Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020, “A Shepherd On Your Side,” Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd… Psalm 23:1 NRSV

800px-El_Buen_Pastor,_atribuido_a_José_Vergara_(Museo_del_Prado).jpg

He reminded me of Santa Clause.  He was of average height, light colored hair and had this “bowl full of jelly” tummy.  He was not dressed in a red suit like the man from the North Pole, but his clothes were black and distinguished.

He was in Birmingham, Alabama for some event back in the early 1990s when I was a young pastor and serving a congregation there.  He had some extra time and so he gathered Lutheran pastors from the area one morning to teach us Hebrew Scripture.  I don’t remember his name, but he was a Professor of Old Testament from a Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio and he knew Hebrew very well.

Among the things he taught us that day was an analysis (exegesis) of Psalm 23, a psalm loved by many in the Judeo-Christian tradition and which is heard in many a funeral.  My thoughts today on Psalm 23 are based from his teaching.  I am grateful for what he taught me and for the things I still remember about the Hebrew language from this beloved psalm.

Right from the beginning, he shocked me by teaching the deep meaning of the Hebrew word for shepherd in the opening verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  The root of the Hebrew noun (roeh) for shepherd is “military commander.”  So a shepherd is not weak, but a shepherd protects his flock like a military commander.  The shepherd fights for his sheep.  This is the image of our Lord in the opening verse – one Who is on our side and fights off our enemies.

We remember the stories of King David who as a shepherd boy slew Goliath, fought off predators from his flock, and was a mighty warrior in defense of God’s people, Israel.  So the Lord Who is on our side fights for us and protects us from the evils of this world.  President Trump talks about fighting against the coronavirus or the “invisible enemy.”  So we trust the Lord Who is our shepherd to keep us safe when this invisible enemy of sin and sickness surrounds us.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.”  What I learned that morning from this professor was an interesting understanding of the Hebrew verb for “lie down” (nacham).  The picture of “lie down” is of a baby lying on her back with arms and legs sprawled out with not a care, a fear, an illness or ache and pain.  There is total comfort.

We hear in the book of Isaiah that the prophet cries out to Jerusalem, “Comfort, comfort (nakham) my people, says your God.”  The reason for this comforting cry is that there is good news for God’s people.  They will return to the Promised Land where there was at one time peace and prosperity.  There was also the hope that the Messiah will rule in this land.

Isn’t it true that during this time where tensions are escalating with China,

where the world is suffering from Covid-19,

where many businesses have been closed,

where unemployment is at a new high,

and where people wait in food lines,

that we need comfort from God?

In fact, a new Pew Survey informs us that for many Christians their faith has grown stronger in this time of a national emergency.  We look to the Lord our Shepherd for comfort and this “lying down” in green pastures.

“he restores my soul.  He leads in right paths for his name’s sake.”  The Hebrew word for “restore” (yeshivah) means to turn back to God in repentance.  Psalm 1 speaks of the road in which we are blessed when we do not walk in the path of the wicked, but walk in the way of the Lord’s law.  Walking along the Lord’s path is like being a healthy and fruitful tree planted by streams of water which sustains and gives life.

As we daily repent of our sins and trust in God’s promise of forgiveness, we are indeed raised to new life.  Our faith is fruitful as we share Christ’s love with others.  In our turning back to the Lord by the inspiration of he Holy Spirit, we are released from the clutches of sin; we are saved from the temptations of the evil one; and we are strengthened to walk the road of meditation on God’s word.  Daily our souls are refreshed with the Holy Spirit who forgives our sins and raises us up to new life.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.”  Dark valleys are notorious places.  They harbor beasts of prey.  Dark valleys in our lives are anything which endangers us and seeks to destroy us – alcohol and opioid addictions, domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking.  But the Lord our Shepherd protects us with his rod and leads us with His staff.  The Lord does that with loving families, medical communities, counselors, legal aid, officers of the law and religious leaders.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  When I think of this verse what comes to mind is a feast of plenty with family and friends sitting around a large table ready to celebrate.  Yesterday I watched the President’s press conference and there were two teenagers helping others during this pandemic.  One young man gathered volunteers to deliver food to many of the elderly in his community.  The other young man who was 16 had his pilot’s license and flew four missions to deliver medical supplies to rural hospitals in his state of Virginia.

The Lord indeed supplies us with what we need for daily living and these two young men were examples of faith active in love as inspirited by the Lord Who is our Shepherd.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”  There is an earthly promise and a heavenly one from the Good Shepherd in this last verse.

The earthly one is a blessing that divine goodness and mercy will always be with us. The Hebrew verb for “follow me” does not mean that the Lord is somewhat disinterested in us and takes His good ole time to catch up with us.  The verb for “follow me” (yirdefuni) means to pursue or chase after.  So the Lord is eager to catch up with us so that His everlasting goodness and mercy (chesed) will always, always be a blessing to us.

This chasing after us sets a picture in my mind of a loving mother who frantically chases after her son who ran away from her and was in danger of getting hurt.  His mother stops at nothing to catch up with him, embrace him and save him from harm.  That determination, that commitment, that fervent desire to keep her son safe is more like the meaning of “follow after” in the last verse of Psalm 23.

And even beyond our earthly life, the Lord promises that the faithful will dwell in the Lord’s house forevermore in the heavenly kingdom.

It is no wonder that Psalm 23 is one part of Scripture which we memorize and is planted deep in our hearts.

We have the Shepherd on our side.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

(Photo Jesucristo como e Buen Pastor, Jose Vergara, 18th century, public domain at commons.wikimedia; Hebrew4Christians.com; and the Professor of Old Testament, Hamma School of Theology, Columbus, Ohio)

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020, “A Shepherd On Your Side,” Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd… Psalm 23:1 NRSV

800px-El_Buen_Pastor,_atribuido_a_José_Vergara_(Museo_del_Prado).jpg

He reminded me of Santa Clause.  He was of average height, light colored hair and had this “bowl full of jelly” tummy.  He was not dressed in a red suit like the man from the North Pole, but his clothes were black and distinguished.

He was in Birmingham, Alabama for some event back in the early 1990s when I was a young pastor and serving a congregation there.  He had some extra time and so he gathered Lutheran pastors from the area one morning to teach us Hebrew Scripture.  I don’t remember his name, but he was a Professor of Old Testament from a Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio and he knew Hebrew very well.

Among the things he taught us that day was an analysis (exegesis) of Psalm 23, a psalm loved by many in the Judeo-Christian tradition and which is heard in many a funeral.  My thoughts today on Psalm 23 are based from his teaching.  I am grateful for what he taught me and for the things I still remember about the Hebrew language from this beloved psalm.

Right from the beginning, he shocked me by teaching the deep meaning of the Hebrew word for shepherd in the opening verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  The root of the Hebrew noun (roeh) for shepherd is “military commander.”  So a shepherd is not weak, but a shepherd protects his flock like a military commander.  The shepherd fights for his sheep.  This is the image of our Lord in the opening verse – one Who is on our side and fights off our enemies.

We remember the stories of King David who as a shepherd boy slew Goliath, fought off predators from his flock, and was a mighty warrior in defense of God’s people, Israel.  So the Lord Who is on our side fights for us and protects us from the evils of this world.  President Trump talks about fighting against the coronavirus or the “invisible enemy.”  So we trust the Lord Who is our shepherd to keep us safe when this invisible enemy of sin and sickness surrounds us.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.”  What I learned that morning from this professor was an interesting understanding of the Hebrew verb for “lie down” (nacham).  The picture of “lie down” is of a baby lying on her back with arms and legs sprawled out with not a care, a fear, an illness or ache and pain.  There is total comfort.

We hear in the book of Isaiah that the prophet cries out to Jerusalem, “Comfort, comfort (nakham) my people, says your God.”  The reason for this comforting cry is that there is good news for God’s people.  They will return to the Promised Land where there was at one time peace and prosperity and the Messiah will rule.

Isn’t it true that during this time where tensions are escalating with China; the world is suffering from Covid-19, many businesses have been closed, unemployment is at a new high and people wait in food lines that we need comfort from God?  In fact, a new Pew Survey informs us that for many Christians their faith has grown stronger in this time of a national emergency.  We look to the Lord our Shepherd for comfort and this “lying down” in green pastures.

“he restores my soul.  He leads in right paths for his name’s sake.”  The Hebrew word for “restore” (yeshivah) means to turn back to God in repentance.  When we do we live in the right pathways.  Psalm 1 speaks of the road in which we are blessed when we do not walk in the path of the wicked, but walk in the way of the Lord’s law.  Walking along the Lord’s path is like being a healthy and fruitful tree planted by streams of water which sustains and gives life.

It was the fourth century church patriarch, St. Augustine, who reminds us that our souls are “restless” until our souls find “rest in Thee.”  Certainly our souls become restless when we seek things which do not truly satisfy our inner selves.  Greed, exploitation, lies and deceit embrace our hearts and minds when we do not set ourselves on the Lord Who promises grace and every blessing to us.

As we daily repent of our sins, trust in God’s promise of forgiveness, we are indeed raised to new life.  Our faith is fruitful as we share Christ’s love with others.  In our turning back to the Lord by the inspiration of he Holy Spirit, we are released from the clutches of sin; we are saved from the temptations of the evil one; and we are strengthened to walk the road of meditation on God’s word.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.”  Dark valleys are notorious places.  They harbor beasts of prey.  Dark valleys in our lives are anything which endangers us and seeks to destroy us – alcohol and opioid addictions, domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking.  But the Lord our Shepherd protects us with his rod and leads us with His staff.  The Lord does that with loving families, medical communities, counselors, legal aid, officers of the law and religious leaders.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  When I think of this verse what comes to mind is a feast of plenty with family and friends sitting around a large table ready to celebrate.  Yesterday I watched the President’s press conference and there were two teenagers helping others during this pandemic.  One young man gathered volunteers to deliver food to many of the elderly in his community.  The other young man who was 16 had his pilot’s license and flew four missions to deliver medical supplies to rural hospitals in his state of Virginia.

The Lord indeed supplies us with what we need for daily living and these two young men were examples of faith active in love as inspirited by the Lord Who is our Shepherd.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”  There is an earthly promise and a heavenly one from the Good Shepherd in this last verse.

The earthly one is a blessing that divine goodness and mercy will always be with us. The Hebrew verb for “follow me” does not mean that the Lord is somewhat disinterested in us and takes His good ole time to catch up with us.  The verb for “follow me” (yirdefuni) means to pursue or chase after.  So the Lord is eager to catch up with us so that His everlasting goodness and mercy (chesed) will always, always be a blessing to us.

This chasing after us sets a picture in my mind of a loving mother who frantically chases after her son who ran away from her and was in danger of getting hurt.  His mother stops at nothing to catch up with him, embrace him and save him from harm.  That determination, that commitment, that fervent desire to keep her son safe is more like the meaning of “follow after” in the last verse of Psalm 23.

And even beyond our earthly life, the Lord promises that the faithful will dwell in the Lord’s house forevermore in the heavenly kingdom.

It is no wonder that Psalm 23 is one part of Scripture which we memorize and is planted deep in our hearts.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

(Photo Jesucristo como e Buen Pastor, Jose Vergara, 18th century, public domain at commons.wikimedia; Hebrew4Christians.com; and the Professor of Old Testament, Hamma School of Theology, Columbus, Ohio)

 

 

 

 

Would You Take “Virtual” Communion?”

So, I’ve heard from a couple of friends that their church offered “Virtual Communion” for Sunday worship.  Is this “legitimate?”  Will it work?  Can Holy Communion be transmitted through a live stream?

first-communion-1896.jpg!Large.jpg

What helps me think through this liturgical practice is an article on the Lutheran World Federation website entitled, “DIGITAL WORSHIP AND SACRAMENTAL LIFE IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC written by Professor Dr. Dirk G. Lange.  I won’t go into all of his reasons to support his view that “Virtual Communion” is NOT a valid practice for Lutherans, but here is a taste of his article.

He referenced the “Solid Declaration” in the Book of Concord on an article about Holy Communion.  (The Book of Concord holds the doctrines of world-wide Lutheranism.)  The Solid Declaration states:  “But this blessing (Holy Communion) or the recitation of the  Words of Institution of Christ by itself does not make a valid sacrament if the entire action of the Supper as Christ administered it, is not observed.”

What does this mean?  Dr. Lange wrote:  “This aptly named ‘action rule’ lays special emphasis on the complete liturgical celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion…The Words of Institution of Christ itself does not make a valid sacrament.  The Words of Institution are not magical words.  Rather, the whole liturgical celebration culminates in this great thanksgiving in the Holy Spirit that works God’s radical, self-giving gift…there is an insistence on the fullness of the rite and on the people gathered doing something greater.”

But some would say, “Well, we are gathered through a Zoom meeting.  That’s the best we can do in these times of a pandemic.  What’s wrong with this?  Can’t the Holy Spirit work through a live stream or other modern technology?”

Dr. Lange has an answer.  He wrote that “the church has in many times and places not be able to celebrate the Eucharist together (persecution, times of war, times of famine, times of illness, and more.)  In these times he encourages Lutherans to rely on prayer, meditating on God’s word and use the daily prayer service which has been done for centuries and does not include Holy Communion.

Dr. Lange’s reasoning makes sense to me.  Even though I miss Holy Communion and its promise from Christ of forgiveness, life and salvation, I need to learn to wait, trust God more and rely on other ways to focus on God’s grace and to worship the blessed Holy Trinity.

So, friends, ponder anew what the “Solid Declaration” in the “Book of Concord” has to tell us since our normal worship practices have been disrupted.  If your friends receive “Virtual Communion,” I suggest not to condemn them, but enter into a gentle and engaging holy conversation about receiving this particular blessing from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God!

(Photo of “First Communion,” Pablo Picasso, 1896, Public Domain, wikiart.org)

 

Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020, “Open Eyes,” Luke 24:13-35

“When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”  Luke 24:30-31 NRSV

the-supper-at-emmaus-1648.jpg!Large

My eyes of faith were dramatically opened one night at a revival.  When I was 12 years old, a revival came to town and set up a big tent a block from my house on a large vacant lot next to Falstaff Brewery.  On the last night of that revival I walked across the street and stood in the back of the tent to watch something I had never seen before.

I stood in the back of the darkened tent at dusk.  No flood lights inside the tent were on.  Yet I could see that the crowd seated on folding chairs which filled the tent.  In the front sat an organist at the keyboard of an electronic organ.  And right there center stage was a pine casket which sat on a table.  Was this going to be a funeral service on the last night of the revival?

When all was still and dark, the flood lights suddenly illuminated the tent while the organist played a lively tune that encouraged the crowd to get up, clap, sway to the music and even dance.  Then to the surprise of all, the lid of the wood casket flung open.  Who appeared?  The evangelist himself who jumped out of that casket and began an ecstatic dance to rival a jitterbug all the while shouting a language which I didn’t understand.  But upon later reflection, it must have been the biblical “speaking in tongues.”

I stared at the sight of a revival at its celebratory peak.  I had never seen anything like that before since I grew up in the Lutheran church where worship services had no one getting up to dance and the pastor never shouted out in a language I could not understand.

That night at the revival my eyes of faith were opened in a dramatic way to a new way of worship through a revival.

The room was dimly lit in the house of two of Jesus’ followers in the village of Emmaus.  The followers didn’t know who had caught up with them on the road to their house and opened the Scriptures for them.  He was only a Stranger.  But it was late.  Night covered the village and the two followers invited the Stranger to have supper with them.

As the three of them sat at the table, the two followers’ eyes were wide open to see more clearly who this Stranger might be.  During the meal the Stranger who was the guest became the Host.  He took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them to eat.

That was moment of revelation.  That was when the followers’ eyes of faith were opened and they recognized the Stranger as the Risen Christ.  Now their hope was rekindled.  The sadness of seeing the Christ who suffered an ugly death on the cross had vanished just as quickly as the Risen Christ sitting at their table had vanished from their sight.

It was a dramatic moment of faith at a meal of broken and blessed bread by the Risen Christ which they would never forget and which emboldened their faith and witness.  It was the crucified and risen Lord who overcame the power of death for the sake of the world where too much oppression and evil had taken hold.  And at that meal with the Risen Christ as the Host with a loaf of broken and blessed homemade bread their lives and the lives of all of Christ’s followers would never be the same.

Today we call that meal by various names – the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote that in Holy Communion we receive the “true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Lutherans believe in the “real presence” of Christ in Holy Communion.  The theological term used by Lutherans for Holy Communion is “Sacramental Union” whereas Catholics use the term “Transubstantiation” and Baptists use the term “Memorial.”

So what are the benefits of this Sacrament as we eat and drink?  Again in his catechism, Luther wrote that in Holy Communion our sins are forgiven and we have life and salvation. That is the grace given as we faithfully eat and drink at the Lord’s Table.

Isn’t communing an eye opening experience of faith since Christ promised to come to us in this sacrament?  Christ promised to give us His own self.  Christ has the last word in Holy Communion to guarantee an encounter with Him with His grace.

Several years ago Catholics and Lutherans jointly published “From Conflict to Communion” which speaks to the similarities of Holy Communion between these two church bodies.  Both believe in the “real presence of Christ” in this sacrament.  In fact, when I had to resign from my pastorate due to illness and then later recovered, my wife and I worshipped at a local Catholic church.  We were so glad that the priest of that parish invited us to receive the Eucharist with his congregation.  He told me, “We both believe the same thing.”  So we communed with Catholics joyfully and gratefully receiving Christ’s body and blood with the bread and wine for forgiveness, life and salvation.  Now that was an “eye opening” faith experience for us!

A couple of friends told me that during this pandemic their churches offered “virtual communion” because their congregations could not physically gather.  On the livestream platform, these friends watched their pastors consecrate the elements.  Then their pastors said to commune at home using crackers, bread, wine, grape juice, etc.

Have you heard of this?  Was this legitimate?  Efficacious?  Did it “work” so to speak?  Can the body and blood of Christ somehow be present through the internet?  Opinions and beliefs vary.  We are in a new age.  Could it be an age where our eyes of faith are opened in ways we never saw before?

The two followers of Jesus had their eyes opened when they walked home and Jesus, the Stranger, opened their eyes of faith to the meaning of Scripture about the Messiah.  When at the table in their home in the village of Emmaus, Christ the Host revealed Himself as their risen Lord.  Their spirits were lifted.  Their faith came alive.  They walked back to Jerusalem and told the disciples what happened to them on the road and at table with the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Our faith is enlivened, too, whenever we partake of the victory of the Lord in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Our faith and witness is stronger like the two disciples from Emmaus.

Let us keep our eyes open as the Holy Spirit works in our lives in dramatic ways or in subtle ways with a still, small voice all of which draws us closer to our Risen Lord, strengthens our faith and sends us into the world to witness to His love.

And let us keep our eyes of faith open for a revival big or small.

Thanks be to God!

Amen

(Photo of Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus, 1648, Public Domain, wikiart.org)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020, “Not a Ghost,” John 20:19-31

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe.'”  John 20:27 NRSV

Bragg Mitchell Mansion, Mobile, Alabama

th.jpeg

In 1855 Judge John Bragg built his two story Greek revival style mansion on three acres with stately live oaks trees in Mobile, Alabama.  Today the Bragg Mitchell Mansion is open for tours, weddings and other catered receptions.

When my family and I lived in Mobile, my wife, Priscilla, worked as a docent for the mansion.  I had to pick her up late at night around 11:00 p.m. after she closed up and locked the doors.  Whenever I went there, I got an eerie feeling.  There were even rumors of ghosts appearing in this mansion.

Is this mansion really haunted with ghosts?  Some visitors say they have seen the phantom cat.  Others believe they have seen the ghost of Judge Bragg himself.  And on Halloween night some say they have seen a ghostly figure of a young woman appearing from a second story window.  She comes and looks for her long lost love who died in the Civil War.

Well, I’ve never seen a ghost there, but when picking up my wife in the darkness and stillness of the night, I always had a touch of fear in my heart.

Was Jesus a ghost?  Was He a mere apparition when He appeared to His disciples in that locked room after His resurrection?

The story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciple, Thomas, assures us that Jesus was not a ghost nor a mere image of Himself.  Jesus appeared to His disciples a week earlier, but Thomas was not there.  All he wanted was to see was what the other disciples had seen – a resurrected Jesus in the flesh.

Then it happened – a second appearance of the resurrected Jesus to His disciples.  This time Thomas was there.  Thomas saw Jesus in all of his humanity with scars in the wounds in his hands and the scar of His pierced side.  That was enough for Thomas to throw off his skepticism and doubt and he shouted to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (vs. 28)  That was Thomas’ shout of faith.  That was his shout from his heart to believe in the Christ who would never leave or forsake him and all others who have not seen and yet believe in Him.  (See 20:29)

Do you have doubts?  Do you doubt God’s presence while you struggle with this pandemic with the Covid 19 virus?  Thousands have died.  Many more are ill from the virus.  Our once strong economy has been shut down to great extents.  Jobs are lost.  Businesses have been closed down until further notice.  We wonder with anxiety when the country will be opened again and when there will be a vaccine development for our safety.  Doubts play havoc with our minds and we feel insecure.

But Jesus’ presence is indeed with us.  We see it in many ways.

We see His divine presence through doctors, nurses, and medical technicians who risk their lives to save the sick.

We see His divine presence through medical researchers using their knowledge in labs to develop a vaccine for immunization.

We see His divine presence through grocery store, transportation and pharmacy workers who do their best to supply us with food and prescription drugs.

We see His divine presence through churches and synagogues who livestream bible studies and worship services.

We see His diving presence through media professionals who provide news and commentary about the global fight against this virus.

We see His divine presence through the government which provides loans and other means of cash to keep families going while there is so much self isolation and shuttered businesses.

And see His divine presence through corporations who have joined together to manufacture medical supplies.

The presence of God works through them all.  The resurrected Jesus is present with those who suffer to give them hope, peace and healing.  The promised Holy Spirit is the one who provides strength to all who do good works to care and feed the hungry, the poor, the lonely and the grieving.  We are not left to ourselves during this pandemic.  This Jesus who defeated the power of sin, death and the devil is strong enough to appear to us through all who work together for the common good in our distress.

Twice in today’s gospel the living Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace be with you.”  The peace Jesus gives to us calms our restless hearts.  And during this time when anxiety heightens and insecurities rise, we rely and trust in the peace which only the Resurrected Christ can give.

Jesus lives for you and for me.

Jesus is risen from the dead and into the lives of all believers.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

(See M.A. Kleen – writer, traveler, photographer and Wikipedia for information on the Bragg Mitchell Mansion;  photo of Bragg Mitchell Mansion from Wikipedia.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020, “Not a Ghost,” John 20:19-31

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe.'”  John 20:27 NRSV

In 1855 Judge John Bragg built his two story Greek revival style mansion on three acres with stately live oaks trees in Mobile, Alabama.  Today the Bragg Mitchell Mansion is open for tours, weddings and other catered receptions.

When my family and I lived in Mobile, my wife, Priscilla, worked as a docent for the mansion.  I had to pick her up late at night around 11:00 p.m. after she closed up and locked the doors.  Whenever I went there, I got an eerie feeling.  There were even rumors of ghosts appearing in this mansion.

Is this mansion really haunted with ghosts?  Some visitors say they have seen the phantom cat.  Others believe they have seen the ghost of Judge Bragg himself.  And on Halloween night some say they have seen a ghostly figure of a young woman appearing from a second story window.  She comes and looks for her long lost love who died in the Civil War.

Well, I’ve never seen a ghost there, but when picking up my wife in the darkness and stillness of the night, I always had a touch of fear in my heart.

Was Jesus a ghost?  Was He a mere apparition when He appeared to His disciples in that locked room after His resurrection?

The story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciple, Thomas, assures us that Jesus was not a ghost nor a mere image of Himself.  Jesus appeared to His disciples a week earlier, but Thomas was not there.  All he wanted was to see was what the other disciples had seen – a resurrected Jesus in the flesh.

Then it happened – a second appearance of the resurrected Jesus to His disciples.  This time Thomas was there.  Thomas saw Jesus in all of his humanity with scars in the wounds in his hands and the scar of His pierced side.  That was enough for Thomas to throw off his skepticism and doubt and he shouted to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (vs. 28)  That was Thomas’ shout of faith.  That was his shout from his heart to believe in the Christ who would never leave or forsake him and all others who have not seen and yet believe in Him.  (See 20:29)

Do you have doubts?  Do you doubt God’s presence while you struggle with this pandemic with the Covid 19 virus?  Thousands have died.  Many more are ill from the virus.  Our once strong economy has been shut down to great extents.  Jobs are lost.  Businesses have been closed down until further notice.  We wonder with anxiety when the country will be opened again and when there will be a vaccine development for our safety.  Doubts play havoc with our minds and we feel insecure.

But Jesus’ presence is indeed with us.  We see it in many ways.

We see His divine presence through doctors, nurses, and medical technicians who risk their lives to save the sick.

We see His divine presence through medical researchers using their knowledge in labs to develop a vaccine for immunization.

We see His divine presence through grocery store, transportation and pharmacy workers who do their best to supply us with food and prescription drugs.

We see His divine presence through churches and synagogues who livestream bible studies and worship services.

We see His diving presence through media professionals who provide news and commentary about the global fight against this virus.

We see His divine presence through the government which provides loans and other means of cash to keep families going while there is so much self isolation and shuttered businesses.

And see His divine presence through corporations who have joined together to manufacture medical supplies.

The presence of God works through them all.  The resurrected Jesus is present with those who suffer to give them hope, peace and healing.  The promised Holy Spirit is the one who provides strength to all who do good works to care and feed the hungry, the poor, the lonely and the grieving.  We are not left to ourselves during this pandemic.  This Jesus who defeated the power of sin, death and the devil is strong enough to appear to us through all who work together for the common good in our distress.

Twice in today’s gospel the living Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace be with you.”  The peace Jesus gives to us calms our restless hearts.  And during this time when anxiety heightens and insecurities rise, we rely and trust in the peace which only the Resurrected Christ can give.

Jesus lives for you and for me.

Jesus is risen from the dead and into the lives of all believers.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

(See M.A. Kleen – writer, traveler, photographer and Wikipedia for information on the Bragg Mitchell Mansion;  photo of Bragg Mitchell Mansion from Wikipedia.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday in Holy Week, April 8, 2020, “Fleeing Into the Night,” John 13:21-32

The-Last-Supper-large.jpgThe Last Supper, Carl Bloch, late 19th century, public domain, Wikipedia Commons (Notice Judas on the right fleeing the supper.)

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“So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out.  And it was night.”  John 13:30 NRSV

Have you ever been betrayed?  Some say it is “like sticking a knife in your back.”  The betrayal comes quickly and strikes you from behind.  You didn’t know it was coming.

Sadly, I’ve been betrayed on a couple of occasions in my work environment.  It came so unexpectedly.  When I realized that moment, I felt a rush of sadness and emotional pain.  I felt betrayed.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus had just washed His disciples’ feet. That was the first surprising moment of the evening.  The master, Jesus, humbled Himself, and did the work of a slave.  Roles were reversed, but Jesus showed His disciples what it meant to be a servant.

But the second moment of surprise was at hand.  It shocked the disciples in another way. It was not enlightening like the washing of feet, but it still sent a shock to them.  Jesus spoke of His betrayal and it was not from the scribes and Pharisees at this supper.  The betrayer would be one who was close to Jesus.  He would be one of His disciples.

In a moment of fear and curiosity, Peter spoke up and asked, “Lord, who is it?”  Jesus answered and said it would be the one to whom He would give a piece of bread after it was dipped into a dish.  All eyes focused on Jesus’ next move.  Who would receive the dipped piece of bread?  Who would be the betrayer?  Who would be the one who turned against their master and lord?

We usually don’t know when we are going to be betrayed, but Jesus did, and he knew the one who would bear this overwhelming guilt.  Jesus gave the dipped bread to Judas, the holder of the common purse, the one the disciples trusted to buy their food or give to the poor on their behalf.  Someone so trusted, so held in high esteem to keep their money, was the one who fled quickly into the night.

The dark night was a symbol of chaos, sin, and deception.  Judas fled into it and Satan sped into Judas’ heart.  In the dark of the evening that same night, Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss and the Roman authorities hauled Jesus off and onto the road of His crucifixion.

But in that ugly crucifixion there was new life for all, for you and for me. Jesus took upon Himself the sin of Judas’ betrayal, the sins of all those who ambush others with deceit and hate and Jesus forgives them.  Jesus’ death gives life anew to all who feel the anguish of betrayal.  Jesus promised to us all the Holy Spirit who daily forgives all sins and who raises us up to newness of life.

Through Jesus’ death, betrayal has lost its eternal sting and we will not have to flee into  the night alone, afraid and lost in the guilt of sin.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

 

Wednesday in Holy Week, April 8, 2020, “Fleeing Into the Night,” John 13:21-32

The-Last-Supper-large.jpgThe Last Supper, Carl Bloch, late 19th century, public domain, Wikipedia Commons (Notice Judas on the right fleeing the supper.)

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“So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out.  And it was night.”  John 13:30 NRSV

Have you ever been betrayed?  Some say it is “like sticking a knife in your back.”  The betrayal comes quickly and strikes you from behind.  You didn’t know it was coming.

Sadly, I’ve been betrayed on a couple of occasions in my work environment.  It came so unexpectedly.  When I realized that moment, I felt a rush of sadness and emotional pain.  I felt betrayed.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus had just washed His disciples’ feet. That was the first surprising moment of the evening.  The master, Jesus, humbled Himself, and did the work of a slave.  Roles were reversed, but Jesus showed His disciples what it meant to be a servant.

But the second moment of surprise was at hand.  It shocked the disciples in another way. It was not enlightening like the washing of feet, but it still sent a shock to them.  Jesus spoke of His betrayal and it was not from the scribes and Pharisees at this supper.  The betrayer would be one who was close to Jesus.  He would be one of His disciples.

In a moment of fear and curiosity, Peter spoke up and asked, “Lord, who is it?”  Jesus answered and said it would be the one to whom He would give a piece of bread after it was dipped into a dish.  All eyes focused on Jesus’ next move.  Who would receive the dipped piece of bread?  Who would be the betrayer?  Who would be the one who turned against their master and lord?

We usually don’t know when we are going to be betrayed, but Jesus did, and he knew the one who would bear this overwhelming guilt.  Jesus gave the dipped bread to Judas, the holder of the common purse, the one the disciples trusted to buy their food or give to the poor on their behalf.  Someone so trusted, so held in high esteem to keep their money, was the one who fled quickly into the night.

The dark night was a symbol of chaos, sin, and deception.  Judas fled into it and Satan sped into Judas’ heart.  In the dark of the evening that same night, Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss and the Roman authorities hauled Jesus off and onto the road of His crucifixion.

But in that ugly crucifixion there was new life for all, for you and for me. Jesus took upon Himself the sin of Judas’ betrayal, the sins of all those who ambush others with deceit and hate and Jesus forgives them.  Jesus’ death gives life anew to all who feel the anguish of betrayal.  Jesus promised to us all the Holy Spirit who daily forgives all sins and who raises us up to newness of life.

Through Jesus’ death, betrayal has lost its eternal sting and we will not have to flee into  the night alone, afraid and lost in the guilt of sin.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

 

Tuesday in Holy Week, April 7, 2020, John 12:20-36, “Children of the Light”

Gentiles_Ask_to_See_Jesus_001.jpg

Gentiles Ask to See Jesus, James Tissot, public domain, http://www.marysrosaries.com (painting prior to 1902)

“While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”  John 12:36 NRSV

In recent years one of the hymns I enjoyed singing and one which I taught to a children’s choir was “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” written by Kathleen Thomerson.  This hymn sings of following Jesus as a “child of the light” and the lyrics of the refrain tells us that in Jesus “there is no darkness at all.”  (See hymnary.com)

In fact in John 8 Jesus called Himself “the Light of the World” and if one follows Him, that person will “never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

In today’s gospel for Tuesday in Holy Week, Greeks asked to see Jesus.  At this meeting, Jesus spoke about His death.  He told the Greeks who had gathered to see Him to “believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”  So believing in Jesus, the Light of the World, we can reflect His love as we let our lights of faith shine in this world.

Since Jesus is our Light, our pathways to live faithfully and humbly are illuminated.  The roads which leads to service and sacrifice will be lit up so we can walk on them.  With Jesus our Light we can heed the words of St. Paul in Philippians 2:14-15 (NRSV):

“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you “shine like stars in the world.”

Jesus calls us “children of the light” while St. Paul says that even in a perverse world we can “shine like stars.”  Now that is a message of hope in a world where viruses run rampant around the world, soldiers die in Afghanistan, domestic violence is too commonplace and human trafficking and opioid overdoses ruin lives.  We can faithfully “shine like stars” free to love God and our neighbors even though they are different from us.  With the light of the Holy Spirit shining within and around us, we do not complain but faithfully persevere in the midst of evil trying to bring us down into a life of sin, despair and doom.

From noon until three o’clock in the afternoon when Jesus was crucified outside of the walls of Jerusalem at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the sky turned dark.  The darkness seemed to bring a profound sense of loss with Jesus crying out, “It is finished” and then He “gave up his spirit.”  (John 18:30 NRSV)

Was all lost?  Did Jesus live for nothing?  Would He and His followers ever be remembered?  Or would Jesus’ Heavenly Father turn death and despair on its head and raise His only Son from the dead three days later?

With a victory over sin, death and the devil, the battle was won for our salvation early on the first day of the week.  With the battle won and with Jesus rising from the dead, we thank God for the grace He bestows upon us.

Now we can sing with joyful hearts the refrain of Thomerson’s hymn which reminds us that “In Him there is no darkness at all.”  And since there is no darkness of sin and the power of evil in Jesus’ heart, we can sing with confidence the final words of this hymn:  “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

So indeed we shine as children of the light with the brilliance of the Lord Jesus in our hearts.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday in Holy Week, April 6, 2020, John 12:1-11, “Fragrance of the Perfume”

Artus_Wolffort_-_Mary_Magdalene_Anointing_Christ’s_Feet_in_the_House_of_Simon_the_Pharisee.jpg

“The house was filled with fragrance of the perfume.”

John 12:3b NRSV

Mary opened the jar of perfume in her home.  Sweet fragrance filled the air.  With the pleasant scent bringing a sense of calm, Mary kneeled in front of Jesus and anointed His feet.  A sense of wonder captured the hearts and minds of Mary, Lazarus and Jesus’ followers.

What could this anointing mean?  Every Jew knew that in Israel’s history anointing was reserved for their kings, for healing and for burials.  So what did Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet foretell?  Was Jesus the king to now rule an earthly kingdom?  Was He wounded and the anointing would aid healing?  Or would this anointing point to Jesus’ death?

Everyone in the house wondered and yet they saw Mary’s action as a sign of love except Judas.  He objected.  He wanted the perfume sold and the money given to the poor.  But St. Matthew lets us know that Judas may have had an ulterior motive because he kept the common purse and would steal from it for his selfish purposes.  Judas could not be trusted.  He was a thief.  He saw no gift of love in the anointing, but another way to serve his own self.

Mary sensed that Jesus had enemies who wanted to get rid of Him and to stop His teaching about the Kingdom of God and reveal Himself as the One who gives light and life to all who believe in Him.  So Mary kept some of the perfume for the day of Jesus’ burial.

On the one hand, burial brings sadness to all who know the loved ones now gone from this earth.  As we move toward the cross, we ponder Jesus’ death and burial which brings sadness, but on the other hand in the mystery of faith brings life and salvation.

Let our prayers rise today like the sweet incense that rose and filled the room from floor to ceiling from the costly perfume Mary bought for Jesus’ burial.

May our prayers for the poor, the ill from Covid 19 in all nations, the lonely and grieving, the medical community and for our President and all leaders of our government ascend to the One who suffered, died and was buried for our salvation.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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Photo of “Mary Magdalene Anointing Christ’s Feet at the House of Simon the Pharisee,” Artus Wolffert, 1596, public domain, Wikipedia Commons