keep watch, because God is faithful and will come at the appropriate time.  And second the “righteous shall live by faith,” which means that if we’re trusting our lives into the care of God, we should live in the interim period in such a way that the righteousness of God will be on display – a righteousness that is illustrated by the decisions made by Zacchaeus.

By Bob Cornwall

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November.  Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.

 

Poured Out -- A Lectionary Meditation

Each week, as I sit down to write this lectionary meditation, I look at the text to see if there is something that connects them in one way or another. After all, the creators of the lectionary have tried to some extent to bring some thematic unity to their choices. It doesn’t always work, but often something sticks out, something catches the imagination. As I looked at these three texts, which in some ways are quite distinct, a phrase stood out in two of the passages – the words “pour[ed] out.” In the Joel passage, the Spirit is poured out on the whole people, empowering and equipping them to bear witness to the things of God. In the passage from 2 Timothy, the author (assumed to be Paul in the text) claims to have been “poured out as a libation.” That is, he is being offered up as an offering to God. The words don’t appear in the Lukan parable, but consider the cry of the tax collector, he pours out his heart before God, seeking forgiveness. It could be that the Spirit is being poured out upon us, or it may be that the calling of God has led to our being poured out as an offering, or perhaps it is the need to pour out the heart to God so as to receive God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Whatever is the case, we are being called upon to rest our lives in the hands of God.

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Being Persistent in the Faith -- a Lectionary Meditation

Jeremiah 31:27-34 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18:1-8

Being Persistent in the Faith

“In those days,” is a phrase that sticks out from Jeremiah’s vision of God’s intention to bring into being a new community, one that is bound together not by a covenant written on stone tablets, but on human hearts.  “In those days” carries a future tense, a sense that God is up to something, and that God will bring this “plan” to fruition.  Theologians call this kind of talk “eschatology.”  Eschatology has to do with so-called “last things,” but it entails much more than wrapping up things at the end.  Instead, it is a conversation about the promise that stands out front of us as people of God.

As I read these three texts together, seeking a sense of what they might have to say to us today, the word “persistence” stands out.  You will find the word explicitly used in the 2nd letter to Timothy, a letter written by an experienced pastor to a younger one, seeking to offer a word of encouragement to someone who is struggling with the demands of guiding a community of faith in the direction he (I’m assuming the pastor is a male due to the times) believes God is leading.  Jeremiah has a similar job – announcing to a people living in exile that God is with them, and that God is going to do a new thing in and for them.

God will, Jeremiah says, “sow the house of Israel and the hose of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals” (Jeremiah 31:27).  Yes, the God who plucked up and destroyed will replant the houses of Israel and Judah.  But, the time is not yet present, because the message remains “in those days they shall no longer say.”  The time is coming, but is not yet.  The unstated request is that they remain persistent, until that time in which the new covenant is established, and then they shall again be God’s people.  Then, they’ll no longer have to teach one another to know the Lord, for everyone will know the Lord and their “iniquity” will be forgiven and they shall sin no more.  The time is coming, but is not yet, and yet, that the word is announced is suggestive that the recipients of this word should start living as if the promised age has already been established.

In Luke’s gospel, we have this parable, in which a woman comes to a judge seeking justice against her opponent.   We don’t know what the issue is.  Perhaps the opponent is seeking to evict her from her home, because as a widow with no visible means of support she’s unable to pay her rent.   Maybe the opponent is a family member who has taken control of her assets and is robbing her.  The judge, whose tenure on the bench seems so secure that he is unconcerned about how the public deems him, sees no point in acting on her request.  After all, she’s just a widow.  Why bother?  But the woman is persistent.  She keeps knocking on his door, perhaps even camping out in front of his office, until the judge finally relents and grants her requests.  The judge doesn’t act because it’s the right thing to do or because he’ll gain greater respect from the community or even God, but so that the widow will go away.  Well, Jesus says, if a judge will do such a thing due to the persistence of this widow; then surely God, who is just and merciful, will grant us justice without delay.  Of course, there’s a caveat at the end – one that again points to the future – when the son of Man arrives, will he find faith present in those who claim to be the children of God?  In other words, is their persistence in the things of God?

All of this leads to the text I’ve decided to focus on in my preaching this coming Sunday – the piece from 2 Timothy.   In this passage, the older pastor, the mentor of the younger pastor, writes a word of encouragement to one who is struggling to lead a beleaguered community of faith into God’s future.  The word is “be persistent whether the time is favorable or not.”   Indeed, the pastor writes that the younger leader should keep in mind the impending appearing of God and God’s kingdom, and so in that spirit be consistent in proclaiming the message of God, convincing, rebuking (oh a word that we’d just as soon leave out of the conversation), and encourage the people – with patience!  Persistence is needed because not everyone is ready to hear the word that the pastor had learned from the scriptures, a word passed on not only by this pastor, but others who understood the things of God, and had offered this guidance, so that this young pastor might be proficient and equipped for every good work.

Yes, be persistent in the things of God and carry out your ministry fully.  Do so knowing that God is at work in the world, bringing into existence the realm of God, the place in which people will in due time know God and thus no longer need instruction (including those rebukes mentioned in 2 Timothy).

By Bob Cornwall

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November.  Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.

 

Over time a person’s faith can begin to grow cold. One’s sense of calling can diminish as well. The difficulties of life and ministry can become overwhelming, and maybe you’d just as soon give up. Perhaps, the context of life has become challenging and you wonder what will come of one’s future. It is in the midst of this sense of doubt and questioning of one’s purpose in life, that we hear two words of encouragement – one stands as a call to “rekindle the calling” and the other suggests that if only we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can replant a mulberry tree in the sea. Luke’s rendition might not suggest casting mountains into the sea, but maybe planting trees in seas is sufficient for the day. But we need to remember the context, the situation we find ourselves in.

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Transformation through Letting Go -- A Lectionary Reflection

To walk with God requires much more of us than we’re willing to relinquish – that may be control of our destiny or control of our possessions. We say we love God, we may even say that we love God more than anything or anyone else, but when we’re asked for proof, it’s not easy to produce it. As I contemplate the texts for this week’s lectionary texts, I can’t help but think about the Glenn Beck Rally this past Saturday. The controversial radio host wants to portray himself as a prophet calling the people back to righteousness – like Jeremiah for instance – but the message is vacuous because it doesn’t demand anything of anyone. It is simply a call to move back into the past when middle class whites (like me) were in control – as in the 1950s when segregation remained legal and whites controlled everything.

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Lost and Found -- A Lectionary Reflection

Is there any hope for me? For the world? Or, is all lost? Has a word of judgment been written that cannot be undone? Or, is there the possibility of a second chance? It always grieves me when I hear stories about a young person – usually a teenager – who has committed a gross and heinous crime, and thus deserving a severe sentence, receives the sentence of life without parole. To think of this young person, usually a young man, sitting in prison for the rest of his life is mind boggling. Surely there has to be some word of hope, some opportunity to be set free?

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Humble and Hospitable -- A Lectionary Meditation

Success in life requires self-promotion. It also involves reciprocity. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If you promote me, I’ll promote you. But there are dangers in both self-promotion and mutual back-scratching. They can backfire. You get something of this in the texts for this week. Both the reading from Proverbs and the gospel lesson speak of circumspection, recognizing your place, and not overstepping bounds. Standing in between these two texts, Proverbs and Luke, is the epistle of Hebrews, which commends a life of mutual love and hospitality. Humility and hospitality, two virtues that we would be wise to develop and nurture – not just so we can be successful in life, but so we can live out the promise of the life of faith.

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Shaken and Stirred Up -- A Lectionary Meditation

We don’t have much patience for people who stir the pot and shake our foundations. If you make statements that don’t sit well with the “majority” you could find yourself in a difficult situation. Such is the role of the prophet, a role that few preachers dare to take up. But in each of this week’s lectionary passages we have a word that shakes and stirs things up.

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Strangers in a Strange Land -- A Lectionary Meditation

As we ponder the lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday, the first word we hear comes from Isaiah. This word of the prophet calls for the people to seek justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. The second text, a word from the letter to the Hebrews, brings with it a call to faith using as its basis the witness of Abraham and his descendants, who remained true to God’s promises, even though they didn’t see the fruit in their own day. Indeed, this people of God remained faithful, even though they dwelt in the land as strangers and foreigners, always seeking a better land, the heavenly city. Finally we hear Jesus say that God is pleased to give us the kingdom of God. However, if we want to receive this gift then it will require of us finding treasure in heaven, something that is accomplished by selling our possessions, giving alms, and somewhat enigmatically making purses that don’t wear out.

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