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Archive for the ‘New Testament’ Category

In a recent episode of The Simpsons, the wealthy businessman Montgomery Burns nearly drowns in a fountain. With what he thinks is his last breath, he says, “Apparently I’m dying. Sure wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

We laugh because we know that the reality is that most people will do anything they can to carve out more time for their families, their friends, their lives outside of the workaday world. Time management seminars tell us that the goal of everything we do should be “to live, to love, to leave a legacy.” And that legacy involves far more important things than a savings account and an investment portfolio. It means teaching our children the things that really matter: strong values, solid relationships, an enduring faith in God.

Today’s Scripture readings show us what really matters in life—and in death. In the Gospel, the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question that to their minds shows the absurdity of the concept of an afterlife. Will the woman married to seven brothers belong to one, none or all of them after death?

At the time of Jesus, many people still believed that the only chance a person had of attaining any kind of immortality was to raise up children and grandchildren to carry on their name and their bloodline. Jesus is trying to get them to see beyond this narrow concern and to appreciate how very different life in the afterlife will be. He cuts through their knotty puzzle and says, “They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.”

The reading from the Book of Maccabees also speaks of seven brothers, but the true connection with the Gospel lies in the belief in an afterlife expressed by the boys and their mother. It gives a nobility to their martyrdom and a purpose to their witness. At the time this book was written, Jewish scholars were just beginning to grasp a notion of the afterlife.

Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The same holds true for those who regularly put their lives at the service of others, knowing full well that they could be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. On this Veterans Day we think especially of those who have been killed in battle, but also of police officers and firefighters, all those working in dangerous occupations to preserve the common good.

Parents often say that they would willingly give their lives for their children, and many have proved the truth of that statement by doing just that. The Harry Potter books are based on the idea that Harry’s protection from the powerful and evil Lord Voldemort comes from the fact that his mother and father were willing to be killed to save his life. That kind of love can withstand even death. And of course we believe that it was that love that led Jesus to give his life for us, teaching us how to live, how to love, how to die and how to rise to new life.

These are just a few examples that show us the power of the Scriptures, the reality of our faith, and the futility of those who try to turn religion into an intellectual exercise, a series of required tests. They also offer a powerful argument against those who scoff at the very notion of belief in God. God is love, and love is stronger than death. If we live our lives and love others with this in mind, we will indeed leave them a lasting legacy.

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The Gospel readings this month spend a great deal of time talking about how we spend our money. In today’s passage, Jesus tells his listeners, “Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out.” And certainly in our culture, worth is inevitably determined in economic terms. We can get a pretty good idea about what’s important to us by looking at how we spend our money. The irony is not lost on me that in the middle of this heat wave that’s settled over Cincinnati, I have a shiny new iPhone but no air conditioning. Largely by choice, but still….

But we forget that how we spend our time is also a good indicator of our priorities. The time-management guru Stephen Covey is often quoted as saying, “No one on their deathbed ever said they wished they’d spent more time in the office.” Sometimes I find myself wishing I had more than 24 hours in a day to get to all the things I want to do. But if I’m honest, I find that I waste a lot of time on things that really aren’t worth the time and energy spent on them. The specifics will be different for everyone.

What’s a waste of time for one person might be an expression of creativity for someone else. I find driving around on a Saturday extremely stressful. My niece, on the other hand, goes for a drive when she needs to sort out her thoughts about something. And when I was growing up, one of my dad’s favorite outings was to go for a drive on a Sunday with no planned destination, but rather a sense of seeing what interesting places we might discover. I found myself thinking about those Sunday drives as I read the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.”

Abraham is held up as the supreme example of faith by the New Testament writers. He was willing to travel great distances geographically and take great psychological risks based only on the word of God. And in fact, his and Sarah’s attempts to plan and schedule the working out of God’s promise always led to disaster. We can learn much from our great father in the faith about the promises God has made to us for the working out of our lives.

Someone once said, “If you want to hear God laugh, make plans.” In these days of hyper-scheduling, we often discover the truth of this as we’re waiting for a car repair, dealing with a sudden virus that hits on the day of an important meeting or watching the rain wash away a long-awaited sports event. At times like that, we need to remember that what we spend our time doing is most significant not for what it produces but for how it transforms our souls and brings us into a closer relationship with God and with those we love. The next time you find yourself stuck somewhere that you hadn’t expected, forget your other plans and ask God to let you know what you might take away from the unexpected situation instead.

The Scriptures tell us the big stories of salvation: the covenant with Abraham, the exodus, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. But Luke’s Gospel also reminds us that in the little things of life, we discover that God graciously gives us the kingdom of heaven. All we need to do is be open to making room for that gift in our lives. In small things, no less than in the great life-changing events, we can discover where our treasure lies.

And now I need to go knit a sock for my iPhone.

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People often talk about the 21st century, particularly in America, as a time when capitalism, consumerism and advertising have run amok. And while they’re not wrong, it’s somewhat encouraging to discover that as it is now, so it has always been. It’s a difference in degree, not in kind, and it has its roots in the human tendency to focus more on individual needs and wants than on the common good. The source of this misdirection seems to lie in our forgetting that everything we have comes from a gracious God. When we believe that our riches lie in our own efforts, we lose the ground of our being.We worship the golden idol of our possessions, or we gnash our teeth over the possessions of others.

Today’s Gospel begins with a man asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over a family inheritance. And Jesus’ pointed comment goes to the heart of the issue: “one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Jesus directs his parable at those who “store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” And the preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds his listeners that striving and anxiety lead only to emptiness. The antidote? Remembering that it is God who “prospers the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90). And Jesus’ concern in the Gospel is that two brothers are feuding over an inheritance when they should be at peace with one another.

Our Scriptures call us back to our center, to the life-giving word of God that reminds us again and again that what matters is the we belong to God, not that we have a lot of stuff that belongs to us. We find our identity in our baptismal promises, not in our credit cards and bank accounts. When we are in right relationship with God, we will have the inner peace and security that makes reaching out to others a natural response to God’s gracious gifts.

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The lectionary readings for this 13th Sunday of the year, at least the first and the third, are linked by the image of a plow. In the reading from Kings, Elijah calls Elisha to follow him by throwing his mantle over his shoulders. Elisha leaves his plow and tells the great prophet, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and I will follow you.” Elijah ignores him. Elisha then slaughters and cooks the oxen, using the plowing equipment for fuel for the fire (the hyperbole here is not likely to escape the original listeners). He feeds his people and then follows Elijah.

For Elisha to simply say farewell to his family wasn’t enough in Elijah’s eyes. He was looking for a total commitment. Elijah never did anything by halves. He comes upon Elisha after the tumultuous rout of the 500 prophets of Baal, a time of near despair in the wilderness, and a theophany in the form of a still, small voice. The successor God has appointed for him better hang onto his hat. He’s in for a wild ride.

Similarly in the gospel, Jesus challenges—almost taunts—those who would follow him, reminding them that he hasn’t even a cave to call home. He has set his course. He’s on the road to Jerusalem, to his destiny. Many have commented on the somewhat enigmatic line, “Let the dead bury the dead” and how strong a command the burial of the dead and honoring of parents was in the Law. What struck me about this passage, though, was the relentless forward movement. Once he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus isn’t going to let anything get in his way. And he uses the image of the plow in a way that would also be familiar to his listeners. Something else might be pulling the plow, but it’s the responsibility of the person holding its handles to keep it straight and true.

The two readings together remind me of the better know fish story when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets because he will make them fishers of men. Here, we see Elisha leaving his plowing equipment to follow Elijah in the prophet’s mission, one that Jesus will describe as a metaphorical furrow.

Maybe it’s where I find my life heading these days, but what I hear in these readings is that God finds a way to use our work to accomplish his work. The Spirit provides the energy, the fuel, the inspiration. Our job is to hold true to our course. And the only way we can do this is by facing forward. Looking back leads only to confusion. Whatever we’ve learned from our experiences, from our families, from our past has brought us to today. The important thing now is to move into the future. It takes a lot to pull us forward. Maybe it’s only the hand of God that can really keep up steady. And so this might be a time to burn our plow, our bridges, anything that holds us back from wholeheartedly embracing the future God has in store for us. And I suspect we’ll be surprised when we find ourselves doing much the same work in a different context with a new goal.

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So many wonderful images from the readings this weekend, but I was caught up in the family celebration of my great-nephew’s baptism. I was one of the lectors and was blessed to be able to read that wonderul passage from Isaiah: “The Lord called me from birth. From my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” That Evan was being baptized on this feast and that his name is the Welsh form of John just added to the significance.

My friend, the parish music director, commented wryly afterward, “That’s a lot of expectation to be putting on a small baby.” The Christian calling is a high expectation, and I was also struck by the fact that one of my godchildren is now little Evan’s godmother, while my nephew and his wife are godparents to her oldest daughter. I couldn’t help but be moved by the connections among us that are not only blood ties but also bonds in the Spirit.

I have to say that sitting behind the ambo during the gospel, looking at family from out of town in the pews, the line “all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea,” my thoughts were not on the wonders of God, but on how often in families even the smallest detail, especially if it’s in someone else’s life, gets talked to death by everyone else. The commitment of Zechariah and Elizabeth to name their child John in the face of family and community tradition and expectation is sometimes a special source of encouragement to those few in our family who have moved to a new geographical location—and perhaps to those who wish they could.

For a more focused reflection on the readings, let me refer you here. I have a baby to hold.

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While my nephew and his wife were expecting their first child and even moreso now that little Evan is here, we frequently use the catchphrase: “It’s all about the baby.” Established in their careers, settled in their house, they’re now completely absorbed in this new little life. From changing diets to decorating the nursery to taking time off work for doctors’ appointments and ultrasounds, they readily shifted all their priorities. And as his only local great-aevandiane.jpgunt, I’m willing to drop everything to drive out to their house just for the privilege of rocking him to sleep.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Visitation. I think Mary and Elizabeth would understand this delighted, anxious, all-absorbing period of waiting, anticipation and celebration. Their greeting, their empathetic presence to one another, John leaping in his mother’s womb to greet his cousin, focus on the great miracles taking place in their lives. For Mary, this isn’t some dutiful trip to help an aging relative. It’s a joy and wonderment that can’t be contained. It’s the longing to share her experience with someone also blessed by God.

Luke’s Gospel again and again reveals the touch of a master storyteller in its ability to put the marvelous events of salvation into the most simple, yet profound, human experiences: a long-awaited pregnancy, the birth of a baby, a lost adolescent, , a shared meal, an excruciating death. And in making the extraordinary, ordinary, he reminds us that through God’s grace, the ordinary has indeed become extraordinary.

The church fathers have taught this from the beginning of Christianity. St. Irenaeus says, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive” and St. Athanasius says, “God became human so that humans might become divine.”
Elizabeth recognizes that Mary’s child is more than the ordinary miracle of conception, is in fact the incarnation of her Lord. And so, in celebrating today’s feast, we recognize that for us, too, it’s all about the baby, all about our God.

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Mark’s Gospel continues to challenge many of the assumptions that we still take for granted over two thousand years after Jesus walked this earth. Wealth, power and ambition still dominate human society. And the prophets and poets of our day continue to address it. One of Dr. Seuss’s less widely known stories is about Yertle the Turtle, who fancied himself king and lord of all. His brilliant plan was to stack the other turtles so that he could climb to new heights. When a small turtle named Mack complained, Yertle ignored him. Then one day Mack, “just a little bit mad,” with a simple burp brought the king’s turtle stack tumbling to the ground. In the inimitable words of Dr. Seuss,

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Ambition isn’t just a problem for the rich and powerful. Most of us at one time or another find ourselves caught up in the temptation to get ahead of someone else, even if it’s just someone trying to pass us on the freeway. Parents encourage their children to excel in school, in sports, in their careers. Spouses nag one another about promotions and raises, sometimes to the exclusion of a healthy lifestyle.

Back in the 1970s, Trina Paulus crafted a parable about caterpillars climbing over one another to get to the top of a great pillar of caterpillars. Two of them finally dropped off the pillar because they wouldn’t step on one another. Stripe and Yellow discovered that only by stopping the upward climb and spinning a cocoon would they emerge as butterflies who could then effortlessly soar over the fields and the struggling, misguided caterpillar tower. Hope for the Flowers’ artwork looks a little dated these days, but its message is timeless. It’s the message of Jesus that in dying to ourselves, we rise to our true destiny as children of God. Sometimes it takes a children’s story to bring this message home.

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