Monday, March 27, 2017

New Life for Dry Bones –– 5th Sunday in Lent, Year A –– 2 April 2017

Jesus has power over death. Jesus restores Lazarus to life just as YHWH promises through Ezekiel’s prophecy that the exiled, despairing people of Israel will once again be renewed as a nation.

So it is with those who feel dead to themselves and others when the Spirit of God breathes life into their withered lives. Where there is no animating spirit, even as a person is “alive,” there is no joy or shared energy, no creative giving to the needs of family and friends.

We might see Paul’s letter to the Romans as a summons to see the images of movement from death to life revolving around how we focus attention and intention. Do we live with hopelessness because we do not have everything we want? Or do we fail to see what we have been given?

With credit to Quaker insights, Jennifer Copeland recommends Parker Palmer’s fine book, Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000) because he asserts that when Way ends, “Way will open.”

To live with hope does not mean I always get my way. It means that the way I get becomes my way. The way that is given to me becomes my way. –– Jennifer Copeland

John 11:1-45

The center of the account is Jesus' exchange with Martha. Martha identifies Jesus with significant titles that were already introduced in this gospel (11:27). While her identification is the strongest Christological profession on the part of any disciple in John's gospel, Jesus' claims that he is the resurrection and that belief in him insures that one will never die (11:25–26) constitute the message of this text.

However, other points can be noted. It is possible that Jesus' delay in going to Bethany after first hearing of Lazarus' illness is a way to acknowledge that early Christian expectations of imminent Parousia were unfounded; the Lord determines the time of his coming and is in fact already and always present among his followers. However, it is also true that the author of the fourth gospel uses delays elsewhere to enhance meaning.

. . . At first Jesus states that Lazarus was asleep. This was the way early Christians spoke of death—as sleep—to express their anticipation of resurrection. When Jesus then states that Lazarus was dead, he also recognizes that Christian life is not devoid of real suffering and death. Just as her sister, Mary's first word to Jesus states that had he been present their brother would not have died (v 11:33). It is after Jesus sees Mary weeping that he also weeps. It is here that the human Jesus affirms that the death of loved ones is a painful human experience. Thus, the story unfolds to indicate a Jesus angry at the reality of death.

Jesus' call to Lazarus is illustrative of the call to eternal life he indicated to Mary, that those who recognize that he is resurrection will live even should they die. At the same time, Lazarus's emergence from the tomb also speaks of the transformation of sinners in light of faith in Christ. –– Regina Boisclair

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The prophet Ezekiel is witness to the dry bones coming alive which serves as an image for Ezekiel that his prophetic word to Israel must assure them that even what seems dead and gone through exile and desiccation can, yet, be restored.

. . . God's restoration is imaged as being raised out of the grave and reanimated by the Spirit. It is a word of assurance: the people will be given God's spirit, resettled in their land, and enabled to know that their God is indeed God. . . . For Christians this story from the history of Israel becomes a metaphor for baptism and a paradigm for Christian life. –– Regina Boisclair

Romans 8:6-11

Paul claims those in the flesh are concerned with things that effect death while those who live according to the Spirit are concerned with things that effect life and peace. Those of the flesh are hostile to God and fail to please God. The Spirit dwells within those “in Christ” since they submit to God's law and are alive and righteous. –– Regina Boisclair

Jennifer Copeland, a United Methodist ordained minister, served for 16 years as chaplain at Duke University and as director of the Duke Wesley Fellowship. She is currently executive director at North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh-Durham.

Regina Boisclair, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, teaches at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, Alaska.

Homily Service 41, no. 2 (2008): 63-75.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Funerals and Food ~ Part Two

Benjamin Stewart writes about the relationship between the funeral liturgy and the liturgy of the funeral meal in the April-May 2017 issue of Liturgy focused on Liturgy and Food Culture, guest-edited by Jennifer Ayres. Here, Stewart further explores the relationship between eating and the death of Jesus in order to bring to the funeral meal the weight it carries in comforting the bereaved.

Do our scriptural accounts of the Lord’s Supper bear evidence of an early ecclesial conflict around the meaning of food and death? In his work of liturgical-biblical scholarship, Gordon Lathrop suggests that Paul, in a project partly continued in the Gospels, seeks to reorient the Christian meal more directly toward the account of Jesus’ suffering and death for all the suffering mortals. (The Four Gospels on Sunday [Fortress, 2012]). 
 Paul is clearly determined to strengthen the link between the Christian meal and the death of Jesus. Some of Paul’s correspondents in Corinth seem to have been delighting in the life of the resurrection, especially at the table, without concern for the cross, and in Lathrop’s view, it is this mistake that leads them away from solidarity with the sufferings of the poor—those who share most visibly in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Thus, in the scriptural meal narratives, especially of Paul, Mark, and Luke, Lathrop sees strong theo-ethical reforming interest in the meals of the church, accomplished especially by tending to the cruciform marks of the meal: “These central meal characteristics—the ones accentuated by the climactic Lukan narratives of the Last Supper and of Emmaus—are being urged by the Gospel exactly so that the meal keeping of the churches may be the meal with the widow, with Levi, and with Zacchaeus, and may thus become the breaking of the bread and distribution to the poor imaged in Acts 2:42–27. 
 Lathrop argues that the reforming proposals of the Gospels—holding together the death of Christ and the meal, and therefore all of the suffering mortals—are always actively before the church. Among other reforms, Lathrop urges “better preaching conjoined with strong intercessory praying for a suffering world … [and] attend[ing] to what seems to be the counsel of both Mark and Luke, echoing Paul: hold no Eucharist without a collection for the poor and hungry beyond our assembly.” 
. . . While it is perilous to assert definitively the experienced meaning of any ritual practice (and the distinction between deathbed communion and bread for the corpse was likely of little significance for some), the church seems to have been wrestling here with two significantly distinct interpretations of bread at the time of death. One set of food practices suggested the transactional payment of a debt that comes due after death, while another set suggested nourishment and comfort for the living in the face of suffering on the journey into death. 
. . . Both food and funerals lead us back to the earth. It may be that in this age of ecological emergency we rediscover ancient wisdom in our encounters with food at a time of death: strict human limits along with the fecundity of God coursing through the good earth. Three final images hold together these themes of mortality: earth, God, and food. 
The entire essay is available to download through either your library’s subscription to Liturgy or your own individual subscription. Liturgy is published quarterly with each issue focusing on a theme.  

Benjamin M. Stewart is the Gordon A. Braatz associate professor of worship and director of advanced studies at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago.

Benjamin M. Stewart, “Food and Funerals: Why Meals Matter for Christian Mortality and How We Might Respond Gustatorily to Changing Death Practices,” Liturgy 32, no. 2 (2017): 52-61.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Light in the Darkness –– 4th Sunday in Lent, Year A –– 26 March 2017

Today we hear of Jesus healing a man born blind and Samuel choosing a king from an unlikely source. Both stories confront conventional belief. A blind man must be at fault for his disability and a king cannot come from a lowly position.

John 9:1-41

Biblical scholars see this situation. . . as a radical outrage to religious authorities. The claim that Jesus heals is deeply offensive. Why? What is the real problem here? Was it the Sabbath? No, not when only three verses mention this. Is it Jesus' status as outsider, whose origin and credentials are unknown? Maybe. Is it in the argument, shared by both sides, that “God does not listen to sinners” (v 31)? Therefore, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (v 33) So, a miraculous healing proves Jesus' credentials. Since the opponents accept this argument, they have no recourse but to attack the facts of the healing and the credibility of the witness.

To the best of my knowledge, the church down through the ages accepted this logic, as do most Christians today. Heretics can't do genuine miracles, the orthodox can. False or deceptive miracles are fakes by definition, because the people who are behind them are “sinners” to whom God does not listen. I have read this argument in stories from the eighth century, and have heard it in the church in the twenty-first. . . .

One response to this is to discount and shun miracles altogether, and insist that the real power of the Gospel is entirely independent of these. Unfortunately, this snobbish disdain for what was indeed a real part of Jesus' ministry leads to a diminished and rationalized moral/ethical reduction of his person and his message. A better alternative is to say that miracles are not proof, but signs. –– Lucy Bregman

1 Samuel 16:1-13

God's choice is unexpected because there were so many other possibilities, but it's not all that unexpected based on God's track record. God always picks unlikely or unworthy heroes: second-born Jacob rather than first-born Esau; the slaves of Egypt rather than the mighty Pharaoh and his powerful kingdom; a dresser of sycamore trees rather than a priest of the temple establishment. I could go on for pages, including of course, the illegitimate son of an unwed teenager whose life showed to the entire world God's plan for salvation. All of this is part of God's pattern of calling the world's ratings systems into question.–– Jennifer Copeland

Ephesians 5:8-14

This passage contrasts existence prior to acceptance of Christ and present Christian existence. It identifies the past as darkness and the present as light in the Lord. It calls Christians to live as children of light so that their behavior would be characterized as good, righteous, true and pleasing to God. It calls Christians to take no part in fruitless works of darkness, but to expose them, and it claims that shameful deeds done in secret should not even be mentioned. However, this passage follows a vice list that emphasized fornication and impurity, which would indicate that what the Pauline author suggests should not be mentioned consists of sexual deviance. The selection seeks to foster mature discernment that recognizes what is to be condemned as sinfulness. The passage concludes with a verse considered an early Christian baptismal hymn. (See Rom. 6:4–13.) –– Regina Boisclair

Regina Boisclair, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, teaches at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, Alaska.

Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the author of several books including Beyond Silence and Denial: Death and Dying Reconsidered (WJK, 1999) and Preaching Death (Baylor Univ., 2011).

Jennifer Copeland, a United Methodist ordained minister, served for 16 years as chaplain at Duke University and as director of the Duke Wesley Fellowship. She is currently executive director at North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh-Durham.

Homily Service 41, no. 2 (2007): 42-53.