Friday, February 26, 2010

We are witnesses

Second Sunday of Easter
April 11, 2010

Acts 5:27-32        Revelation 1:4-8
Psalm 118:14-29    John 20:19-31

The story of Thomas is so compelling. It is almost impossible not to preach on this text. Virtually everyone has some struggle with believing things they have not seen. But the broad theme for the day is the confession of those who believe in Jesus. If anything, today’s lectionary texts emphasize first-hand testimony.

• John’s vision reveals Jesus Christ as the “faithful witness” to God’s dominion over death and all mortal powers (Rev 1:5, NRSV).
• The Psalmist praises God not in hope, but through experience: “The stone that the builders tossed aside has now become the most important stone. The LORD has done this, and it is amazing to us” (Ps 118:22-23, CEV).
• Bless Thomas, for when he sees, he believes and proclaims Jesus as Lord (John 20:28).

We know that faith is such a blessing, sometimes we forget the power that comes when we know (by faith, by sight, by any means necessary) that something wonderful is true.

Imagine for a moment, from the reading in Acts, those strange days in Jerusalem. Peter and the apostles had seen Jesus murdered, had seen him risen from the dead and then ascend into heaven. The town was in ferment at this new movement, possessed by a Spirit some called Holy, others called disruptive of good order. People saw Jesus’ disciples as miracle workers and came to them for healing. When the authorities threw them in jail, an angel opened the jailhouse doors and commanded them “Go to the temple and tell the people everything about this new life” (Acts 5:20, CEV). Testimony is not an optional part of faithful living.

When hauled before the Council (preaching without a license), they surely knew what could be in store for them, the same fate their Lord received. Yet they were insolent. “We can’t obey you, we’re on a mission from God!” (Acts 5:29, free paraphrase). We saw with our own eyes what you did to Jesus, and what God did with him, raised him to glory. We have to tell the story – we’re witnesses!

The prophets, the psalm-singers, the evangelists and apostles knew that kind of amazing, world-changing story. Imagine the kind of story that you cannot keep hidden... A secret that cannot wait any longer... Something amazing you’ve discovered, seen, or been given...

“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD” (Ps 118:17, NRSV).

What have you seen? What has God been up to in your life? What’s your version of the gospel testimony? Someone out there is longing to hear a good word.

[This text, with additional resources, is also available as an American Bible Society E-Bulletin PDF.]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The sacrament of ashes

Ashes have traditionally been a sign of repentance and mourning. Ashes inherently represent the passing of something vital – a tree which once grew tall, a house destroyed by fire, all that is left of a corpse after the flesh has been burned away. Ashes from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday carry the reminder that the grandiose hopes of triumphal parades can so easily turn to betrayal, persecution, and burial.

On Ash Wednesday, as people turn from their daily lives to observe the start of Lent, that season of penitence and preparation, the minister takes ashes, and draws the sign of the cross one forehead at a time, saying the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (evoking the story of humans' creation, Genesis 2:7).

It is always a bit amazing how many people are eager to receive ashes. You wouldn’t think that we need or are eager to hear reminders of mortality. After all, we get those all the time. Loved ones die. Our own bodies show signs of wear. We are in the midst of broken situations and broken communities, and we never have to look far to see decay and corruption.

Lutheran theology speaks of sacraments as an act, instituted by God, where the Lord’s promise (of forgiveness, redemption, eternal life) is joined to a visible element. I suppose that the ashes of repentance cannot truly be sacramental because their imposition is not commanded by God in either Old or New Testaments.

But the puzzle of people’s eagerness to receive ashes makes more sense in light of sacramental theology.

It must be said that there is grace in truth. Despite the many reminders of mortality which surround us, we also live in a culture of denial. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” simply puts the truth on the table. It is a awesome, if unwelcome, starting point for a relationship with God’s grace.

And it must also be said that this recognition of mortality is only the tip of the iceberg. I strongly believe that those who seek to hear this word on Ash Wednesday have also heard and hold in mind the abundant Word of God’s promise.

Return to the Lord your God, for the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love... Joel 2:13

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Matt 11:28

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. John 16:20

In the light of Christ, in the hope of Christ, our mortality is not something to be feared or denied. In fact, mortality, with its inevitable suffering, is something we share with every one of our human brothers and sisters. While we might think of mortality in connection with the isolation of loss, the dust we share can be a point of connection.
We are not at our best, we are not at our most glorious, we are not most fully human only when things are going well and we are lost in the rapture of joy. We may also be at our best precisely when things are at their worst. How we respond to suffering, disaster, and death can be just as glorious as our best hymn-singing.

Yet we cannot do it as individual specks of dust. The breath of God which gives us life, also blows us dust motes together, into holy “dust bunnies.” Dust is looking better all the time – when it is joined to God’s promise that even dust can be holy stuff.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Judges 19 finally makes it to the Super Bowl

Amazingly enough, this year there has been active commentary on the way Super Bowl ads portray women and male-female relations.

One of the ads from Bridgestone Tire has not been mentioned in this context, yet it provides a Biblical-themed assault on women.

In the ad, a car approaches a road blocked by a gang of men with a post-apocalyptic look. "Your Bridgestone tires or your life," the gang leader threatens. A scantily-dressed woman is pushed out of the car, which then turns tail and speeds away. The gang leader cries out "I said your life, not your wife!" The woman is left alone to confront the gang, disappointed that their prized plunder is lost, and only "the wife" is left behind.

(Click on picture for larger image)

The ad is disgustingly reminiscent of one of the Biblical texts of terror, Judges 19. In this story, a Levite pushes his wife (or concubine) out the door, giving her over to a mob so that they will rape her instead of him.

Now the Bridgestone ad goes to some pains to paint the mob as harmless and inoffensive. This satirized mob would never gang rape a young, sexily dressed woman abandoned on a deserted road in the middle of the night, oh no.

But of all the violent, degrading, and just plain F-ed up gender depictions at yesterday's Super Bowl, this is Super-awful, and makes one wonder what they were thinking. How could anyone think this represents humor or a positive image of their product? (That tires would be valued more than a wife?) But if you read the Judges 19 story, and the use to which the Levite eventually put "his" woman, you may see an unfortunate continuity.

If you follow the link to the video, you can give it a THUMBS DOWN rating.