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Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, capable, secure people.  For the most part, we've had good access to education, healthcare, jobs, transportation, food and clean water.  We can supplement what we have with an adequate income.  We have clothes and shoes and a very solid roof over our heads.  And we like to think that we are in control of our circumstances.

But we have both had experiences that left us breathlessly aware of how little control we really have.  We've found ourselves in the kind and caring arms of virtual strangers in times of crisis.  We have gone to sleep desperately whispering prayers for support and love and guidance and safety.

Looking back on scary times, it's hard to fathom the arms that caught us and lifted us from the mire, the arms that fed us and nurtured us back from the edge, the arms that helped us learn to stand again.

And somehow, that experience renders us more able to offer that kind of lifeline love and support to others - others we sometimes barely know.

Why is it that in strong times, we stand so solidly upon our own two feet?  What if we were always leaning somehow on others? 

This week's readings remind us that we are not called to be "in control."  We are called instead to love one another and to allow ourselves to be loved.

The reading from Acts continues to follow the actions of the apostles in the earliest days of their movement after Jesus' death and resurrection.  Peter and John have been arrested; their position is precarious.  Leadership in Jerusalem is skeptical of this motley crew.  Peter and John are asked by what power they have performed miracles.  Note that Peter's response is by the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own.  And these men really don't claim credit for the healing that they have done.  Healing has happened "in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth."  If you read on, you'll find that Peter and John are instructed by the council to discontinue their healing and teaching ministry in Jerusalem.  But Peter and John cannot keep from doing what itis that God has them doing.

Psalm 23 is probably the best known verses of the Bible.  It praises the comfort that God provides.  Using the image of a shepherd, the Psalmist frames God as a caregiver, a safeguard and a comfort. 

In the First Letter of John, the community is reminded that they have been called by God, in the example and teachings of Jesus to love one another.  The author reminds the community that words and speech are not enough -- we are called to love in truth and action.  During Lent, we were struck by how abundant and extravagant Jesus' love was through his actions.  It is a little overwhelming to think of ourselves to love in that same way.  But that's exactly what the author is calling the reader to do.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is teaching the Pharisees in a style that is close to a parable, comparing a familiar thing with one less familiar, about who he is and what he is called to do.  Jesus claims that he is the good shepherd -- good being the operative term.  He's the shepherd who knows each of his sheep, and whose sheep know him.  Here's where it gets interesting - the Father loves Jesus because he will lay down his life for the one flock.  No one will take Jesus' life from him, he has the power to lay down his life, and this is a command that he has received from God.  So...the shepherd has shepherd, of sorts.

In strong times, we tend to want to be the shepherd and tend to be less able to be shepherded.  But there are arms to catch us and people to love us ALL the time.

How do you let people love you?
How do you extend love to people in unexpected ways?

All the chisels I've dulled carving idols of stone
That have crumbled like sand 'neath the waves.
I've recklessly built all my dreams in the sand just to watch, them all wash away.

Through another day, another trial, another chance to reconcile
To one who sees past all I see.
And reaching out my weary hand I pray that you'd understand
You're the only one who's faithful to me.

All the pennies I've wasted in my wishing well
I have thrown like stones to the sea.
I have cast my lots, dropped my guard, searched aimlessly for a faith
To be faithful to me.

Through another day, another trial, another chance to reconcile
To one who sees past all I see.
And reaching out my weary hand I pray that you'd understand
You're the only one who's faithful to me.
You're the only one who's faithful to me.

Faithful to Me by Jennifer Knapp

3rd Sunday in Easter

Psalm 4
Luke 24: 36b – 48
Acts 3: 12 - 19
1 John 3: 1 - 7

Forgiveness is a tough thing to wrap our minds around, especially when we struggle to take what we have collected and learned from our context and read the biblical texts through our lenses.

Specifically, in the lectionary readings for this week, we see a couple of different perspectives of how the process might work out, and we recognize that we are struggling between the lenses of our lives and with what the text says in black and white, remembering that it was written in a different time and place among a different people with different history, economy, sociology.

We will go at these scriptures (roughly) chronologically as they occurred.

As the concept of God’s forgiveness of humans in the sacrifice of Jesus develops, something of a process gets established:  Name your sin, repent / turn away from it, ask for forgiveness, and receive forgiveness.  And if we read these developments carefully and do some homework, we can begin to understand some of the early theological struggles of the church, and can begin to understand where cultural biases emerged.  And maybe, just maybe, we can peel back some layers and look at the original writings with fresh eyes.

The Psalms were written to be used in acts of worship...offered for both the shaping of the people who participated and for God’s hearing.  The Psalmist did not have this emerging forgiveness/atonement process (and certainly no process that involved relationship with an entity other than God-in-one-being) in place as she wrote.  At that point in theological history, they were working with a different system.  The people of Israel are in direct relationship with their God and speaking to God, they ask for forgiveness and for guidance, and they maintain Torah and keep faith. In Psalm 4.5 she says "offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD."  The writer of this psalm is writing from a vantage point of being in the good graces of Yahweh and is encouraging others in how they should pursue such a situation for themselves.  In the process she warns that folks should just avoid sinning completely and on top of that, offer sacrifices to make sure all is okay. 

Let’s look at both chronology and authorship for the remaining texts.  Luke and Acts are both attributed to the same author — an author who was writing a story about a real person caught in the dramatic conflicts of the age. As the story became deeply imbedded in the church, it came to be read as more of an “anti-Jewish story.”  We need to be careful to peel away some of that interpretation as we read it afresh.  In the passage from Luke we see Jesus in one of his post-resurrection appearances surprising the disciples on the beach.  As he was making another attempt to teach the disciples how the scriptures pointed to him and to The Father, he quotes non-specific teachings of that time (pause and note with some interest that these quotes are not specific to any one Hebrew Scripture text) and essentially tells them that what they are reading / have read is happening and (as we learned last week) it is partially their responsibility to share / participate in this forgiveness.  It is worth noting that this forgiveness is proclaimed for all nations. 

In Acts, we find Peter speaking to some assembled Jews right after the disciples have performed a miracle.  It is likely we can all read this passage and understand Peter had good intentions behind what he was saying...he was trying to encourage people to change their ways and follow God as exemplified and illustrated through the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  But when we read his actual words it is also easy to feel like he is wagging a disappointed finger at them the entire time.  He seems to be taking the "you will be forgiven, but I am not forgetting" approach to things as he recounts their history for them.  Now on first reading, we felt like this text was an “us” and “them” text that could be used for finger pointing. “You rejected the Holy and Righteous One” can be dangerous content in the hands of someone bent on pinning blame on a specific population. But it is important to remember that at the time of this writing, this would have been an account of dialogue of disagreement among groups of Jewish people – an ongoing struggle within the family to arrive at some common understanding.  But wow, there sure is basis for lingering guilt and shame here!

1 John, as we noted last week, was probably not written by the author of the Gospel of John, but is written in similar tradition and very likely originated in the community in which John might have originally taught.  There are similar references and uses of language.  The Gospel of John has elements of “wisdom” and “special revelation” that are continued in some of these epistles.   This text was also probably written late in the first century, possibly at the same time as Luke and Acts but probably later and definitely to a different community.  The writer of 1 John takes yet another slightly different tack.  He goes back (similar to the Psalm) to writing to someone as a companion.  It even sounds like he is encouraging folks who are already followers of Jesus to continue to be followers of Jesus.  The speaker is gathering people back, reminding them that they are all children of God.  He encourages them that because of Jesus, because of his righteousness, they are all capable of also being righteous and being without sin.  It is certainly a less guilt inducing encouragement.

It is hard to be human.  It is hard to be good.  It is hard to walk a path toward righteousness and to set an example to the world around us sometimes.  And the complexity of the bible doesn’t really make it easy.  We have to use our hearts and our minds and other tools available.  It is work, isn’t it?

Thanks be to God.

Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me (Oh, Lordy)
Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me (Hallelujah)
Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me
Look a way beyond the blue (horizon).

I took Jesus as my savior, You take Him, too. (Oh Lordy)
I took Jesus as my savior, You take Him, too. (Hallelujah)
I took Jesus as my savior, You take Him, too.
Look a way beyond the blue (horizon).

Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me (Oh, Lordy)
Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me (Hallelujah)
Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me
Look a way beyond the blue (horizon).

I've got a home in the land of glory,
That outshines the Sun,
Oh, I've got a home in the land of glory,
That outshines the Sun,
I've got a home in the land of glory,
That outshines the Sun,
Look a way beyond the blue (horizon).

Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me (Oh, Lordy)
Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me (Hallelujah)
Do Lord, Oh do Lord, Oh do remember me
Look a way beyond the blue (horizon).

Reflections on Susan Boyle

The week after Easter is a slow week for America's pastors, so I've been able to find the time to watch the You Tube video of Susan Boyle's audition for "Britain's Got Talent" a couple of dozen times.  I'm not alone, apparently, because something like 11 million people have seen the video now.  The Washington Post had her picture on the front page this morning and her story inside the A section. 

In case you haven't heard, Susan is a 47-year-old Scottish woman who doesn't look like a superstar.  American Idol and similar shows thrive on contestants like her--they provide the comic relief and give the viewing audience the guilty pleasure of laughing at someone who obvious has no sense of just how badly they are embarrassing themselves.  But Susan didn't embarrass herself on the show.  She is a really solid singer and she so surprised the judges and the audience that people were on their feet cheering by the end of her song.

There have been some good comments about Susan Boyle, on NPR and elsewhere, along the lines of "why is it news that frumpy middle-aged women can sing"?  But my response to her video goes beyond the "don't judge a book by its cover" surprise.  Susan doesn't just have a good voice.  She somehow is able to muster the confidence, in front of 4,000 people, to let that voice out and to sing with her whole heart.  And she does that from the first note--there's not a tentative moment in her whole performance.  I love to see that, and I LOVE to see the response from all three judges who allow her performance to crack something open in them as well.

Now, I admit that I'm not exactly the hardest one to sell on a story like this.  I love those movies about the underdog who come out of nowhere are shines for everyone to see when it really matters (Miracle and Billy Elliot are two of my all-time favorite movies).  But I like these movies for theological reasons which makes me feel just a little bit less sheepish about it.  I really do believe that everyone has a bit of divine spark in them (as my high-school hero R. W. Emerson put it).  I really do believe that God calls each of us to discipleship, and when we really open ourselves to that call, God shines out through our work, our play, our lives. 

And what's more, when someone has the opportunity to witness a moment of genius, a moment of divine inspiration, that person has a chance to recognize God active and alive in the world and to celebrate.  At KC we sometime refer to "God within, between us and beyond us".  I believe that witnessing someone truly living into their call is a moment of revelation of all three--God within, between and beyond. 

Is it making too much of things to say that's what we're witnessing when we watch Simon Caldwell's response to Sarah Boyle's first few notes?  Probably, but on the week after Easter I susceptible to implausible assertions.  It's hard to be cynical these days when there is so much blooming in the world.

But I do have to issue one caveat before I end.  Sometimes we aren't called--we're just kidding ourselves.  And that really is embarrassing to witness.  I remember the woman who used to "sing" opera in the Davis Square subway station outside of Boston.  She sang her heart out many mornings down there ("Somewhere" from West Side Story was one of her specialties) but she was so horribly off key that it hurt to listen to her.  God may have been in her at that moment, but I have to believe that if she had listened to the divine within, she would have shut up and sat down.  Discernment of call is essential--and tremendously difficult.

Pastoral Reflections on Traffic Court

I found myself in traffic court yesterday...again.  I live in Oakland Mills, a section of Columbia, Maryland which is just about as close to a police state as I've ever experienced.  I always see a police car--every single day--in the one mile perimeter of my house.  Their mission, as far as I can tell, is to enforce 100% compliance with every single traffic law, but their specialty is stop signs.  No rolling stops allowed, even if the intersection is completely clear.  I found that out when I got my first ticket.  Now I make a point of having a moment of reflection at every stop sign in my neighborhood.  Deep breath in, deep breath out.  But, a few months ago, Dan was running late and I drove him four blocks to the bus stop.  I didn't have my moment of reflection and I got another ticket.

So yesterday I went to traffic court to plead guilty to the charge but to try to get sentenced to "probation before judgment" so I wouldn't get a point on my license.  I wasn't the only one with that idea.  There were about 50 other people in the session trying to do exactly the same thing.  One by one, our name was called and we stood at a table in the front.  The charge against us was read, we plead guilty, and then were given the chance to offer an explanation.

I learned a couple things during the hour I spent in that courtroom, waiting for my name to be called.  First of all, I learned that I am certainly not the only one who has received a ticket at a stop sign in Oakland Mills.  But by far the most common charge was driving between 65 and 75 miles per hour on Route 29 where the speed limit is actually 55.  I drive on 29 a lot, and the speed of traffic is usually around 65 mph.  So I was glad to find out what the speed limit really is before I got pulled over. 

But secondly, I learned (again) that a lot of people lead very difficult lives.  One person after another stood before the judge and poured their hearts out.  One person explained that she was in the middle of a very acrimonious divorce and had just received disturbing news about her son right before she was pulled over.  One person had just lost her job and was driving to care for her mother who had a stroke.  One person had just received news that his father had died and he was going to have to go to Florida and wasn't sure how he'd find the money for a ticket.  One person's son was about to wet his pants. 

At first, I found all of these explanations kind of ridiculous.  I wondered how the judge could stand listening to all of these sob stories day in and day out.  But as the hour wore on, all of the sadness started to work its way into my hard heart.  I had the thought that I often have while counseling people or during our Longest Night service or when reading requests on our prayer chain:  there are so many people in this world who carry with them so much pain.  For many people, daily life requires a heroic effort.  They should be given the Nobel Prize for getting out of bed.  Or at least be given a break on a $160 speeding ticket.

I'm going to try to remember this the next time I'm at a stop sign in Oakland Mills, breathing in and breathing out.

Palm Sunday

[It's time for another one of those public service announcements about the structure of the lectionary.  If you use a comprehensive source for lectionary texts (like our favorite, you'll notice two sets of readings for this week - one for Palm Sunday and one for Passion Sunday.  You see, the folks sitting at the big lectionary table in the sky determined that fewer and fewer people were walking through the experience of holy week by reading through the story and experiencing the three-fold worship service that comprised the Easter Triduum, beginning on Maundy Thursday, continuing through Good Friday and a very long Easter Vigil that lasted for 12 or more hours on Saturday/Sunday, and culminating with Easter Sunday.  Not experiencing these days of unfolding the story made for an awkward leap between the traditional observances of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.  {Perhaps you've  heard the phrase you can't experience resurrection without death?} So...  The lectionary was revised to include a more complete telling of the passion story on the Sunday that precedes Easter. And so...]

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47


Have you ever experienced a sort of hypersensitivity to the world around you.  For example, if you are someone who has migraines, you might be keenly aware of how overwhelming light can be - how every nerve in your head fires at the brightness around it.  Or if you happen to be a woman and have been pregnant, perhaps you have experienced a hypersensitivity to odors - the smell of flowers, citrus, laundry, sour milk, wet ground all take on a nearly three dimensional quality.  Or maybe you have been so keenly in love with another human that almost everything around you took on expanded sensory complexity - colors are tactile, sounds have odor, etc. etc. etc.  Extravagent.  Rich.  Stimulating.  Overwhelming.  Frightening.

The narrative of the last days of Jesus' life can read in this extrasensory way.  The players all seemed to be experiencing overwhelming response to the world around them.  And it altered their ability to be human - or maybe it altered their humanity - they could no longer see how they were contributing to the forward momentum of events leading to a brutal execution surrounded by an angry mob.  The readings this week drag us through that emotional space.

And so for this week's readings (that really lead us right up to the resurrection) we are not going to impose too much more of a frame on the scriptures.  Instead, we encourage you to read through them--especially the passage from Mark--maybe even read them out loud and pay attention to the different emotions that show up in the different people in the story. 

-Take some time to imagine what each person might be feeling. 
-How do each individual's emotions change as the story moves forward? 
-Do you identify with any of these emotions yourself?

The Remains by Mark Strand

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.

My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.