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Shouting Stones, April 10, 2022

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Christian Church

Shouting Stones, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH

April 10, 2022 – Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV—JANT)1

28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

We often do not want to accept any truth that is an inconvenience to us. Whether as a community or an individual, we find ourselves quickly locating the nearest hiding place when an unwanted truth comes into our orbit. For those of us who, in our minds, feel we already “have it good” in life, perhaps we just don’t want to risk losing anything. If we have a great deal of power or things, maybe we feel we deserve it and want to protect our status. And if we have far less than those around us and the world, we may be mad or defeated. Mad that we have so little—at how unfair it all is. Mad that others won’t share what they should or that we don’t have access to it as we should. Or yet… defeated; that after so many years of trying [to do] the right things, we feel like just giving up. What’s the use?

I’m intentionally oversimplifying here, of course. Likely no one feels as black and white as these examples or the stereotypes they may invoke. And yet, we do see a bit about what they share (if only from a bird’s-eye view): truth can be inconvenient for anybody. In our passage from the Gospel of Luke this morning, we meet the familiar story of that first Palm Sunday[i], when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey[ii]. At the Mount of Olives[iii], Jesus sends two disciples to get a young donkey—one that had never been ridden before. Telling the owner that it’s for the Lord—the Lord needs it—they bring the donkey to Jesus just as he asked.

Entering Jerusalem from Mount Olivet, Jesus is greeted by joyous cheers of praise to God from all the disciples. The people lay down cloaks that Jesus may process on them like royalty, which may not sound like much until you realize that they likely laid down a garment that was of great value to them. No common person would have a closet of these. In essence, they laid down what was theirs before Jesus, paying homage to a king,[iv] but a much different king than may have been expected.[v]

Kings would receive glorious receptions, sure, but kings were typically thought of as having and representing great power, wealth, prestige, control, influence, and strength, especially military strength. The people witnessing Jesus’s entry that day would have been expecting a king in armor, one promised by scripture to deliver them and to make things right. Had it been a military general on a horse, perhaps it would have computed more naturally, but what the people instead received was Jesus, humble, without armor, with no show of strength or victory to claim solely for himself, riding on a young donkey. The sheer absurdity of the truth of this certainly could have been gleaned by the people there that day. Yet why did the disciples cheer? Why did they cast down their precious garments and praise God for what was happening [to] Jesus? Aware of the inconvenience of what this meant or not, the disciples did shout praise that day. And they praised God for what God was doing, what was then taking place through Jesus. Maybe they knew enough to know that this was something huge, of great importance, extending far beyond them. But they were not the only ones to see Jesus in Jerusalem that day.

Luke[‘s author] tells us that there were Pharisees in the crowd at Jerusalem. Among them, some spoke to Jesus after the disciples had been shouting their praise. These Pharisees said two very important things in one short statement. They first acknowledge Jesus’s status as a teacher, that he has authority and followers, and then they demand that he rebuke his disciples for their behavior. The NRSV reads, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” The NASB reads, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!”2 Strong words either way, yet both betray recognition of Jesus’ status as a faith leader, as one who people followed. In saying what they did here, these Pharisees took Jesus seriously. What they witnessed may have been the truth, but it was not one they were willing to permit, so they tried to silence it. Using their authority, these Pharisees demanded that Jesus silence his followers. Luke doesn’t show whether the crowd heard this order from the Pharisees, but we know that Jesus heard them and that he answered them.

There are those who stand to lose a great deal when the truth is revealed, and they do not always respond well to the inconveniences posed by truth. There are also those who may gain the most from the truth, and we equate the justice of their need often with the volume of their voice. But Jesus shows us it isn’t just about what we say, the truth is there for us to experience whether we acknowledge it. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Why is it a problem for an individual or group to lay sole claim to the truth? Who is most served when such as these have power over the access of others to say the truth?

We remember that Jesus did not come in armor on a battle horse that day in Jerusalem. He came in humility—as God called—for the people. And those people cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But the Pharisees who spoke out did not like where this was going. Their viewpoint was compromised as was their authority as keepers of the faith. Perhaps they immediately acknowledged the crowd’s quotation of the 118th Psalm and how it was pointing towards Jesus as here coming in the name of God.[vi] Or maybe they just didn’t like how Jesus was becoming too much of a threat to their power and influence.

When we revisit the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem each year, we bring our whole life into it. We know where we are in the world today and how we feel; who has much; and who has little. We remind ourselves of how we’re supposed to think of Jesus as a king but we’re not sure that we always make a strong connection from this to the cross, let alone the empty tomb.

So, we ask ourselves again, here at the start of Holy Week: who is most in need of a king today? Who needs to be ruled, to have justice, to be delivered? How do we know what is true and who tries to claim power over that truth?

Friends, we all witness God’s truth in our thoughts, our hearts, and in the hands and feet we use to live each day in love. We know how God blesses us to learn the truth from our reason, experience, and heritage or tradition. And we as God’s people in the local church know that God tells us the story of God’s truth in the Bible, where we see chapter after chapter, verse after verse, not only God’s love but the encouragement we have to participate in it. We live in an age of economic disparity, abuse, greed, neglect, misinformation, the bait-and-switch, contagions, wars, and love; the love we’re called to serve God by one another and the one which fights it, gazing deeply into a mirror which says to serve only the one in the reflection.

“Blessed is the king, the One who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”[vii] “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!” Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these stop speaking, the stones will shout out!”

God’s truth is sacrifice and it costs something. The disciples here in Luke’s gospel praised God for the miracles they saw Jesus perform. Jesus is the good news. He is the answer God provides for all people. His promise is freedom for the oppressed. Jesus is also unexpected. He’s not the king people think will come to lead them. Jesus is still not what the world expects. It wants money, power, and influence. The world wants to control and glory. But glory is God’s alone. So, we ask ourselves, as followers of Jesus. How is Jesus’s triumphal entry a promise to the disenfranchised, the oppressed today and how are we invited into it as humble servants? How may our love be what is needed and what does it look like for the church to be this now? From humble entry to the cross and empty tomb, this week we witness a most beautiful truth from the One who loves completely. Love is for us all and we are all God’s people. May it be so. Amen.

  1. Levine AJ, Brettler MZ, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New Revised Standard Version). 2nd ed. Oxford University Press; 2017.
  2. Lockman Foundation. New American Standard Bible. 2020 ed. Zondervan; 2021.
  3. Sheinfeld S. Sukkot in the New Testament: From Lulav and Hoshana to Palm Sunday. TheTorah.com. Published online September 28, 2018.
  4. Brettler MZ, Levine AJ. Psalm 2: Is the Messiah the Son of God. TheTorah.org. Published online December 29, 2020.

 

[i] Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion, is likely an appropriated Sukkot story.3

[ii] Cf. Zech. 9:9.

[iii] Also known as Mount Olivet.

[iv] Cf. 2 Kings 9:13.

[v] For a thorough yet accessible study of the divergence of Christian & Jewish reception of the messianic hope, see Brettler & Levine’s TheTorah.org essay entitled Psalm 2: Is the Messiah the Son of God?4

[vi] The mainly Jewish crowd would have recognized Ps. 118 as one the psalms recited as part of Hallel—an addition of psalms added to Sukkot, with which Jesus’s entry likely coincided.3

[vii] Jesus’s interpretation of Ps. 118:26.

Raised In Glory (2/20/22)

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Christian Church

Raised in glory, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd

Edited and formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH
2/20/2022

I Corinthians 15:35-38 & 42-50 (NRSV)1

35But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 42So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

 

It’s always important to know your audience. Wouldn’t you agree? If you were a standup comedian working the crowd at nightclubs, you’d likely be aware that your jokes will not be received the same way at clubs in various places around the country. And that’s just comedy clubs and comedy audiences. But think about how different it may feel to deliver the same joke to different age groups, urban or suburban venues, or even abroad, from one country to another. How might people react if you said the same jokes in every instance? Most likely in totally different ways. Why? Because people are unique and have different cultural, generational, religious, and political worldviews. We see things through different [lenses], even if our basic priorities may be the same or similar.

I’ll give you an example. But this one has more to do with physical space/location. I once gave a talk on some of the [Hebrew] prophets. The talk was given at two different churches: one large, traditional-looking with a high pulpit, and with pews at quite a distance, much more so than what we have here at Meadowbrook. The second church was more modern, with lots of glass windows, with no pulpit but rather a modest lectern with a contemporary look to it, and with a significantly more intimate setting where you were close to those in attendance seated in chairs instead of pews.

Now, remember this was the same talk. I didn’t change a single word. I didn’t even change attire or the way I delivered the talk.

So, picture me there, at the first, larger church, delivering this talk loudly, cast outward to people at a distance, using grand gestures, and dressed in a jacket and tie. People seemed to hear what I was saying. It appeared that the content was received by all who were present. And to top it off, I felt that the message was received. Kind of nice when we feel heard, right?

And then the second church, the contemporary one. While I knew the church and pastor, I somehow missed the whole casual attire memo and came way overdressed. A little awkward, but hey, no big deal, I’d survive. Then we begin the talk, and I realize how unbelievably close I am to everyone. It’s almost like if I gestured too broadly, I’d have mistakenly bopped somebody on the head. Also, my delivery was far too grand and emphatically projected. You’d think I was at the Coliseum when in reality folks were just a few feet in front of me. Not feeling there were many good options, I just pressed on, nearly tripping over the display behind me, while yelling out my talk, waving my hands around, and generally looking quite silly. The response? Well, people were interested, but I hope it was more about the prophets than the circus performance I just gave.

So, what happened here? What’s the deal? Why couldn’t this have worked out as I had planned? I neglected to consider and know my audience. Of course, the first talk went well. I walked into it fitting smoothly like a glove. While it’s not necessarily the case that the second one was a complete disaster, it seems clear that my misreading and ham-handed preparation failed to include the necessary adaptations that would enable the talk to be more successfully received by a distinctly different audience and setting.

Ok, so I’ll take myself off the hot seat for the moment here, and don’t worry—you don’t need to go in there, though I’d imagine many of you may empathize with such a mishap as I just described. No, I’d like to kick it over to the Apostle Paul.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is writing some pretty serious yet obscure-sounding stuff. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” “You do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.” “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” What is Paul talking about?

First, we acknowledge the intended audience. Paul is writing a letter to the church in the city of Corinth. Once a great Greek power, Corinth was subdued by the Romans in 146 [BCE].[a] Julius Caesar would later [reestablish] the city in 44 BCE, making it a Roman colony. With its Greco-Roman culture, Corinth both honored Greek traditions and wanted to deepen connections with the imperial Roman base.

Corinth was a mercantile giant known for its wealth stretching back ages. There was a large gap between the rich and the poor in Corinth. Rome was an honor/shame society, with great honor going to those who had honor and shame staying with those kept out. It was respectable to show mercy to the lower class but shameful to associate with them directly. It is in this culture that Paul writes [his first letter to the] Corinthians.

Paul covers many things in his letter to the church in Corinth, but in today’s passage, he speaks of something he holds high above the rest: resurrection, or the state of one rising from the dead.

At that time in the Church, there was a lot of confusion about the resurrection of those who had died. People believed in Jesus’s resurrection but weren’t sure what to make of how it all related to them. Some assumed that the same, present, body they had then, would be the one resurrected when Jesus returns. Paul dug deep and explained—albeit a challenging one. Our body is like a seed that is planted and then rises in full bloom as God so blesses it. Paul explains what he means further, saying that while our present bodies are of the earth like Adam, our resurrection bodies are heavenly like that of the resurrected Jesus, who is understood as the second Adam. One Adam falls while the other one rises. Our earthly bodies, while imperfect and corruptible, fall away. Yet, our heavenly bodies are uniquely perfected and incorruptible and rise. Each of us, blessed to be who we uniquely are, rises.

Paul speaks into that Greco-Roman honor/shame paradigm which the Corinthians see and recognize, showing how the earthly body would fall in dishonor, and the heavenly one would rise in glory. Again, this was a prestigious church in a culture that kept out the lowly, the disenfranchised. They would understand when Paul referenced dishonor and glory. But they may find themselves a bit caught up short, in having their eyes opened to who or what that dishonor and glory was about or who it was for.

In a time [when] glory is reserved for the emperor, one may expect shame to be with those under the empire. But Paul points again to God, saying how the dishonor is of the brokenness of this world, but the glory… the glory belongs to God. And what’s so interesting about that glory, is that it includes you.

“That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” Paul writes, “and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in corruption; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”

Whose power? Maybe some at the Corinthian church weren’t too sure. They thought about God, about Jesus, and the Church, but maybe there was a part of them—no small part of them—that still thought the power was the Empire’s. But God has a way of flipping expectations on end. The weakness is all that is broken in the world. The power is God’s.

So, you can see that if Paul wrote to that church in Corinth as if they were from somewhere else, or even from a different time, or culture… well, they might not even understand what he means to say. Maybe this is why the Holy Spirit works in us the way it does. For we are—each of us—one of a kind, and we must remember that not only did God bless that, but God made that.

The glory is not for those who seek false power that they may flaunt over others. The glory is God’s, and we are invited into it. All of us. May the Lord bless our hearts as we seek to serve and understand in the name of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.

 

[a] As corroborated by Polybius in the introduction to his Histories.

True love, tough love (2/13/22)

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

True love, tough love, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH

2/13/22

 

 

The Gospel According to Luke 6:17-26 (NRSV)1

 

17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

 

In today’s passage from the Gospel [According to] Luke, we witness the beginning of what has often been referred to as Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain or the plateau. Much like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s [gospel] (Matt. 5-7), Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain includes teaching among crowds and disciples. While the Sermon on the Mount is quite vast, covering three whole chapters in Matthew’s [gospel], Luke’s Sermon on the Plain appears in just twenty-nine verses. In both cases, the sick were healed by Jesus. But it is interesting to note that where [the Matthean author] shows Jesus teaching among the crowd and his disciples, Luke’s [author] shows Jesus teaching among the crowd to the disciples.

Why would that be different? we wonder. Well, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the four Gospels were written to different audiences.2–5 Perhaps the authors felt it important to stress certain aspects of the good news over others. Not to suggest they were of less value, but because they stood out as something to highlight when engaging one group of people over another. Truth does not change, but the way we say it might. Have you ever tried to tell the same story to two different kinds of people? Then you know what I mean.

Biblical scholars have long studied the intended audiences and purposes of the Gospels. And while they may not always agree, it helps shed some light on our topic today to keep their observations in mind.

Scholars believe that the Gospel of Luke is the first component of a two-part work with the Book of Acts being the second.6,7 Luke is believed to have been written to engage Gentile Christians living in an urban area.8 Its purpose: to challenge and enable believers to be more devoted to the faith, especially its growth among the marginalized.

Where [the Lukan gospel] is intended for a Gentile Christian audience, Matthew’s is believed to have been written primarily for Jewish Christians,[a] though not exclusively.9,10 It is thought that Matthew’s purpose was to teach a church committed to mission among all people but [which had] internal divisions over Jewish [vs.] Gentile Christianity and [faced] external persecution.

In the passage from the Sermon on the Plain we have today, we witness the inclusion of four beatitudes. Though like those found in Matthew (who lists more than twice as many), Luke’s beatitudes conclude with something quite different: woes. That’s right, woes.

Again, let’s remember that Jesus specifically addresses these words towards his disciples and not to everyone there. So, looking directly at his disciples, he teaches both these beatitudes and these woes. Before we think these were his longtime buddies or childhood friends, we should keep in mind that it was only a few verses prior that Jesus named the Twelve.

While there had been more disciples added over time (yet not much time), Jesus had only just chosen his Twelve Apostles. Luke shows how the apostles, being part of the crowd of his disciples, accompanied Jesus as he healed a great many people from all over. And yet, at the moment of speaking the words of blessing, the beatitudes, he looks at his disciples. He doesn’t look at everyone in the crowd—though we might guess they could hear at least some of what He was saying. Jesus doesn’t even look at his apostles—the Twelve who had only just recently been singled out for their special roles in Jesus’ ministry. No, as curious as it may be to us, Jesus did not direct these beatitudes at everybody, nor did he direct them at only his select few of the faith. What Jesus did was to speak to all his disciples.

Friends, it can, of course, be quite easy to make more of something than there is there. But when it comes to the Gospel, God has a way of inviting us into every detail in every corner of the good news. Each one sparkles with teachings and opportunities to be drawn into God’s word. So, let’s accept that invitation here in our passage from Luke’s [gospel].

Picture yourself there on that day, when Jesus spoke the words, heard the prayers, and healed the pain, the disease. Let’s say you’re a disciple; not part of the crowd that has gathered from all around. Maybe you’re not one of the Twelve, so what. Depending on how close you were and if you could hear all that well, you might have been a little jealous when they were selected, but then again, maybe you were a bit relieved.

So, imagine your surprise when, suddenly, Jesus looks at you and says,

 

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

 

You may have a moment here to think. Luke doesn’t state how quickly Jesus continues, but perhaps you have been thinking in your head as Jesus was speaking. How does he know I’m poor? Can he truly mean that I belong to God’s kingdom? How is that even possible? Or another disciple you know, just a few feet from where you stand, turns to you, and whispers, my family has had very little to eat since I’ve been gone. We’ve seen Jesus heal. Do you think he could really feed my family? Still, someone stands behind you. You can almost hear him shaking his head as Jesus speaks. Phew! He says as he folds his arms. Starting to walk away, he sneers at you, saying through his teeth, you believe this stuff? How are we blessed when someone hates us? You offer an awkward-yet-nervously-polite Yeah, well…

 

“But woe to you who are rich,” Jesus continues, “for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

 

You quickly turn back toward Jesus as you hear the rushing footsteps of that disgruntled guy as he runs off, kicking up his dust as he goes.

Couldn’t he deal with it, that guy? He certainly seemed fine until a few minutes ago. He’d come along with your group of disciples as you followed Jesus out here. Anyway, you shake it off and get focused on Jesus, still mulling over what he had said about the blessings all those in need will receive. If he’s right, you think, and I hope he is, then the only one who could do that is God. That’s got to be it. The empire always makes things worse. Look at Herod! They tell us their truth, but it’s all just lies. They don’t care about us. God cares about us. God is the only one who could do this because God loves us like no other.

As a disciple of Jesus, we are followers of Jesus. So, it may not always be the first thing we think about to see that Jesus speaks directly to us in scripture. Sometimes we can focus so much on doing his work that we don’t hear what Jesus is saying to us as his disciples.

In Luke’s beatitudes and woes, we see two sides of the same theological coin. Speaking to his disciples in need directly, Jesus encourages them by teaching that God’s truth is the most real for them, as it is for all of God’s people. Jesus teaches that those who are impoverished, hungry, and full of sorrow, will see their needs met in God’s Kingdom. You see, God does not give, does not love as the world loves. The world gives to any who can afford it, too often to those who don’t need it. It loves only those who buy into its myths, its cultural liturgies. The world also loves only when you can perform to its expectations. As soon as you falter, you’re on the outs. But with God, it’s an entirely different story; practically the opposite. God loves us for who we are; God made us in God’s image after all. God calls us all to share our unique talents, and so God is glorified in our living out our many, diverse calls. God loves us so much that God wants to be with us. This was the case in the Garden [of Eden], and was the case with all the covenants, kings, prophets, and faithful people of Hebrew scripture. And still, while you would think that anyone or anything would just write us off because we’re not useful to them, God persists in love for us, and Jesus became incarnate by the Holy Spirit to dwell among us. While the world leaves us, God always comes to us.

So, God’s love is true. God’s love is lasting. The world’s is false and is fleeting. But true love doesn’t always mean it’s easy.

Still speaking to you, as that contemplative disciple in the crowd, Jesus tells you, firmly, of the harsh, flipside of the coin. While on one side there is a great blessing for those who are marginalized, on the other side there is great woe for those who have all they could ever want yet still oppress others.

What should we expect of all which is false, a lie, a sham? How could any of it possibly lead us where we should go, where God calls us to go? Indeed, these woes may sound harsh, and they may be harsh. But the only way to overturn a lie is with the truth. And the only way to fully bring the truth out is with love. God shares these tough words of woe out of love for us, not out of a need to scare us or to make us feel bad. If God wanted to, God could easily do so, right? So, here we have tough love from our true God.

It may not be the Valentine’s Day present you wanted, but you can be sure, it’s the one that will always last.

So why would Jesus say these words to us as opposed to the whole crowd? Maybe for Luke, it was more important to highlight, given that Gentile Christians would not have considered themselves as being on the inside, not nearly in the way that most of Matthew’s Jewish Christians would have, anyway. Kind of interesting, isn’t it? Here in Luke, it’s almost as if we already see ourselves included among those in the kingdom. We’ve all been invited to the party. Jesus is so happy to see us there that he’s handed out Valentines, just for you. Then he, quick, tosses over some of those candy hearts to you. Like flipping a coin, you read the back: Be Mine.

Amen.

References:

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Collins AY. Mark and His Readers: The Son of God among Jews. Harvard Theological Review. 1999;92(4):393-408. doi:10.1017/S0017816000017740
  3. Luz U. Matthew 1-7: A Commentary. (Koester H, ed.). Fortress Press; 2007.
  4. Méndez H. Did the Johannine Community Exist? Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 2020;42(3):350-374. doi:10.1177/0142064X19890490
  5. Levine AJ. Luke and the Jewish Religion. Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology. 2014;68(4):389-402. doi:10.1177/0020964314540107
  6. Bird MF. The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion. Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 2007;29(4):425-448.
  7. Gregory A. The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke–Acts. Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 2007;29(4):459-472.
  8. Smith DA. The Jewishness of Luke–Acts: Locating Lukan Christianity Amidst the parting of the Ways. The Journal of Theological Studies. Published online November 6, 2021. doi:10.1093/jts/flab068
  9. Conway-Jones A. The New Testament: Jewish or Gentile? The Expository Times. 2019;130(6):237-242. doi:10.1177/0014524618812672
  10. Ehrman B. The Jewish Emphases of Matthew’s Gospel: Part 3. The Bart Ehrman Blog: The History & Literature of Early Christianity. Published online June 13, 2013.
  11. Fredriksen P. When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation. Yale University Press; 2019.

 

[a] For a great introduction to Jewish Christianity, I suggest Paula Fredriksen’s When Christians Were Jews.11

Released, 1/23/22

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Released, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH

January 23, 2022

 

The Gospel According to Luke, 4:14-21 (NRSV)1         

 

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to (the) Galilee,[A] and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll[B] of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

We learn a lot of things about Jesus in the first few chapters in the Gospel [According to] Luke. Curiously, we witness how the story doesn’t even begin by mentioning Jesus—directly, anyway. Rather, we witness two visits by the [arch]angel Gabriel[C], who shares good yet terrifying news of seemingly impossible, miraculous births: first to Elizabeth—in her older years—and second to the youthful Mary. The Holy Spirit is with both the baby John (Luke 1:15) and Jesus, although it is only Jesus who is conceived by the Spirit (Luke 1:35). Why did John get singled out before Jesus? we wonder.

There’s the famous nativity story of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:1-20; Matt. 1:18-2:12). There’s also the presentation of Jesus at the Temple [in Jerusalem] (Luke 2:22-24), and that time he seemed to be lost in the Temple (Luke 2:46-49). Both times we witness thanks and praise being offered to G-d in connection to the young Jesus. We see that Jesus was unique; that there was something quite special about him.

Now, were we to read these sections of [The Gospel According to] Luke from a cultural view of the centerexclusively (in other words, not from the perspective of those living on the margins of society), then we might be tempted to paint for ourselves easily digestible lessons that do not disrupt our worldview. For example, we might picture docile scenes of delighted parents—except when they lost Jesus in the crowd—who may have even smiled with pride as their child was praised as something special. We might see ourselves as John the Baptizer pointing others to Jesus—as if he couldn’t find them himself as the Son of G-d (Mark 1:1). We might pray to have the devotion of Mary when she prays the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). We may laugh at the fumbling foibles of Zechariah, finding ourselves to have fared better than the old priest who was mute (Luke 1:20) from doubt and who could not speak but only write (Luke 1:63) the name of his newborn son.

Reading the Bible from the cultural center alone, maybe we find that we’re as pleased with ourselves as we feel somehow above it all; that we’re able to approach the Gospel without much to lose—or even that much to gain, for that matter. That John the Baptizer viper business (Luke 3:7) does strike us as a bit distasteful and odd, and the baptism of Jesus paints a serene scene of pretty birds and a proud Dad in the clouds (John 1:32; Mark 1:10; Matt. 3:16; & Luke 3:22). The whole names thing (the genealogy?) seems so abstract and weird (Matt 1: 1-17; Luke 3:23-38, for example). Why do we need to know all these names? Can’t we just skip over this part? Well, it’s possible that we do—especially if learning about the names challenges our worldview or when comparing it to the genealogy in Matthew 1, which is different in some ways from the one in Luke (Luke 3:23-38).

Continuing with our cultural specs, we arrive with Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). Ah, the temptation! The Devil doesn’t know what’s coming to him. Silly question after silly question, Jesus knocks the Devil out, to the point of his just leaving. [It] looks like the Devil is an annoying parasite, so it’s no wonder Jesus didn’t take the bait. Hey, even we think we could have handled that, piece of cake. And here begins Jesus’ worldly ministry in Galilee (Matt. 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 4:14-15), which [the Lukan author] writes for us in today’s Gospel passage. Of course, I’m painting a bit of a caricature, here, right? A simplification of what could easily be anyone’s ‘plain Jane’, milk-white-toast approach to the Bible. Who thinks like this? I don’t know… probably no one. But there is some truth there in the intentional, superficial glossing-over, all of which can happen, or maybe even be encouraged to happen when we read the Bible through only our own eyes. And if we represent the cultural center (of power, influence, and control, that is), then we may end up with a habit of seeing just ourselves or “people like us” in our readings of scripture. And this is dangerous, friends. Because if we only read and think from our perspective, and we are among those with arguably the most power, influence, and control in our city, our state, our nation, our world, well, the most influence will go towards only one group of people, the powerful, barely including, and possiblyexcluding those who live on the margins of society, and by that I mean the margins of American society today.

Still, we might try to justify ourselves, thinking that we mean well or that we pray well, or that we just don’t. want. to. be. made. uncomfortable. But the Bible isn’t directed toward our comfort level (think, the cross). Nor is the Bible about one culture or group of people. The Bible speaks to all people. Just consider how many languages, countries, and different theologies we have in the Church Universal. And not all these faithful are from the cultural center. [The Lord] is praised and sought by countless faithful people living in the margins. And not all of them are White; many are Black.

The [Reformed theologian] John Calvin is often [remembered] as having said that we should view the world through the spectacles of the Bible; to understand and experience the world and our place in it as if using the Bible for glasses.2,3 Of course, it naturally follows that one should be discouraged to view the Bible through the lens of the world. Many reject this out of hand, seeing it as a gateway to revisionism or as a distortion of scripture. And I think they are correct in this assertion. I do believe that we should be approaching the world through the teaching’s invitations and corrections of the Bible, but I would push back on one point. Now, if John Calvin were here to defend himself, he’d likely crush me theologically, but as he’s blessed us to wrestle with his work alone at this time, I would like to just put forward a different spin on this ‘Bible-as-spectacles’ idea. I kindly borrow it from Miguel A. De La Torre, Ph.D., M.P.A., M.A., M.Div., who has written and taught on the topic. Friends, we may all attempt to live in the world by viewing it through the lens of the Bible, but one significant aspect is missing from this line of reasoning: the Bible can still be faithfully read and lived out in the world by people who are different from us. We don’t own the interpretation of the Bible. It is for all G-d’s people.

In his book Reading the Bible from the Margins,4 the Rev. Dr. De La Torre invites members of non-marginalized cultures to consider the ways the Bible is read by members of marginalized [ones]. For example, the invitation here may be for White, affluent, gay men to consider and reflect on the way scripture is read and experienced by Black, impoverished, gay women. What might Black women see in the Bible? What do White men see? How [does one] see the Gospel as one who is advantaged; how [does one] see the Gospel as one who is disadvantaged? How much does who we are impact how we read the Bible? What do we see when we have most all we need, and what do we see when we have next to nothing? I pray that we all can agree that G-d sets people free, that G-d blesses us by faith and by love.

We may thank G-d for the many blessings we have (and it is good and right to do so), but what about when people from marginalized communities do not have access to the same blessings that [we] enjoy—or possibly even take for granted—in communities from the cultural center?

In testifying to G-d’s role as liberator, De La Torre writes how “G-d took the first step in choosing the […] Hebrews so as to tie G-d’s will with the liberation of a politically and socially oppressed people. Just as G-d entrusted the Ten Commandments to this oppressed group so that through them G-d could be revealed to all humanity, so too are the marginalized of society chosen to become the instrument by which G-d the liberator is revealed today.”

While we may feel chosen (or to have chosen ourselves), De La Torre reminds us that it’s not really up to us; it’s G-d who chooses.

In our passage from the [Gospel According to] Luke this morning, we meet Jesus after having become well-known and taught in several synagogues.

Then, Jesus comes to his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16). He went to the synagogue on the sabbath there, but we don’t know how long he was in Nazareth before that.

In the synagogue, Jesus stood to read from the scroll of the Israelite prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:17).5 [He] read from [the Book of] Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Is. 61:1-2—the reading’s full Tanakhic context can be found here.)

After this reading, Jesus sat down and, having their undivided attention, spoke to everyone in the synagogue, saying, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

Now we won’t get into all that follows this when folks get all upset and toss Jesus out for what he said, though it is worth keeping in mind a bit, isn’t it?

Before coming to Nazareth, Jesus had been brought by the Spirit to face the temptation of the Devil (Luke 4:1-13), and despite the great challenge to his health and stamina, Jesus did not succumb to temptation. Rather than to try to claim the power to himself, which as the Son of G-d he easily could have done, Jesus lifted the glory to the Lord G-d (Luke 4:8; Deut. 6:13). This is important because we soon see that Jesus returns to Galilee, where his hometown of Nazareth is; he returns filled with the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14). So, it is here [in] our passage that Luke shows us the Son pointing to the Father by way of the Spirit[D] and entering the familiar: that which he’d have known all while growing up. And Jesus reads and says what he says about Isaiah’s prophecy, and with the benefit of our reading the unity of our triune G-d—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Jesus changes the ball game. G-d has come to deliver the oppressed people; perhaps just as should have been expected.

Easy for us to say, though. Many of us haven’t had to be delivered from anything: helped here and there, sure, but delivered or released, what would we need to be released from? Sure, we may say “from our sins,” and I don’t argue that. While we may have different understandings of it, the Bible brings it before us. But what about the conditions in which we have lived, have people from the cultural center ever needed to be released from anything on a grand scale? How about marginalized communities: how have they needed [to be] released?

To be fully released from systemic oppression, there must first be educated about prior enslavement and/or disenfranchisement of those marginalized. And before any reconciliation can be achieved, in any event, there must be justice. In the case of our present series, racial reconciliation can only be “achieved” between Black and White Americans, when justice is both actualized and realized in the hearts and prayers of the Black community.

Yet what constitutes our understanding of reconciliation may be the very thing tripping us up. Remember our cultural lens can often reveal to us understandings that we want to see, not what is there.

In her 2018 book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,6 Austin Channing Brown writes of several misconceptions we often have about racial reconciliation—specifically, misconceptions we have in White churches. She states that, “a great many people believe reconciliation boils down to dialogue: a conference on race, a lecture, a moving sermon about the diversity we’ll see in heaven. But dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action – when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are marginalized.”

Brown pleads with us [i.e., the readers] to understand how “reconciliation demands more. Reconciliation is the pursuit of the impossible – an upside-down world where those who are powerful have relinquished that power to the margins. […] Reconciliation is what Jesus does. When sin and brokenness and evil tore us from G-d, it was Jesus who reconciled us, whose body imagined a different relationship, who took upon himself the cross and became peace.”

Sisters and brothers, the Gospels proclaim a Christ who is as much of heaven as he is of this gritty earth. He is born into humility to two parents in need of explaining themselves to the powers that be. Born by the Spirit, with an entire earthly ministry in the Spirit, Christ Jesus throws himself on the line; repeatedly throws himself before us; heals us; gives food for us; cures us; raises us to life; jumps in front of the world’s judgment to take the blow of the stones thrown in hypocrisy… Jesus goes to the cross for us. He goes to the cross for all of us.

When we first picture Jesus at his home synagogue in Nazareth, it can be hard to grasp all that follows. But G-d ordained it, and Jesus became incarnate to deliver G-d’s people. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

As we approach the topic of racial reconciliation with humility, may we ask ourselves who we’re doing it for. The Bible can be read through lenses of all kinds, and its truth remains for all to witness.

When you require being released there is only one reason for the need: you are being held back against your will.

Friends, may we be more than mindful in considering the role we play in racial reconciliation between Black and White Americans. No one feels free when they say they are not. Assumptions should not be made from the center, anywhere. Jesus came to love his people at the margins, and he released them. We need to keep following him. And we should probably try new glasses. [But] let’s not throw ours away. Keep them; they’re yours. Maybe we can just borrow some other ones from friends we know and from friends we will make.

G-d bless you and may G-d bless us all to be faithful witnesses through Jesus [the] Christ.

Amen.

 

References:

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Calvin J. The need of scripture, as a guide and teacher, in coming to G-d as a creator. In: Beveridge H, ed. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol 1. Calvin Translation Society; 1846.
  3. Lischer R. The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; 2002.
  4. de La Torre M. Reading the Bible From the Margins. 1st ed. Orbis Books; 2002.
  5. de Jong MJ. Isaiah Among The Ancient Near Eastern Prophets: A Comparative Study of the Earliest Stages of the Isaiah Tradition and the Neo-Assyrian Prophecies. In: Vestus Testamentum Supplements. Vol 117. Brill Academic Publishers; 2007:13-17.
  6. Brown AC. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. 1st ed. Convergent Books; 2018.

 

Endnotes:

[A] That is, the region spanning from modern Lebanon’s southern mountains in the north; to the Jordan River, Golan Heights, and Sea of Galilee in the east; to the west by the Mediterranean; and by the Jezreel Valley in the south.

[B] Traditionally, the Hebrew Bible, of which the book of Isaiah is a member, is written on scrolls.

[C] Heb. גַּבְרִיאֵל; meaning, “Adonai is my strength.” Jewish tradition names Gabriel as one of the two archangels (the other being Michael) charged with defending the Israelites, and his protection is requested in the bedtime Shema liturgy. Gabriel is also credited with interpreting the prophet Daniel’s prophecies (Dan. 8:16) and waging Adonai’s war on the Assyrians (Sanh. 95b).

[D] That is, he indirectly depicts the doctrine of the Trinity. For the philosophical foundations of trinitarianism, see Tuggy’s entry titled Trinity in theStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Wisdom

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Wisdom, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd

Edited and formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH

January 9, 2022

 

The Gospel According to Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)1

 

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

 

What does it mean to be wise? Is it simply when someone is considered smart and makes informed decisions? Often, we can think of the old as being wise while the young have so much yet to learn. Perhaps the most important thing we should consider here is who defines wisdom. Whereas many see themselves as wise, the [Biblical authors] warn against [doing so]; calling us instead to fear the Lord and to shun evil. In our passage from Matthew 2, we witness the actions of the wise. Maybe we should hold close to scripture then, trying our best to view wisdom through the Bible’s lens.

This morning, we begin a new discussion. It may be a new discussion [to us], but it focuses on a tragically unresolved and long-neglected concern. Yet, not a small concern, nor one which does not include all of us. Doubtless, some may bristle at its mention, and others may fold their arms and think, “what is this pastor talking about?” “This doesn’t involve me; I wasn’t alive back then!” “Everyone is free to do as they please; no one is held back.” “It’s equal, right?!”

When we consider the topic of race in America, it can become emotional. It can put us out of our comfort zone. We either fear being blamed, or we avoid having to take any responsibility. Proverbs 11:30 (NIV)2 says that “the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.” It [does not] say to make excuses.

Since we’re all made in God’s image, we’ve all been made good. God wants us to continue to be good, to do good; not just for ourselves or for God’s sake, but also one another. So maybe we are busy. Do we need to spend the rest of our lives—every waking moment—on one issue of concern over all [others]? Probably not. The prophets weren’t preaching all the time. The early Church served in many capacities. Even Jesus took time to rest and to just be with his friends. Nobody is asking that we give more time than we have. And no one is expecting that we fix everything.

But racial reconciliation does have a way of grabbing hold of our hearts, doesn’t it? Kind of makes us wonder, what are we spending all our time on? When does Jesus ask us to call it quits and just do whatever we want with the rest of our time on earth? When does Jesus just say we have too much on our plate always, that there is never any time to serve beyond our perceived capacity?

The answer is never, of course, to all these questions. Jesus does, [however,] call on us to make sacrifices, but he doesn’t ask us to be experts on every topic. Scripture shows that we are called to share our unique gifts (1 Pet. 4:10; Rom. 12:6). Yet, above all, Jesus calls us to love God, and to care [and] love one another (Mrk. 12:30-31). And so, I hope you’ll not judge me too harshly, and that you’ll join me on this humble journey as we consider racial reconciliation with this being our first step in this series.

In his book The Color of Compromise,3 Jemar Tisby, PhD, extends an encouraging invitation to join the dance of racial reconciliation, even without knowing all the steps. “So many of us fear that we will get it wrong,” Tisby writes, “we worry that we do not know enough yet, that our good intentions may have unintended consequences, or that the very people we seek to serve will rebuke us for our ignorance or missteps. We know that no one can assure us that such things will not happen. Standing for justice and racial reconciliation involves risk. Like all other skills, we can learn, and we can get better. And we can do this together. We acknowledge that we cannot read our way, listen our way, or watch our way into being faithful servants for racial [reconciliation]. At some point, we must act.”

This morning, we re-hear one of the most memorable passages of the New Testament, the story of the wise men who travel to meet the young Jesus. Before digging into the entire passage and how it speaks into the topic of racial reconciliation (specifically, the reconciliation of Black and white Americans), let’s first consider a few things that can help us live into this great event in the Gospel [According to] Matthew.

For starters, [the Gospel According to] Matthew is the only book of the [New Testament] to share this story. Sure, many passages mention “the wise” [and] “wisdom,” but only [the Matthean author] speaks of “wise men” (Matt. 2:7) as we know them.

In various English translations, the wise men are often referred to as the magi. While it may seem like an unusual word, magi is more faithful to the original Greek μάγοι (from the root μάγος), which, interestingly has several meanings itself. The ancient Greek world understood μάγος to mean a member of the Persian priestly caste whose religious ideas were influenced by philosophy, or a magician among other things.

In Judaism, μάγος is a loan word for magician, which the Hebrew people would have been forbidden to associate with (b. Shabbat 75a).4 In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, μάγος is used in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2:2, 4:4, & 5:15), indicating the possessor of the religious and magical arts of Babylonian mediators between the “higher powers” and mankind. Many modern English translations understand μάγος to be astrologer.

Back in Matthew 2, we witness the challenge of discerning which definition is the most faithful, the most accurate. Were magi [specifically] Babylonian astrologers or astrologers, in general? Magicians or philosophical priests? Were they from Persia or somewhere else? (When I briefly visited the Sultanate of Oman in the Arabian Peninsula a few years ago, I was surprised to learn the history of both myrrh and frankincense there. Frankincense is sap from trees that grow in southern Oman and northern Yemen.) Either way, the magi appear to have come from the east of Jerusalem, and they were widely considered to be smart people of influence.

Matthew shows how magi came to Jerusalem in search of the baby born to be King of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). They followed signs and knew “this” was about the right place. Herod found out about this and was deeply troubled, this would have been a big threat to his power. Sending the magi off to Bethlehem, Herod asked them to let him know where Jesus was (Matt. 2:8), lying through his teeth as to the reason he’d like to visit the child. The magi continue to follow the star, their sign, and they enter the house where Jesus was with joy (Matt 2:9). There they gave Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they paid him homage (Matt. 2:11). A dream warned them of Herod, and they left another way (Matt 2:12).

Yet these wise men, these magi, could arguably have gone anywhere else, or have been more interested in someone else. They were intelligent, influential leaders. So why would they travel so far to pay homage to a refugee Hebrew child? To our knowledge, the magi weren’t early Christians, and they weren’t Jews.[A] So how could they have known they should embark on this journey; this unknown journey of a surprising faith? What did any of this have to do with their being wise? Where [was] God in all of this? I would say God was everywhere; God was the reason; and, by reasserting wisdom as God’s own, God sent God’s people on a journey to point the whole world to the love God has for all people and to express how that love not only ends brokenness but also effects authentic reconciliation.

Nikole Hannah-Jones [and The New York Times Magazine] created The 1619 Project, [an anthology of essays] published at the end of 2021.5 Subtitled A New Origin Story, 1619 surveys the legacy of slavery and how it has continued to impact the lives of Black Americans. The project takes its title and content from August 1619, the [year] the very first African captives were taken to America, arriving in Virginia on a ship called the White Lion. With poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and photographs, Hannah-Jones and fellow contributors offer a striking, relevant rehearing of the lasting effects which are so pervasive in American culture that they’ve nearly become invisible. Invisible to many white Americans, that is.

With many of the founders being slaveholders in the time of the American Revolution, historians have remarked that “slaveholding Patriots went to war in 1775 and declared independence [against England] in 1776 to defend their rights to own slaves.” While countless white Americans have approached what has all too often been labeled “the Negro problem” or “the Black problem” in the U.S., Hannah-Jones explains how the statistical focus has been primarily on things like “poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and college attendance,” almost as if to dismiss the most important lens with which to view them: that Black people were enslaved in America longer than they have been free. It’s worth pointing out that, depending on how you view the numbers, and what your definition is of “free,” Black Americans have arguably only been free some decades after having been enslaved for centuries. How can that not matter?

Here, just a few days after Epiphany, when we picture the magi who seek the Christ [as a] child, we must wonder what they were looking for. We don’t know where they came from—specifically anyway. We may not even be that sure how much they came together or whether they knew one another or not. But we do they followed the signs to Jesus. Jesus “called” the magi to himself, they gave offerings, and they [received]—perhaps we see no small amount of our worship service here.

Yet the next part, the part we don’t see much about in the magi, is what happens when we are drawn to Jesus. Jesus the Christ would go on to show, in many ways, that all who are called to his love are then sent to live his love into the world. This is the wisdom of God; not in our own eyes, but the words of the Word made flesh, that we are called from wherever we may be to give to Jesus the Christ and to give as he gave.

Sisters and brothers, may we, regardless of our racial [or ethnic] ancestry, be encouraged to join in being witnesses for racial reconciliation and to walk in loving solidarity with all Black Americans. While we may never be prepared or feel strong enough to do so, we may know most certainly that Jesus is and has always been. While the Christ child drew the wise to himself as they bore him gifts and adoration, the risen Christ sent his mourning disciples to be his love to all people, all to the glory of God.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” proclaims the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 60:1), “and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” May we always know that Jesus is with his people; and may we live each day like we believe it. Amen.

 

References

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Biblica Inc. The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. 4th ed. Zondervan; 2011.
  3. Tisby J. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Zondervan; 2020.
  4. Jastrow M. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. Vol 1. Luzac & Co.; 1903.
  5. Hannah-Jones N, The New York Times Magazine. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. (Roper C, Silverman I, Silverstein J, eds.). One World; 2021.
  6. Boyce M. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. 2nd ed. Routledge; 2002.
[A] Most scholars of biblical history agree the three were Zoroastrian priests based on the historical contextual origin of magi.6

Fearless

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Fearless, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited and formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH
December 12, 2021

 

The Gospel According to Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)1

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin[a] engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The LORD is with you.”  29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus[b]. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the LORD will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

The faith of the young Mary is virtually unmatched in the Biblical witness—save for her son, Jesus, of course.

Sure, [some were] healed with amazing faith and many who came to strong faith in time. And we might give Noah some credit: he obeyed God and participated in a renewed population on earth. But Noah was much older than Mary; the flood destroyed the bad guys, and he had an ark. Mary, [on the other hand,] mainly had her faith and would have to live to see her son killed. No one else [was reported having been] conceived by the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:35). Sure, John [the Baptizer] had it (faith, that is), but Jesus was conceived by it or took on His humanity by it. And no one else gave birth to the savior of the world while still so young.

Just consider for a moment how many other people had been visited upon—either by God or God’s messengers—to give them a charge, to call them to participate. And then think [about] how many of them balked or even tried to avoid the call in one way or another.

Sarah, when she learned of the promise of pregnancy in her old age, well… she laughed at the idea, perhaps finding it ridiculous (Gen. 18:12). Moses didn’t feel qualified to do what God had asked him to do. Jonah tried to run away from God. Sure, some of the disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus, but they also wrestled with doubt when the rubber met the road later.

But Mary, when she is visited by the angel Gabriel (Lk. 1:26) and learns the most amazing news, believes—she has faith. Scholars make much fuss over the comparisons between Zechariah and Mary, but one thing to highlight is that the elder priest (i.e., Zechariah), with access to the Holy Place[c] in the Temple—literally right next to the presence of God (Ex. 26:33-34; Ex. 25:8)—when he receives God’s word through the angel, he doubts and asks for a sign. Mary, well… she is quite young; is not yet married and is of no status of any importance. She has no access to a place of importance, either. And despite this, the angel comes to her, and it is she who responds with faith, not Zechariah.

When the angel speaks, Mary is not troubled because of doubt. Rather, she is unsure of what to make of such an unusual greeting. How would you react if an angel came and greeted you like royalty, noting your favored status with God? We [must] remind ourselves that Mary did not have a highborn status. She would have had no reason to expect such a greeting.

Perhaps the biggest news any human being had ever been delivered was shared there, in Nazareth, to a young [woman] named Mary. She learned that, while of no special status herself, her son would be of great importance, perhaps beyond what she could imagine at that moment—but we might give her the benefit of the doubt.

After sharing all the amazing things which will soon happen to her and her son, the angel informs Mary that Elizabeth, her older relative, will also [bare] a child despite Elizabeth’s known history of [infertility]. [By] sharing this bit of nearly equally stunning family news, the angel is continually building the case for the ceaseless wonders God can achieve. Nothing limits what God can do. As the angel says: “no word from God will ever fail.” (Lk. 1:37)

And now, if this were a movie, the camera would shift directly to Mary as the audience anxiously waits for her response, her reaction. We’ve heard from Gabriel and the great case the angel has made. And we recall all those cautious and uncertain responses from those who had their doubts. But what we have from Mary is something quite different. As beautiful as it is bold, the words of Mary’s witness come to us; “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38)

Mary is fearless and she believes. She trusts in the word given to her by God’s angel. Mary is shockingly able to not only grasp the richness of the angel’s message but also able to take responsibility and action in the moment. She not only trusts the angel, but Mary also trusts God and God’s promise for all that is yet to come in the life of her son.

Friends, while Mary would have had ample reason for alarm, she trusted God and was fearless. She [was] a truly great example to us of the picture of faith, where we find encouragement to not only talk the talk but most importantly to walk the walk. As you live into this Advent season, may you be reminded of Mary’s fearless action, for God invites us, each one of us, to participate. May we do so with faith and love for God and all God’s people. Amen.

 

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.

 

[a] Debated. Cf. Isaiah 7:14: ‘almâh (הָֽעַלְמָ֗ה); strictly, “a young woman of marrying age.” Běthûlâh (בְּתוּלָה) would be more consistent with Luke’s and Matthew’s parthenos (παρθένος).

[b] Gk.:  Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous); Heb.: יֵשׁוּעַ (Y’shua).

[c] Lk. 1:10 puts Zechariah amid the daily incense offering. The altar of incense was located within the Holy Place—the section of the Second Temple immediately preceding the Holiest of Holies.

Endless

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Endless, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH

December 19, 2021

 

The Book of Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)1

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority[a] rests upon his shoulders; and he[b] is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

 

Haven’t we all experienced times felt [would] never end? Maybe there is the pained smile of surviving a business dinner that never seems to provide an appropriate time for you to bail out. Or the times you’ve felt so bad that you just want the day to end; for tomorrow’s promise to eclipse the suffering of today. Or perhaps you have worked hard your whole life for this one chance, this one opportunity, only to see the small window close: crushing your aspirations and dreams, along with your heart.

Friends, there are—without a doubt—many experiences we survive which seem to have no end in sight; they can quite often cast a shroud over our deepest hopes, plans—over the things we hold most dear. And, without attempting a false apples-to-apples comparison, can’t we see just how much of this associates “endlessness” with the negative, painful experiences of our lives? We might think, hey, why do only the awful things feel like they have no end? Why not have the joyful, fulfilling things easily feel so everlasting in our daily lives?

Indeed, what kid [doesn’t] wish [that] playing with a favorite toy [will] last forever? What child ever wants to leave a best friend’s [or] Grandma and Grandpa’s house? What adult wants their hard-earned vacation to end? Who [would] possibly want to witness the end of the love they have received? If I may be so bold, I’d hazard a guess that we don’t. We don’t want the love… the beauty in our lives to end. And, without a doubt, we do want the bad things—the injustice, the prejudice, anger, divisiveness, the danger—to end. Lord! have mercy. God [certainly] knows how much we want these bad things to end… Christ! have mercy. If not for ourselves, at least for someone else, maybe even for someone who may desperately need it more than we do. Lord! have mercy.

But this is us. These are the wants, longings, and desires of people. Flawed as we may be, each one of us has the hope that we matter; that what we do and who we are all will have mattered when all is said and done. Sure, we [understand] that toward one another we [often] behave poorly. We can hurt each other’s feelings [or] neglect one another. We can harbor deep resentment, implicit bias, or outwardly expressed hatred. We can even gather to oppress one another—not just once, but for generations, nearly to the point beyond memory.

Oh boy, how we’ve messed it up. I’ve messed up. You’ve messed up. The yous and mes of a decade, century, a millennium ago…we’ve all messed up, and in the process messed it up. With the Bible as our witness, we’ve been at this brokenness thing a long time.

You see, we want our joys, our fun time, to rein over the joys, even the [very] freedom, of others. Somehow, we come to think that only our positive experiences should be endless. And it’s so easy to deny it, to look the other way, to keep our heads down and duck when the messiness [and] problems of the world fly toward us.

But you know what? When we duck, that nonsense doesn’t just go away. No, it hits someone else straight in the face. Maybe they thought you’d be a real friend; that you’d warn them about the brokenness; that you’d even be brave enough to walk alongside them—if not taking the full brunt of it, at least providing some sort of shelter [or] some sanctuary for them. And why shouldn’t they expect that?

Friends, when we forget the problems of the beginning, we don’t easily remember them later. Buried in the hearts of those long since dead, the sins of brokenness go back to [the] first [book][c] of Hebrew scripture, when we thought we knew better than God. Tricked by the serpent? (See Gen. 3.) Possibly. But we sometimes lie to ourselves, don’t we? Maybe we want to be tricked, so we don’t have to feel the guilt of shamelessly neglecting our responsibility; we pull the wool over our own eyes.

In today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah,[d] we are met with one of what is largely considered to be the strongest references to the foretelling of Jesus [of Nazareth] as [the Jewish] messiah. Fans of Handel’s beloved Messiah will recall how the oratorio includes a well-known movement on this passage: “For unto us a child is born.” In his commentary on Isaiah,2 biblical scholar, [academic], author, [and United Church of Christ pastor] the Rev. Walter Brueggemann, Th.D., Ph.D., invites us to see in this passage a great Davidic newness. In the Church, we may not always see this passage through [its original, Israelite lens], so it may be helpful to be reminded of a few things here. (1) Isaiah is directing this passage to Judah—the southern people of what had become a divided kingdom. The “darkness” of Judah was the failure and injustice of the rule of Ahab. Thus, (2) the “great light” points to a new time when peace and justice would reign. Many[e] find that this passage refers to the future King Hezekiah. While this may point to Hezekiah, Brueggemann indicates that the passage need not be limited in connection to the great king alone. Instead, we witness that God, “through a human Davidic king, will create a wondrous new possibility for Judah that is unqualified and unconditional.”

While at the beginning we see mainly God as actor and creator of Judah’s newness, near the end of this passage we learn that “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority[f] rests upon his shoulders.” A new king is to sit on David’s throne, “and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” [To Christians] this indicates Hezekiah [as well as] in Jesus the Christ [later].

It also speaks to our present, where we may bear witness to God’s call for renewal. “…Even…rehearing with reference to Jesus is not exclusive. Alongside that, we may entertain many rehearings in which new human agents enact the light that shines in the darkness.” (From Brueggemann’s commentary cited below.)

Friends, while we do feel that brokenness will be endless (and that feeling is valid!), Isaiah reminds us that this is not something that is forever. God’s love and zeal to bring about good are as eternal as God. What does it mean to believe in God’s endless peace which only God can achieve? Well, for me it is a reminder that God works through people to achieve these ends. “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.” (Is. 9:7) The only thing that is endless here is the peace for the throne and kingdom. Note: not a peace that we want [made] of whatever we want—and certainly not a false peace that brokenness paints prettily. Rather, the endless peace which God achieves [by] those charged with the task [of bringing it]. It is sacrifice; it is hard! But the difficulty is not endless, [and they who are called will not be abandoned.] This true peace—this endless peace—will be established and upheld “with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Is. 9:7)

Sisters and brothers, bad things and bad times will end. They do not stand a chance [against] God. [Yet] we are not off the hook: God calls us to keep working; to keep working for tomorrow. May we follow the King; for someday, on God’s timing, that tomorrow will be always.

 

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Brueggemann W. Isaiah 1-39. Westminster John Knox Press; 1998.

 

[a] Heb., misrah (government).

[b] The child is the future King Hezekiah, according to both Rashi and ibn Ezra in their commentaries on the Tanakh.

[c] That is, Bereshit; more commonly known as Genesis.

[d] Heb. translit., Yeshayahu (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ‎).

[e] E.g., Rashi and Ibn Ezra above.

[f] Lit., government.

To give our lives

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church 

To give our lives, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH

October 17, 2021

 

Isaiah 53:4-6 (NRSV)1 

4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

 

I’m not going to preach about what you think I will this week. Or, that is, I will not preach about it in the way you may expect me to.

Earlier this past week, I received a notification on my phone. Normally, I just take a glance at things like this. Detroit Lions score. State politics updates. A note telling me that I’m almost over my data limit (hey, I’m cheap!). But this one was different. Now, I suspect that many of you received it as well. It [read]: starting Oct. 24, 2021, you must dial the area code for all calls. This change supports 988 as the new 3-digit code to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.[a]

Wow, I thought to myself. For our phones to look different each year is one thing, but here we are changing how numbers are dialed, for millions of people.

Now, some of you may think, so what? no big deal. We’ve been nearly dialing with area codes anyway, for quite some time.

But what’s so different about this is the reason for the change.

The simple fact is that suicide has grown to become such a rising problem that it is broadly considered a national public health issue.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers some sobering facts: suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Americans aged 10–34 and the tenth leading cause of death overall in the U.S. The overall suicide rate in the U.S. has increased by 35% since 1999, [and roughly] 46% of those who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition. While nearly half of individuals who die by suicide have a diagnosed mental health condition, research shows that 90% experienced symptoms. [Just under 5%] of all adults, 18.8% of high school students, and 46.8% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students have serious thoughts of suicide each year. Transgender adults are nearly twelve times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, and suicide is the leading cause of death for people held in local jails.

[Most] people may not be comfortable addressing the topic of mental health—let alone suicide—seeing it all as taboo, perhaps especially in the Church.

But you know what? It is being talked about in churches. Mainline, denominational, [and] nondenominational. Conservative. Liberal. Historic. Church plant, and anything in between. And I think that this is good; talking about it. I wish I could take credit for the saying, but someone once said to me: isn’t it funny how we avoid hard topics in church in hopes of them not impacting us, or wishing they’d go away? Isn’t the Church the very first place hard things should be discussed, with love, understanding, and courageous faith?

In our passage from the Gospel according to Mark this morning, James and John ask Jesus to do something amazing for them. They ask that he grant them to sit, one at his right hand and one at his left, in his glory (Mk 10:35-37). In response, Jesus communicates to them how while they may be able to follow in some of his footsteps, that’s not how it works in knowing where people go at the end (Mk 10:38-40). Hard as it must have been for James and John to understand, Jesus shows how God prepares that place for people. It is not for them to worry about or to work for themselves.

Of course, this whole thing makes the other disciples mad at James and John (Mk 10:41). Who did they think they were, trying to get special treatment; to take such a prominent place above everyone else?

Jesus uses this as a teaching moment, showing that while others may try to be top dog over everyone, this isn’t the way things play out for them: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43b-45).

Where James and John are too focused on their desire for stature, Jesus tells them they’re off base. He came to serve, not to be a big shot. He also came to give up his own life so that others would be forgiven and free.

And yet, true as this is, we wonder, how can it be that even though we have been forgiven, we still so often do not feel free? Strong as our faith may be in Jesus, we continue to experience life in the throes of mental illness. Why feel so incredibly bad all the time? Why have thoughts of hurting ourselves, or hurting ourselves? Why is it that even though the Son of Man has served us and freed us do we continue to fall into deep darkness, into the spiral of suicidal ideation? After, all we’re not trying to take the top spot. We may barely expect to make it beyond the halfway mark. Why would Jesus have died for our sakes when we continue to feel like dying ourselves?

And, friends, we know that this applies to folks both inside and outside the Church.

For years, people with mental illness have been marginalized and cast away, hidden out of the light of day, and locked into the darkness of night. And I’ll switch to “we” here because this issue addresses so many of us and our families. We have been treated as abnormal, as less than human, and demon-possessed. Those who have all too often taken the upper hand have not been merciful. They have not served us. They have barely attempted to understand us. Those who claim to have power and influence have kept us from being served, have tried to stamp us out, like an inconvenient insect crawling on the floor.

Friends, it has only been recently that mental illness has been approached with a broader sense of understanding and care. I once served as a music therapist at a Queens-based day treatment center for adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness. At that time, there were many sisters and brothers in the program who had come from Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. In the early 1970s, investigative reporting found scandalous problems at Willowbrook, including abuse, neglect, and overcrowding, to name a few. After leaving Willowbrook, many of my friends in music class exhibited institutionalized behaviors from their time at Willowbrook. Screaming, violent, and abusive sexual behavior were all a part of being institutionalized. I even had a friend in class who was institutionalized simply for the fact that he was blind and spoke Spanish. Friends, I wish I could tell you that such abuse of beautiful people ceased many years ago, but I know that what I just described to you was only a couple of decades ago.

Of course, I do not intend to equate developmental disability with mental illness. Nor do I mean to suggest that all mentally ill are suicidal. And I also am not suggesting that all suicide is the result of mental illness. It’s just that, while so much has been finally brought to light about development disability and mental illness, we know there’s a long way to go in understanding and blessing one another. As for suicide, however, it largely remains a heartbreaking mystery, encased in stigma, denial, and shame.

Much of these negative views take their root from perhaps well-tended people referring to the Bible. While always a great place to start, the Bible, we well know, can be read in ways that reveal the desire of the reader as opposed to the text. And so people would cite examples from the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) among other cherry-picked passages to highlight a perceived condemnation from God toward those who have completed suicide. Some may say that suicide is an unforgivable sin because one cannot repent of the act.

While many of us have been led to believe certain harsh things about how the Bible addresses suicide, and I respect the diversity of thought, it may come as a bit of a surprise to see what careful, self-exploration of scripture may yield on the traumatizing, heartbreaking problem of suicide.

In a 2005 study [titled] Suicides and suicide ideation in the Bible, [German psychiatrist Horst J.] Koch, M.D., Ph.D., M.F.P.M., D.C.P.S.A., shows how he aimed to “summarize all data on suicidal behavior reported in the Bible and to discuss basic implications for medical ethical positions. All books of the Jerusalem Bible, including the Apocrypha, accepted in the Catholic canon, were searched for all cases of suicide, attempted suicide, and suicidal ideation clearly identifiable as such. The Bible including the Apocrypha reports about 10 completed suicides and 11 cases of suicide attempts or ideation. The Bible considers human life as a divine gift but suicide per se is neither condemned nor approved. Those suffering from suicidal thoughts are treated with respect and support is offered. Theological teaching on suicide was influenced for centuries by the biased negative opinion of the early fathers of the church and scholastic savants, but these opinions are not substantiated by a thorough reading of the Bible.”2

Writing in Christianity Today [in 2000], Lewis Smedes, B.D., Th.D., offered the following:  “the Bible does not seem to condemn suicide. There are, I think, six accounts of suicide in the Bible, the most notorious being those of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:2-5) and Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). Others are Abimelech (Judges 9:50-54), Samson (Judges 16:23-31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20). As far as I can tell, none of the six is explicitly condemned for taking his life. Some say that suicide cannot be forgiven because the person who did it could not have repented to doing it. But all of us commit sins that we are too spiritually cloddish to recognize for the sins they are. And we all die with sins not named and repented of.”

Aside from the inspiration from the scripture text, my phone notification, our stewardship theme, Together in Jesus, and September being Suicide Prevention Month, I should share my own experience with suicide. There has been a suicide in my own family. When I was a boy, my best friend’s dad committed suicide. Years later, as young adults, that friend committed suicide. Now, maybe you have stories of your own, or even stirrings or struggle in your own heart. Friends, there is hope.

Sisters and brothers, neither you, nor I, nor anyone make nor is making the case that suicide is good. No one would suggest such a thing and the pain and trauma it brings to those who remain behind. Suicide is a horrific and dreadful thing. And yet, friends…and yet, it is a thing, for now, at least. And we know it has been around for thousands of years. Rather than condone, dismiss, or deny its existence, it is my prayer that we walk side by side together, as we seek love and understanding. I pray that the acknowledgment of God’s ever-present, undeterred blessing be upon any who suffer from suicide, attempts, or ideation, including the family and friends who surround us.

Though James and John are bent on claiming their spot in the good seats, Jesus reminds them and us that we are not called to seek good for ourselves but rather to do good and be good for others. For Jesus is that Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for the many. And we, through all our challenges, are the many. And for all these painful challenges, we have the words which [the author of the epistle] gave us in Romans 8:38-39: “for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Thank you, Jesus. For we are all together in you. AMEN.

 

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Koch H. Suicides and suicide ideation in the Bible: an empirical survey. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 2005;112(3):167-172. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2005.00567.x

 

[a] If you or someone you love are/is contemplating suicide or suffering from suicidal ideation, please see the Lifeline for help.

Loving through loss

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church 

Loving through loss, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH
October 31, 2021

 

Of the many challenging things that this time of pandemic has brought us, perhaps the most painful and difficult to accept is loss. We have all experienced it in one form or another: be it the loss of togetherness; of work, school, income, or safety; or the loss of life. [Of] course, all loss takes a toll on us. We might wonder if it matters whether we have experienced one form of loss [versus] another. After all, every loss impacts us. All loss leads to grief and pain. Yet some losses can leave us destitute, falling to the depths of despair. And yes, folks, this is true even of people in the Church just as it is in other faith traditions. We all feel pain when struck.

In our passage from the Book of Ruth,1 we pick up seemingly right where the previous book[a] left off. We often do not picture Ruth being placed so close to the Pentateuch—the five books attributed to the prophet Moishe—in the Hebrew Bible, but it does, in fact, immediately follow the Book of Judges.

[Of] course, all you Bible fans will recall that for many years Israel didn’t have a king. It wouldn’t be until Saul that a king reigned in Israel (1 Sam.). [Later, a] young David would go on not only to defeat the giant Goliath but to be [anointed] the second king of Israel [by the prophet Samuel]. (1 Sam. 16:12-13) At the end of the Book of Ruth (Ruth 4:13-17), we learn that David was Ruth’s great-grandson, thus connecting Ruth with arguably the greatest king of Israel.

Yet Judges depicts a time without kings. Ruth, too, is set in a time with no kings. But while Judges shows us so much violence and lawlessness in response to the same, the Book of Ruth shows us only virtuous and honorable responses to the problems [they] faced. And these problems were not small. When there was a famine in Judah, Elimelech went to Moab with his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion (Ruth 1:1). Interestingly, the name Elimelech (אֱלִימֶלֶךְ) means “God [or my God] is king,” while Mahlon (מַחְלוֹן) and Chilion (כִּלְיוֹן) mean “sickness” and “destruction” or “wasting,” respectively.  

We soon learn that Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died in Moab and that her sons married Orpah and Ruth who were both from Moab, where they now lived for a decade (Ruth 1:4). Tragically, [the author writes that both] Mahlon and Chilion have died, leaving Orpah and Ruth to be widows (Ruth 1:5). Having already lost her husband, Naomi now loses her two sons.

Hearing that conditions had changed in Judah, Naomi headed there with Orpah and Ruth (Ruth 1:6). At some point on the way, Naomi’s conscience kicked in and she told her daughters-in-law to just go back to Moab where they could find another husband (Ruth 1:8). It was useless to go on with her, she thought. What could she do? She couldn’t have any more sons who would then grow into future husbands (Ruth 1:11). It didn’t even seem likely that she could remarry again, anyway (Ruth 1:12). It would just be herself, a lonely, grieving widow, whose children had all passed, too. Perhaps Naomi felt that the only good thing left she could do was to release Orpah and Ruth so that maybe at least they’d be happy.

And haven’t we felt that way, too? So down that the only thing [to do is] attempt to push those around [us] toward something happier in hopes that [we] might not drag them down with [us].

This is what loss can feel like.

When we have suffered through tragedy, we are not the same on the other side. Sometimes we wish we could go back—wouldn’t it be great if things could be “normal” again?  Other times, we just go ahead anyway, steeling ourselves for the journey [back] to where we came from—perhaps with no small amount of denial rolling around in the back of our head.

No doubt—we’ve experienced loss in our lives, both as individuals and as a group. Along with previously mentioned losses, we might add ones that have had a broader impact like the present COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, mass shootings, [and] the tragic attacks of 9/11—all of which have a greater impact, contributing to the pain of loss felt by millions of people.

One of the other challenges of loss is that while we may feel a loss of the past, we can also internalize the sense of a lost future. We might think, how can I go on? And yet, before we too quickly dismiss ourselves here, I believe it is important to name what’s behind this question. If we were to fully ask this question, it may sound more like this: How can I go on without him? Or how can I go on, knowing that my job is gone? Or even, how can I go on when I feel this bad?

Perhaps more important is who we ask these questions to. Are we pondering this in our mind, asking a therapist or loved one, or are we asking this question of God? Healthy as the former ones may be, if we bring hard questions like this to God, well… it becomes more of a prayer, and prayer reminds us of God; and God has heard all of our cries, and He has loved us through all of them, through all pain, suffering, and loss.

“Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I were even to have a husband tonight and also give birth to sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is much more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has come out against me.”

When first [hearing her] words, we’d probably think that Orpah and Ruth will just agree with Naomi and go back to Moab. But they don’t—or at least one of them doesn’t.

“And they raised their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. Then she said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” (Ruth 1:14-15)

There is no doubt that Orpah has grieved as much as the others. We can picture her as she kisses her mother-in-law for the last time, tears streaming down her face. Who knows where Orpah ends up; Scripture is silent. We doknow that she felt loss and that she departed from those who loved her, and traveled a long distance home to Moab, seemingly alone. It can be easy to dismiss Orpah in this story, but maybe she represents that part of us that wants to abandon our grief, to try [to] flee from it, hoping it will go away.

But the book is called the Book of Ruth for a reason, right?

Through all the suffering and loss that had been experienced, you would think that Ruth might have just tagged along with Orpah, heading back to Moab where she would have familiar surroundings and perhaps be able to reconnect with family and friends, or even find a new husband. Denial or not, this may have made sense for her, but Ruth didn’t choose that path. Where Orpah grievingly departed, Ruth held tight and stayed. She gave up any of the other options. She passed seeing familiar faces or finding new love back in Moab. Instead, she dug deep inside and found the strength of her heart to remain, to remain by Naomi’s side. Ruth’s love for Naomi carried through both their losses.

It is often said that love is stronger than death, and certainly we see this by God’s love for His people throughout the Bible. But what is especially interesting here, and how we witness that selfless love in human beings; how we love one another through all loss.

When we read to the end of the Book of Ruth, we see that God works through Ruth [by] establishing a family line that stretches [from] David [to] Jesus [of Nazareth]. And God does this even though Ruth was a Moabite and not an Israelite. God works through all kinds of experiences and backgrounds, often making connections and building upon situations or people that we might least expect.

Just as He does with love, brokenness, humility, hard-heartedness, and outright defiance, God also works through loss, binding the hearts of those who mourn together in relationship.

The prophets come to mind. Though they can all too easily be misquoted and mischaracterized, the prophets do not serve as messengers of doom. Rather, they painfully communicate the deep desire God has to be in relationship with His people; in essence, His love for them. Just as a parent becomes so deeply vexed by the misbehavior of their children, God longs for us to get our act together, for our return. Writing of the pathos of the prophets, Hebrew scholar, [rabbi,] and activist [Rabbi] Abraham Joshua Heschel, PhD, speaks to the suffering at the crux of a prophet’s empathy.2 A mouthpiece of God’s word, the prophet feels the pain of God, when His people go astray, spurning His love. Prophets, being people themselves, also feel the great distress experienced in the hearts of the people to whom they are called to serve. In short, the prophets love through loss.

But perhaps our greatest example of this comes in our relationship with Jesus [the] Christ. As fully human and fully divine, Jesus is placed in a wholly unique situation. While in his humanity, Jesus feels love and bears the burden of our grief and loss. In his divinity, Jesus experiences our loss for a time that is far beyond our reckoning—arguably up through the end of time. Yet, we must remember the cross. Jesus loves us so much, through all our joy, our problems, and the loss we’ve experienced, that he suffered the cross on our behalf. As followers of Jesus, we are unified by the Spirit he sends, united as one body.

And we are together in experiencing our losses, as well, aren’t we? We also witness the pain and suffering of one another, praying for, comforting, advocating for, fighting for, and being present to each other through our loss. Sometimes we do this willingly, other times with a bit of a lazy sense of obligation. We are relatively calm, doing what we find to be our duty; we might also boil over with indignant anger, with a burning commitment to love and to bless those who have been wronged in their loss.

It doesn’t always take much, friends: send a card to the spouse who has made that first entry back to the home where love laughed louder just a short time ago. Make a glass-of-wine-and-Zoom call to a friend after they’ve lost a job. Listen—just listen to someone who has lost a lot and who fears that only the worst lays ahead in a dim future.

Friends, these may seem like dark pictures, and perhaps they are. But loss is real, and we all experience it. Likely, more so now, during this exhausting, drawn-out time of the pandemic. And you see, though there is darkness and pain and all manner of distressing loss, we are not alone in it. We are never alone. The naming of our pain, important as it may be, pales in comparison to the love which joins us, and which remains with us through it.

Sisters and brothers, in the Scriptures we witness countless examples of how our great God loves us through loss. This is certainly the case that we see with the abiding, sacrificial love that Ruth gives to Naomi.

Taking our cue from Ruth, may we boldly accept the call to love one another through our losses. Let us never forget the One who loved us unto death, that all things be made new; for by his great love, a love which surpasses all things, even death, the greatest loss, will die.

We ask for these blessings and guidance in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Heschel A. The Prophets: 2 Volumes in 1. Tyndale House Publishers; 2007.

 

[a] Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) and Shofetim (Judges) in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, respectively.

Like those who dream

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Like those who dream, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH
November 21, 2021

 

Psalm 26 (NRSV)1

1Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.

2Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.

3For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.

4I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites;

5I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.

6I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O LORD,

7singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.

8O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.

9Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty,

10those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.

11But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me.

12My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.

 

 

What is a dream? Typically, it is something that [happens] while we are asleep, where pictures, scenarios, and even music combine in unique and wildly unexpected ways, perhaps from our subconscious.

Now if you ask Google, believe it or not, the first item listed isn’t even a definition; it’s a 22-year-old American gamer, YouTuber, and Twitch streamer who creates content [on] Minecraft. Not sure why that is important? Dream has 4.4 million followers on Twitter and 27.2 million subscribers on YouTube. And while this may not speak much to any of us not connected to these social media platforms, I should point out that Dream has an estimated net worth of between $13.67 and $19.14 million. It’s also worth highlighting that surveys have shown that there are tons of people who like Dream; there are also tons who don’t. So, living “the dream” isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

After you scroll past the gamer business, you eventually find a dictionary definition of the word “dream”; it’s not even on the landing page. Merriam-Webster defines dream as a series of thoughts, visions, or feelings that happen during sleep. It lists two other definitions: an idea or vision that is created in your imagination and that is not real. And, something that you have wanted very much to do, be, or have for a long time.

You may have had a bad dream and wake to blame it on last night’s dinner. Or perhaps you have dreamed something up and that curtain really isn’t a ghost. But we’ve all experienced things like that, and after all, they’re fleeting in the end.

The third one, however, [is] something that really rolls around inside us, gaining steam as the years go by right up until the time we stick the landing: you nearly cry as you look upon the published version of your first book.

Big or small, dreams mean something. They mean something to us, to our family and friends, to those whom we deeply love, and they mean something to God as well.

Psalm 126[1] is one of the Songs of Ascents, or songs for pilgrims on their journey. Travels in those ancient times could be perilous. One misplaced step would send you tumbling down the edge of the path, not only to injury but to a place without doctors. And there were thieves along the way, and the elements, including the scorching heat of the desert sun. Pilgrims would have no shortage of things to pray about. These Songs of Ascents, these psalms, would have given great comfort to the anxious heart on pilgrimage.

In Psalm 126, the psalmist essentially prays a prayer of thanksgiving. But thanksgiving for what? Or to whom?

While some translations render the opening verse as, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” (E.g., the NRSV or ESV.1,2) Others say, “When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion.” (E.g., the NASB.3) Either way, we see already who the main actor is: God. So it is God who does something here.

Scholars have suggested that the “return” referred to here is the return of captives previously exiled to Babylon. This would mean the psalm voices praise to God for having delivered the people of Zion (i.e., the Israelites), returning them, as the fortune of Zion.

When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us; We are joyful.

Our mouth, note, not my mouth, not even our mouths, but our mouth was filled with laughter. The Psalmist shows us that it is not a response of one person or of a group of individuals, but rather, it is a response from many united as one: our mouth.

A united people, formerly exiled and lands far away from home, have been returned by God, and these people are happy about it. They’re so happy they laugh, shout joyfully, and rather than keep it to themselves, they “said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us; We are joyful.

As if just having arrived from a collective kidnapping, the people of God share the news of their deliverance to many beyond their own group, they share the good news to the nations. Yet why? Why do we think they might have done so? Shouldn’t they be careful and keep a low profile? They wouldn’t want to attract any unwanted attention, certainly, they didn’t want to go back to Babylon. And yet, despite all this, they do share the good news of their deliverance. The people of God tell of the Lord’s greatness far and wide, they say they’re happy, and they don’t seem concerned or worried in the least.

But now we come to the challenging part. Though the first verse of this Psalm appears to state a response in connection to an act already accomplished by God, v. 4 seems to confuse that discernment a bit.

Restore our fortunes, Lord, As the streams in the South.

Now, this sounds like the Psalmist, the praying pilgrim, is speaking of an event, a deliverance, yet to come.

The streams of the South, or of the Negev, as some translations have, recall the image of a parched, cracking, dry soil found in the summertime desert. Though that may not be all that difficult to picture, something that doesn’t necessarily come as easily to mind is that “stream” referred to by the Psalmist. Much like we see a river or stream dry up in the summer heat, Israel and many of the other surrounding nations would have what is called a wadi, where water flows in cooler months but yet is gone in the rising heat of summer. In fact, I’ve seen and even swam in a wadi myself, when I had a brief experience in the Sultanate of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, where it may surprise you to learn there are churches—Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches, all within Muslim-majority monarchies. The waters of a wadi almost look unreal, like a dream, as they shimmer in bright blues and greens nestled into the cracked, rugged terrain, which was otherwise not particularly easy to navigate. But there was this wadi, a beautiful gift for those who thirst and long for safe passage amid treacherous surroundings.

I suppose that we can grasp onto what the Psalmist has painted for us in connecting the petitioning pray for deliverance and restoration to that which quenches thirst, provides great comfort, and promises safety as well as true cleansing.

Perhaps the first part of this Psalm isn’t really about something that has happened anyway. Maybe it’s more like remembering the beauty of something even before it has taken place, like when you can hardly contain your excitement in remembering all the gifts you asked for on Christmas. It could be expected joy, but not just any kind, rather, the expected joy which comes in knowing that the one you placed your trust in is gonna come through. Big time.

Restore our fortunes, Lord, As the streams in the South. Those who sow in tears shall harvest with joyful shouting. One who goes here and there weeping, carrying his bag of seed, Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

And here’s our Harvest Sunday.

In his book The Case for the Psalms, scholar, author, and former Anglican bishop, The Right Rev. N.T. Wright, D.D, writes of the 126th Psalm, “Seedtime and harvest are themselves […] one of the central ways in which we stand at the corner between the matter of the old world, sown in sorrow and fear, and the matter of the new, reaped in triumph and joy. […] Seedtime and harvest, like day and night, are built into the present creation as signposts, indications that the God who made the world has new purposes yet to be unveiled.”4

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Friends, there are so many things which we may dream about in this life. Whether we are awake or not is no matter. We may dream of such relatively mundane things like fun vacations, and being done with a test, or we may dream of soul-stirring things like being accepted for who we are, having a place to sleep the night or a country to live in, a job, safety, or that deep longing for God to show us and guide us on the next steps on an unknown, uncertain future. God hears our prayer and knows how to deliver us, but God also knows how to aim us after we’ve been restored. May this Thanksgiving not only be about the gratitude we have for all we have received but also about the exciting anticipation of the opportunities we [must] bless those around us.

All glory to God in Christ. AMEN.

 

  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
  2. Crossway. The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version). Crossway Bibles; 2016.
  3. Lockman Foundation. New American Standard Bible. 2020th ed. Zondervan; 2021.
  4. Wright N. The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. 2nd ed. HarperOne; 2016.

 

[1] That’s right; not Psalm 26 as above!