Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Visitation with the Dying: What We Can Learn

This posting from the issue of Liturgy dealing with “Death and the Liturgy” lifts up the ministry with the dying practiced by a Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Washington.  
Saint Benedict’s famous Rule, which has guided communities of faith for over 1,500 years, advises the faithful to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” [Rule of Benedict, Rule #4, point #47] . . .  In the face of death, priorities get rearranged. Sometimes keeping death before our eyes gives us the courage to do the hard thing. Sometimes that hard thing may be to let a habit, a desire, a restraint, a self-concept, even a relationship end in order to embrace another path. . . 
 Because this change can be difficult, the church invites us into practices that help us to remember, to contemplate, and in fact, to sit with death. Once each year, for instance, on Ash Wednesday, we remember we are dust and will return to dust. Ashes rubbed onto our foreheads thrust us into appropriate humility by confronting us with our fundamental substance: dust, soil, humus. This realization is surely why a pastor administering ashes sees such ponderous expressions on people’s faces on that day. We line up for the ashes in order to be confronted by what is coming. We do it individually, singly, receiving the ashes alone, and yet we come to receive them in the company of our sisters and brothers in Christ.
 At other times, as well, we face death. Throughout the year, Christians are called to visit those who are sick or dying. This ministry, this practice, often means looking death in the eye and growing spiritually because of it. Recently, while editing material for a book on funerals, one contribution drew my attention to the far-ranging consequences of ministry with the dying. [Melinda A. Quivik, ed., In Sure and Certain Hope: A Funeral Sourcebook (Augsburg Fortress, 2017)]
 Pastor Paul Palumbo of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Chelan, Washington, described the congregation’s experience visiting with, conversing with, and eventually simply sitting with church members who were dying. When congregation members realized that a number of people in their church, nearing the end of life, were in hospice or nursing homes and in varying stages of dementia, they began an intentional ministry of accompanying the dying. Some people they visited had the ability to converse and pray; others had passed beyond the civility of normal chatting. None of them, the congregation believed, should be ignored by the church with its great treasures of reassurance. But it was not always easy.
 To facilitate its ministry with dying people, the congregation published Peace at the Last: Visitation with the Dying (Augsburg Fortress, 2016), a slim book of psalms, prayers, songs, and elegant watercolors by congregation member Wendy Schramm. Visitation ministers take the book with them when they call on elderly church members because it gives them words and images to share, especially when calling on someone who may not have the capacity to speak.
 Attentiveness to those who are dying taught those engaged in this visitation ministry––and the congregation as a whole––that it is possible to accompany each other through the final days. The practice also taught them truths about living that freed them from the fear of dying and from the need to survive.
The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 1 available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Melinda Quivik, “Learning Together to Let Death Come,” Liturgy 33, no. 1 (2017): 56-62.

Monday, February 19, 2018

New Names for the Faithful - 25 February 2018 - Second Sunday in Lent

Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and followers of Jesus become cross-bearers. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” God makes outrageous promises, and the faithful who hear the call and trust in it are exalted with new identity.

It is told of Martin Luther that he said each morning as he splashed water on his face, “I am baptized.” It was this sure knowledge of being marked as God’s own forever that fueled his courage as he faced both pope and emperor and refused to stop calling for reform. . .

As we walk the road to Jerusalem with Jesus in this season, as we face the powers of this world to declare, despite the consequences, that love is more powerful than hate, that peace needs to “made” as intentionally as war, that the hungry deserve bread, we live the baptismal truth that nothing. . . can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus [Rom 8:38-39]. . .  –– Scott Haldeman

Mark 8:31-38

In Mark 8:31–38, what appalls Peter about Jesus’ prediction is not just that Jesus must suffer but that, inevitably, those who follow him will face suffering and rejection, too. In contemporary parlance we sometimes trivialize the “cross we have to bear.” What are the more important crosses we might face, the circumstances in which today’s Christians might have to make real sacrifice for the sake of the real Gospel? –– David Bartlett

In Mark 8:27–30, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Predictably, he gets widely variant answers, but Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus does not respond directly to this claim, but “ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Among the many different claims about the Messiah in Jesus’ time, none of them would have called for the Messiah to suffer and be rejected the way Jesus describes in this passage. It should be no surprise then that Peter would question Jesus’ statements and likely he would have been shocked at the sternness of Jesus’ rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

One of last week’s readings described God’s covenant with Noah and all living things. This text focuses on God’s covenant with Abraham and through him with all of his descendants, promising land, descendants, and a blessing. . .  

Of course, the very idea of descendants is shocking in this story, since Abraham and Sarah were too old to even imagine having a child. Yet. . . God’s promise of a son is fulfilled, as proof that with God all things are possible.

In the course of their encounter with God, Abram and Sarai become renamed as Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s name does not change significantly in its meaning “Princess,” but Abraham, formerly “Exalted Father” becomes “Father of a Multitude.” –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Romans 4:13-25

Paul suggests that the promises to Abraham were fulfilled not through the law but through “the righteousness of faith.” He refers specifically to Genesis 17:5 and God’s promise that Abraham would be the “father of many nations.” He speaks of Abraham’s unwavering faith that God would fulfill those promises, which could refer indirectly to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command. This deep faith is presented as a model for Christians who put similar trust in Jesus and his death and resurrection. –– Jonathan Lawrence

David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

W. Scott Haldeman is associate professor of worship at Chicago Theological Seminary, Illinois.

Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.

Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 22-32.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Beasts and Angels in the Wilderness - 14 February 2018 - First Sunday in Lent

Mark 9:9-15

This short passage in Mark combines two important events that are described in much greater detail in Matthew and Luke—the baptism and temptation of Jesus. Thus several important details found in the other versions are lacking here, such as John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus’ request and his testimony to the heavenly acclamation. (See Matthew 3:13–17, Luke 3:21–22, and John 1:29–34.) . . .

Mark also deals with Jesus’ temptation only in passing. Given that Mark’s impetus is to emphasize that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” and to get to the story of Jesus’ passion, such minimal detail in these early episodes may be understandable. . .

The reference to beasts and angels in the wilderness could be an allusion to Elijah, who was helped by ravens during the drought and later by angels on his forty-day flight into the wilderness. The idea of forty days, often in the wilderness, appears in one form or another in three of the readings for today, an echo in a sense of the forty days of Lent which we have entered this week.

The early church called for forty days of preparation for catechumens, which ultimately developed into the observance of Lent for all Christians, not just new believers. –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9 introduces the first of several covenants that will be discussed in the lectionary over the next few weeks, God’s covenant with Noah and all living creatures. Here God promises never again to threaten extinction or destruction by floodwater and gives the rainbow as a sign of that promise of protection. Ironically, that sign seems to be more for God’s benefit as a reminder not to destroy the earth than as a comfort to humans that God will not forget. –– Jonathan Lawrence

1 Peter 3:18-22

This short passage connects the story of Noah to the practice of baptism and the significance of Christ’s death. The writer sees Christ’s death and rebirth in the spirit as an innocent suffering or sacrifice on the behalf of all people. The reference to “the spirits in prison,” is cryptic, especially since the description “who in former times did not obey” is presented in the context of the Noah story where the emphasis is on Noah’s obedience and faith.

Early Christians drew on Peter’s symbolism here and used the ark as a symbol of baptism, since “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water.” Christian paintings in the catacombs and elsewhere used this symbol, in connection to the Eucharist as well. The idea is that just as Noah spent forty days in the ark, as a sign of faith and as the water washed away the sins of the world, Christians wash their sins away (not just physical dirt) and seek God’s care and rescuing. Again, as in the other passages for today, repentance, humility and trust are required of those seeking to follow God. –– Jonathan Lawrence

Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.

Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 13-21.