The Widow of Nain (2011)

Sermon notes from 9 October 20011 for  Luke 7:11-16

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked  favorably on his people!”

1)      While miracles are ever popular and people want miracles in their lives, the real purpose of the miracles in the Gospels are revealed in the last sentence:  the revelation of who Jesus is, and an encounter with the presence of God.  A miracle is not nearly important as is God’s presence.  God’s presence may also be found in His promises which may not find fulfillment in the now.  The world wants miracles now, but biblical miracles actually point to the reality of that not-yet Kingdom which is to come.

2)     We can lament and say those miracles happened 2000 years ago, we don’t have the chance to have such an encounter with Christ.

But we do – the Divine Liturgy.

3)     The Liturgy is supposed to be the very place where we dwell in the presence of God. It is the place where we have opportunity to encounter God and receive the life of God into our selves.  In the Liturgy we hear the voice of Christ in the Gospel, and we can invoke Christ’s Name, and we both touch Christ and are touched by Him in the holy Eucharist.

4)     Here we come to be healed of our sins, to be raised from lives of spiritual death, to be confronted in our faults so that we will repent and turn to God.  Here we also are challenged to let go of our passions – lust, anger, greed, hatred, jealousy, gluttony, pride, judgmentalism, selfishness, self centeredness, lest we go away from the Liturgy unhealed of the sins that destructively burn in our hearts.  The fact is the very reason we come to the Liturgy is to have Christ drive out of our lives and hearts and minds those evil thoughts we prevent us from being disciples of Christ.

5)     In the Gospel Lesson, Christ walked up to the funeral procession and touches the open coffin carrying the dead man.  And the bearers of the coffin stand still.  Here in the Liturgy, we too who are dead in sin have opportunity for Christ to touch us and stop us in our tracks.  Christ will then call us out of our sin, out of our passions, out of those things which are burning our hearts and destroying our love for one another.  And he calls us then to rise to life.   So do not leave the Liturgy unhealed, do no remain dead in your sins and passions, but let Christ heal you, let him take away that heavy burden of sin and passion which is killing you and destroying your heart.    Let Christ confront you in the way you normally think and act and bring you to repentance so like the young man in the Gospel lesson, you can arise to the new life in Christ, one which is empowered by God’s love.

Christ Fulfills Isaiah 58 through Signs and Wonders

This is the conclusion to the blog which began with Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel.  We are considering ways in which the Gospel tradition fulfills Isaiah 58, or how Isaiah 58 is echoed in the Gospel tradition.

[5] This is not the fast that I have chosen, even a day for a person to humble himself; not even if you bend your neck like a ring, and spread under you sackcloth and ashes – not even so shall you call it an accepted fast.   [6] I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord; rather loose every bond of injustice, undo the knots of contracts made by force; let the oppressed go free, and tear up every unjust note. [7]   Break your bread with the one who is hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; if you see one naked, clothe him, and you shall not neglect any of the relatives of your seed. [8] Then your light shall break forth early in the morning, and your healings shall rise quickly; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. [9] Then you shall cry out, and God will listen to you; while you are still speaking, he will say, here I am. If you remove from you a bond and a stretching of the hand and a murmuring word, [10] and give to one who is hungry bread from your soul and satisfy the soul that has been humbled, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noonday.

Jesus did not simply claim to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, He did signs and wonders to prove He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah.   God promised healings would occur in Israel when they did the right kind of fasting and indeed Jesus heals the sick.  God promises to listen to the prayers and appeals of Israel if they fast correctly, and it is clear at numerous points in the Gospels that God the Father is with Jesus, fulfills His requests and speaks to Him.  Isaiah says light will come to Israel if they fast as God approves of fasting, and Jesus is presented in Scripture as the Light of the world.

And John, calling to him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight.  And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”   ( Luke 7:19-23)

Christ is doing what God associates with the kind of fasting of which He approves. And so He is empowered to heal the sick.  Because Jesus fasts as God commands, we can understand Jesus’ own words about why His disciples do not fast – they do not fast in the way the Jews of the Old Testament fasted.   They are not to follow these ritualistic rules of self denial, but rather are to rejoice in the Lord who empowers them to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah.  They are to do the type of fasting which results in salvation; fasting liberates all who are oppressed by Satan.  Fasting from the corrupt practices of the world, liberates God’s people from the oppression of Satan and from slavery to sin and death.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  (Matthew 9:14-15)

Christ the Word of God in His teaching perfectly embraces and embodies the Word which Isaiah received from God.  Christ teaches a form of fasting which is exactly in line with Isaiah’s vision of the fast which is pleasing to God.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   (Matthew 6:16-18)

Godly fasting is done in the heart where one repents and comes to love those who are oppressed and in need.   Zacchaeus the repentant tax collector fulfills the expectation of Isaiah 58 for he stops oppressing the poor through fraud and threat and instead stretches out his hand to help them.  Zacchaeus repents of unjust contracts and those made by force that oppress people and financially crush them.  He repents at getting ahead and getting wealthy at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves from him.

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.   Luke 19:8-9)

Zacchaeus practices the self denying fasting which God proclaimed in Isaiah 58.  In the Slavic Orthodox tradition, Zacchaeus’ story is the prelude to beginning Great Lent.

There are some echoes that I hear that may be a bit more obscure.  For example, I think the miracles which Jesus does on the Sabbath which liberates one of God’s chosen people from the oppression of sin and disease is the kind of fast that God advocates in Isaiah.  So too were the acts which fed the hungry disciples on the Sabbath day (see Matthew 12; Luke 6, Luke 13-14; John 5, John 9).  While the reaction of the Jewish leadership is to take offense at Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws of the Torah, God is clear in Isaiah 58 that the fast He has in mind releases people from injustice and bondage and slavery of all kinds.  The ritualized fast which results in acts of self deprecation – ashes, sackcloth, tears, kowtowing and prostrations – none of these has God’s approval.  God’s fast liberates His people from all forms of oppression including poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Throughout the Gospels are scattered stories which show Jesus fulfilling the conditions and terms which God said through Isaiah would be pleasing to Him.   Jesus in his merciful teachings and miracles reveals the justice of God and the true nature of fasting which liberates others from oppression.  Fasting is thus related to our business dealings, our politics, how we treat our neighbors, and how we treat the poor.

Crumbs and the Kingdom

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.    (Matthew 15: 21-28)

In the Gospel lessons we are given glimpses in the Kingdom of God, that “up-side-down” kingdom in which human values, priorities and sense of justice is turned on its head.  These glimpses into the Kingdom show us that human logic or justice is not the reigning morality in that place where the first are last, and the greatest are the ones who serve not those being served.

Just prior to this Gospel lesson in Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus had been chided by His own disciples for having said things that are offensive to the Pharisees (15:12) regarding their hand washing and food traditions.   So now, Jesus heads to what probably was the furthest north that He traveled in His lifetime to a region that had a non-Jewish population.

Here, strangely enough Jesus is called both Lord and Son of David – titles the Pharisees certainly did not give to Jesus – by a non-Jew. Obviously this woman knows something of the Jewish religion, and has also heard about Jesus. She has no interest in whether Jesus keeps the Pharisaic tradition, but she believes He has the power to heal her daughter.  Like the woman with the flow of blood who wants only to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, this woman too wants only one thing from the Kingdom – that her daughter be freed of demon possession.  She is seeking from Him that power from God which the Pharisees have ignored in their obsession with keeping their tradition.

It is here in this foreign territory that Jesus utters the phrase, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He may have been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but it is not Israel which has welcomed Him in faith.   However, here a stranger seeks out this itinerant healer and Lord. She is not of the house of Israel and she is not lost, for she has found the very person she was seeking. She has found Him and she will not let Him get away.

The woman not only calls Jesus Lord but gets on her knees before him in an act of reverence – again something that few Jews did in the Gospel.

Though Jesus clearly states His mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, this story shows His being welcomed and professed by those not of the house of Israel. The lost are not seeking to be found, but someone not of Israel’s house and faith is looking for what God is offering to His people.

Jesus responds to the woman using imagery of the heavenly banquet of God’s Kingdom: namely that of food. If indeed this woman knows something of the Messiah and of Jewish beliefs, which she seems to know, then she should also be aware that Jewish food restrictions will not allow her to eat of the same foods as the Jews.

Jesus tosses out to her that He cannot share with her the food that is given to God’s people. He can’t throw the bread from the children’s table to the dogs.

The woman is not deterred or offended by His comment. Like the poor man Lazarus, she longs for the crumbs from the master’s table. Her faith is such that she is willing to accept whatever she can get from Master’s banquet in the Kingdom. She is willing even to be a dog accepting the crumbs that fall from her Master’s table. She is not demanding to sit at the Master’s right and left as some of the disciples did, but her hope is to be allowed to receive what falls from the table on to the floor. Even that will be a blessing from heaven. Being a dog at the Master’s banquet table in heaven is still a blessing. Her faith and priorities are straight.  She has no claims to sitting at the head table, but she values completely the smallest blessing that might fall her way – even if it is discarded from the Master’s table.

Jesus marvels that those not of the house of Israel, those not even being sought by Him, are so eager to benefit from even the crumbs of the Master’s table. The Gentile woman recognizes the value of what Jesus is offering and like Lazarus longs for it, even if only a crumb.   She cares nothing for being recognized as somebody, she cares nothing for show, she understands a crumb from the Kingdom is more important than where she might be sitting when it is given to her.

Indeed the woman’s prayer is heard, all for the sake of a crumb!

Pharisees are obsessing over tradition and rules about washing hands before eating, this woman understands the value of the food being offered. She is not worried about keeping tradition in its minutia, she is willing to receive crumbs from the master’s table no matter how they come her way.  It is not keeping herself clean that is important, it is receiving what is God’s grace that matters.

The Pharisees were majoring on the minors, while this one woman far removed from the faith shaped by Pharisaic obsession with the Law and with being seen by others to be rule abiding, knew the true importance of the tiniest things of God’s grace.

Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (2)

This is the concluding blog somewhat in response to Steve Hayes blog question What is a Miracle?

In the first blog, Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (1), I mentioned a few other blogs I’ve written on the topic as well as a couple of comments from biblical scholars and some thoughts of St. John Chrysostom on miracles.  Here are a few more quotes from contemporary Orthodox writers:

You can read Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s response to the question at my blog What is a Miracle?  

“Were men to be in the purity and sinlessness of Paradise, they would not wait for God to raise the dead, multiply bread or fill a net with fish, and then say: ‘Look at the miracle!’, but would say this about every one of God’s creatures and every moment and breath of their own life.  But, as sin has become a habit among men, every one of God’s innumerable miracles in the world, has, through this, become for men an ordinary, habitual matter.  That these habits in men should not become completely blunted, apathetic and brutalized, God, in His mercy towards sick humanity, gives the further miracle of His innumerable miracles, in order to arouse men and to sober them from the gloomy, soul-destroying habit of seeing nothing miraculous in miracles.”  (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, HOMILIES  Vol 2, pp 181-182)

“The Messiah, wrote Paul Ramsey, did not ‘bear epilepsy or psychosomatic disorders to gain victory over them in the flesh before the interventions of psychoneurosurgery.  Rather is he said to have been born mortal flesh to gain for us a foretaste of victory over sin and death where those twin enemies had taken up apparently secure citadel.’  The healing miracles performed by Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, are not merely metaphors or arbitrary signs for salvation.  They are sacramental acts that bind together heaven and earth.  All of Jesus miraculous healing, and especially the raising of Lazarus, are signs and foreshadowings of his own victory over death on the cross.”  (Vigen Guroian, LIFE’S LIVING TOWARD DYING, p 65)

“Indeed, something strange happens here with religion: instead of help, we are given the cross, instead of promises of comfort and well-being, we hear the certainty: ‘They persecuted me, they will persecute you.’  And when we hear the Gospel about the Pharisees who derided the crucified Christ – ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him’ (Mt 27:42) – are we not immediately reminded of the derision and accusations that are heard today: ‘So, wasn’t your God able to help you?’    And indeed, as long as we expect from God only this type of help, only miracles that would eliminate the sufferings from our life, then these accusations will continue.  And they will continue because any cheap pill is certainly better able to relieve a headache than prayer and religion.  And we will never understand the mystery of the Cross as long as we expect this type of pill from religion–  be it for something trivial or important.  As long as this is the case, regardless of all the gold or silver with which it is covered, the Cross remains what the Apostle Paul said at the dawn of Christianity: ‘a scandal for the Jews, and folly for the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:23).  In our given situation the ‘Jews’ represent those who seek only help from religion, while the ‘Gentiles’ are those who seek clever and easy explanations.  And in this case the Cross is truly a scandal and folly.”  (Alexander Schmemann, O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING? , pp 49-50)

 “A miracle is not magic but the result of synergy, of cooperation, of human actions placed within the divine.”  (Paul Evdokimov, IN THE WORLD, OF THE CHURCH, p 135)

Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (1)

Christ creating Adam & Eve

Dn. Steve Hayes asked in his blog What is a Miracle?   He wondered if  any theologians of the pre-Scholastic period who said anything about miracles (or signs, or wonders).  That prompted me to look up several quotes I had noted over time about miracles.  

I did write a blog back in July, 2009 with the same title as his, What is a Miracle?   My blog answering the question was simply a quote from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom on miracles written in 1986.   The only quotes I had about miracles  from the pre-Scholastic period come from St. John Chrysostom who was concerned that Christians were interested in miracles because they represented getting something in this lifetime which he felt would detract from what is really important – life in the world to come.   Chrysostom like many fathers did keep to the biblical idea that miracles are signs and portents – they point to the reality beyond themselves of the Kingdom of God.  The trouble as Chrysostom noted is that for many miracles cause them to want more out of this life rather than to seek the Kingdom of God to which the miracles/signs point.  (See my blog: Miracles: Signs of the Kingdom in which I did offer a few thoughts on miracles and natural law, and also my blog The Parish: Understanding the Lessons of Christ in which I write about miracles as a lesson to be learned rather than something to be sought in and of itself). 

Now to Chrysostom:

“Chrysostom fears that if people turned to the gospel out of awe at seeing thaumaturgic acts, then faith would be rendered inconsequential.   … The apostle always could perform miracles, but only chose to do so in cases of serious need.  This Paul is the ultimate ascetic who includes in his renunciatory portfolio his miraculous abilities, which he forgoes for the sake of the greater good, the salvation of the whole world.  And the achievement he gains from this strategic chioice – convincing people to believe in the gospel from arguments rather than signs – is, paradoxically, the greatest sign of all.    ‘You see how again (Acts 28:23) he close their mouths, not with signs, but with appeals to the Law and Prophets, and everywhere he does this—although he could have done signs, as well, but finally it would not be a matter of faith.  For this is the great sign: to persuade people from the Law and the Prophets.’”  (Margaret Mitchell, THE HEAVENLY TRUMPET: JOHN CHRYSOSTOM AND THE ART OF PAULINE INTERPRETATION, p 293-294)

St. John Chrysostom castigates those always seeking miracles in this world and for this life because Jesus said, “Seek the spiritual… and I shall furnish all the material things in abundance (Matt 6:32-33,8).  … we have the promise of spiritual things but we gape after those which the eye can see.” (BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS,  p 128)

A couple of comments on miracles based upon reading the New Testament:

“Jesus saw his exorcisms as a demonstration that the end of the age was already present, that the final reign of God was already in operation.  He is recalled, indeed, as making precisely that claim: that his exorcisms were evidence that the kingly rule which God would exercise in the new age was already in effective operation (Matt 12:28/Luke 11:20).”  (James Dunn, THE PARTING OF THE WAYS: BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND AND JUDAISM, p 236)

 “It is necessary to read the miracle accounts of the Gospels and the Acts in the context of the understandings of miracle and natural law in late antiquity and at the same time to recognize their special function in the New Testament narratives.  Nearly contemporary sources such as the LIFE OF APOLLONIUS OF TYANA show that these miracle accounts in the Gospels and the book of Acts were by no means unique and that there was a widespread belief in the power of the divine—and of those human beings with special powers conferred by the divine—to break out of the confines not only of time and space, but of ordinary and natural causality.     The primary interest here in Acts, nevertheless, was not in these ‘extraordinary miracles’ (dunameis…tekousas) (19:11) as spectacles, but in the sovereignty of God the Creator over his creation… and over its laws, not only at the beginning of time but throughout and the very end…”  (Jaroslav, Pelikan, ACTS in the BRAZOS THEOLOGICAL COMMENTARY ON THE BIBLE, p 96)

In the next blog, Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (2), I will quote a few contemporary Orthodox writers on miracles.

Christ & the Crowd: You Feed Them

8th Sunday after Pentecost   2009     GOSPEL:   Matthew 14:14-22

CommunionApostlesAt that time when Jesus went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

Christ & the Crowd
Christ & the Crowd

This Gospel Lesson (Matthew 14:14-22) is a timely lesson for Christians today, for indeed we are exactly like the disciples in vs. 22 whom Christ has made to get into the boat and He has sent us “to the other side.”   For we often sense that all the miracles and glorious things of God happened “over there” and “back then” while all we can do is tell people of the glorious and miraculous signs that Jesus did “over there.”   

 Why doesn’t He still do these things now?  Why doesn’t He feed the 5000 with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread – homeless shelters and soup kitchens could use that kind of help today.  Then they wouldn’t have to rely on donations, the generosity of the weary or grudging public, or on taxes which they hate paying even if the money goes for charity and works of compassion.

 Chrysostom in the 4th Century in one of his sermons apparently faced a similar question, to which he said that in the days of old as recorded in Scriptures they needed miracles and signs because they didn’t have a clear knowledge of God.  But he says to his flock that now “ordinary things shout aloud and declare the Lord.”   

Hubble He points to anything that happens on a daily basis as being parts of the marvels and miracles of God for those who have eyes to see.   Following Chrysostom’s logic, we today might point to the works and discoveries of science as revealing to us the marvelous universe of the Creator God.  Just think about the photos of the Hubble Space Telescope revealing the mysteries of the vastness of a 14 billion year old universe.   Or the discoveries of DNA and what that has revealed about the marvels of the unfolding of life on earth.  Macroscopically and microscopically science reveals to us the marvels of the universe which we do not see revealed in our Scriptures.   As the Akathist Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things,” has it, scientists are the new prophets of God revealing what God is doing in the universe.

 So we stand on “the other side” not just of the Sea of Galilee, but across an ocean, and on the other side of history, where we can tell people about what Christ did “back then” and “over there” and marvel and give thanks.  However Christ has stayed on the other side, and left us to be the heralds of His Kingdom, before He comes to join us.

 Some will say but Christ and the Holy Spirit are still active in the world, and miracles happen daily as attested by saints and countless Christians.  But the claims of God’s actions in the lives of believers is met with total skepticism by those who do not know God – the miracles seem lame, lacking real evidence, anecdotal, and not ending the real problems of the world which continue unabated except for what science does to deal with them.

The miracles of Christ as reported in the Gospel were all signs of the Kingdom of Heaven.  They were intended to make people aware of this other reality, a life beyond this life and a Kingdom not of this world.   Jesus did not feed 5000 daily.  He did not open a free restaurant and distribute food to the hungry every day.  In the Gospels there are only two references to Him performing such a miracle.  This would tend to indicate that though He had miraculous – divine!- power, He used that power judiciously.   He was not mostly a miracle worker as such miracles were done sparingly.   They were used to give people a foretaste of “something other,” of heaven breaking into this world, of God’s Kingdom touching this earth, but not yet fully revealed.   He was, however, the one in whom the the Kingdom of God had been united to the people of earth.

The crowds were satisfied with what Jesus gave them – the bread and the fish, at least.   Would they have been so satisfied if all He gave them was a promise of a Kingdom which was not yet but was to come?  

They did crucify Him in the end.  A king with no army to conquer the world wasn’t all that attractive to them, as Isaiah had predicted (Isaiah 53).  The bread and fish satisfied for a day, but when it wasn’t given to them daily, they had little use for the impoverished itinerant preacher of love and an upside down kingdom.   Maybe that is why the disciples wanted Christ to send the crowds away – they wanted the Kingdom and its marvels, but they were uneasy about the crowd (for whom Jesus had only compassion) and how easily the crowd’s mood does change.  It’s as easy for the crowd to crown as it is to crucify their king.   Many an American politician has experienced that.

Disciples2We who have been sent “to the other side” without the miraculous multiplying bread and fish, were sent to be witnesses (Greek: martyrs) of what Christ did long ago.  We know the story.  We know what it reveals.   Are we willing to live accordingly?  Are we willing to take the loaves and fishes, few as they may be, which we have received from God, to share with a hungry world?   Our hands must not just be stretched out to God begging to receive  blessings from Him.  We are to stretch out our hands offering to the world what we have received from God.

The disciples asked Jesus to send the crowds away – they barely had enough nourishment, resources for themselves.  Instead Jesus takes from the disciples what resources they did have and says, “the crowd doesn’t need to go away, you feed them.”   Our task as disciples, our test of faith, is to see whether we are so willing to be completely and cheerfully generous with what we have been given to make sure the crowd knows the marvels of God’s love and sees the signs of His Kingdom breaking into their reality today.    Our own hearts must be changed first, before we can expect the crowds to want to follow Christ.

A sequel blog:  Life as a Sojourn on a Stormy Sea

Miracles: Signs of the Kingdom

Sermon for May 22, 1994          Sunday of the Paralytic                             Acts 9:32-42, John 5:1-15

Do you believe in miracles?

ParalyticIn today’s scripture lessons we heard of three miracles, only one done by Jesus and 2 accomplished by his disciple Peter. Since we commonly associate miracles with Jesus and the bible, it is worth taking a minute to look at the notion of miracle and what it means for us today.

Our understanding of a “miracle” is based upon our modern understanding of “nature”. We believe nature to show a fair degree of constancy & predictability. A “miracle” is thus that which defies the laws of nature. We believe nature can be understood in a rationalistic sense, that it is fairly constant, can be observed and explained.

Ancient Israel had no word for miracle or for nature. They did not share our understanding of nature & natural laws of constancy. For the people throughout biblical history, natural phenomena are a result of the will of God or even of local deities. Humans effect natural events to the extent that natural phenomena are God’s response to human sin or prayer. Of most importance to us is that the ancients saw nature as merely revealing God or God’s will, and since they saw all true knowledge as coming from God and not from human effort (science), they would expect natural phenomena to tell them something about God, not about what we call nature.

The words in the Old Testament which are sometimes translated to mean miracle are Hebrew words which really mean “sign” an event which points to some future meaning, or an event that draws attention to something else, usually to God.

In New Testament times, the people expected that God would authenticate any disclosure of his intention with supernatural occurrences. In other words, people expected miracles to occur and those miracles would prove God is somehow involved in this event. Thus the Messiah would appear with signs and wonders to confirm that He indeed was sent by God. The main point, the critical understanding of any miraculous event is not, “does it defy nature?”, but is God to be found in the event? Does God control the event? Is God revealed through the event.

The Lord Jesus also reveals another very biblical view. For humans to demand a sign from God is certainly indicative of a lack of faith. Jesus refuses to give a sign when the demand for one comes from the people’s lack of faith. Jesus seemed to know that unless a person already had firm faith in God and was looking for God’s revelation, signs would be worthless and would never lead to conviction.

In other words, a sign is not an event which is so convincing that it makes faith unnecessary. That is unfortunately what many of us modern people are looking for in miracles – an event so convincing that we can know God and do not have to have faith or trust in him.

In John’s Gospel when Jesus feeds the 5000, Jesus seems discouraged by the people’s inability to understand the sign, and he chastises them for wanting nothing more from him then more bread to eat.

And when they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, “Rabbi, when did You come here?”  Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.  “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”  Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”  Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”  Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do?  “Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ”  Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  Then they said to Him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”  And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.   (John 6:25-35)

Probably one question people in the 1990’s want to know is why we don’t see more miracles like the ones recorded in the bible? I know from reading through history that this same question has been asked in almost every generation since the age of the desert fathers. Usually the answer given is that there is now a lack of faith on the part of those who claim themselves to be disciples of Jesus. At the same time at which people are asking why miracles don’t happen any more, in every generation there are also the reports of miracles that did occur – healings, revelations, conversions, God’s answering a prayer, God intervening in history. What is probably true through history is also what was true in the time of Jesus, God gave miracles in response to faith, not in response to the lack of faith.

What is also true is that miracles are the exception not the rule in the bible. The word “miracle” occurs only about 35 times in the bible, and the bible covers some 2000 years of history. Perhaps it is then true that miracles happen to people at moments of absolute faith in God, and we see how rarely those moments occur in the life of God’s people.

Today, I can testify to you only that the I believe the miracles recorded in the New Testament to be true, events that really occurred. I also know these miracles were given as signs so all people might come to believe that Jesus truly is Lord, Messiah, Savior, King.   The miracles were not the main event nor the main purpose of God’s actions.  They are rather signs along the road to help keep us journeying toward the Kingdom of God.   The signs exist to keep us on the right track by reminding us of God’s Kingdom and to keep us alert and watchful for what direction we are to take.

In the feeding of the 5000, the people asked Jesus, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

In the first blog in this series, Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus, I offered a few introductory thoughts about Parables and how truly hearing them is to understand and interpret their meaning.  Here I offer a few comments on parables by focusing on the story of the Sower from Matthew 13.

In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, after listening to their Lord tell the Parable, the Twelve Disciples do not let on if they are puzzled by the meaning of the parable of the sower, but “the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?'”    What puzzles the disciples is why Jesus speaks in parables at all; why does He use parables to teach the crowds, the others, those who aren’t part of the inner circle of chosen disciples, them

We do not know if  the disciples themselves understand the parable.   Interestingly, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proceeds to explain the parable to the disciples, not to the crowd.   Jesus realizes the disciples are saying in a way to avoid embarrassing themselves, “we don’t know what you are talking about.”  In the Gospels, the disciples not understanding the sayings of Jesus is fairly commonplace, and they are sometimes embarrassed by their failure to comprehend.   Before Jesus explains the parable to His disciples, He answers their question (“why do you speak to them in parables?”) in the terms in which they asked it.

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.   For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.   Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”   (Matthew 13:11-17)

The explanation of Jesus touches upon the heart of His message in the Pharisaic world of 1st Century Judaism – you think literally following the Torah is the way to salvation, but your way is in error and has caused you to be deaf and blind.  You are following your own ways and own interpretation, but I am here to heal your eyes and ears and hearts and minds so that you can find the Kingdom of God.  The Jews thought they had found the way – strict adherence to the Torah according to their own interpretation of it.  Jesus says your way is narrowing your mind, hardening your heart and causing you to be deaf and blind to what God is doing, to God’s love and God’s path to the Kingdom.

After talking about why He teaches in Parables, Jesus does explain the Parable of the Sower to His disciples; He sees their question about the crowd as really their own question – what does the parable mean?  In Luke and Mark’s Gospel (Luke  8, Mark 4) it is much more clear that the disciples do not understand the meaning of the parable and Jesus explains the meaning precisely because they have not comprehended it.  As Jesus asks the disciples,   “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)  It is the meaning of the Parables, their interpretation which is essential to Jesus.

 In Mark and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does proclaim the parables to the masses of people, not just to the disciples, but His explanation of the parables, he apparently offers privately to his inner circle of disciples.  There is a public proclamation – the evangelization, the preaching, but then there is the teaching, the explanation which is given to those who have ears to hear – those who care and want to know what the meaning of the parable is.  “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; [34] he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything”  (Mark 4:33-34).

It is interesting that neither St. Paul, nor the Acts of the Apostles ever mentions one of the parables of Jesus.   In the New Testament writings outside the Gospels, the public proclamation – the evangelization and preaching, does not include the parables of Jesus.   There is a difference between the preaching and the teaching of the Church.  What is proclaimed to attract others to the Faith is one message; but that Good News is further explained in the teaching of the Church, which includes the Parables of Jesus.   The Parables belong to the teaching of the church, to the disciples, and those who have ears and are willing to hear.   For those who reject the Good News of God’s Kingdom, the Parables will be of little value for they point to and reveal the Kingdom of God, the very thing non-believers already reject. 

Though St. Paul never mentions the Parables, there is in his writings a very close parallel to the parables in his reference to speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:19-25 (RSV)  [19] nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. [20] Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature. [21] In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” [22] Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. [23] If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? [24] But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, [25] the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

As the disciples and the crowds struggled with understanding the parables, so to St. Paul sees the people in his generation wrestling with something equally incomprehensible – the speaking in tongues.  It is the understanding, the interpretation, the meaning of either parables or tongues which is most important for the church.  But whether listening to the Parables of Jesus when He was preaching, or listening to the speaking in tongues, the difficulty lies not just in hearing the sounds, but in realizing what these sounds mean and what they are revealing to the hearer.

Next: Part 3 The Kingdom of God in Matthew 21:43

Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the Parables of Jesus.

When reading the Parables which Jesus tells throughout his earthly ministry, it is important to have some sense what a parable is and how we should try to understand it.  A parable and a miracle story are different from the point of view that the miracle is based in an historical event, while the parable is a story with a message.  A parable can use a historical event as part of the story, but the parable is not dependent on the story being historical fact.   A miracle on the other hand is truly special because it is an unusual and perhaps unique historical event – something unexpected that goes against what we would consider to be the normal order of events.  In the Gospels, both parables and miracles serve a purpose of being signs of the Kingdom of God; in other words, their significance lies not in the miracle or parable itself, but in pointing out to us something beyond our historical frame of reference.  A miracle and a parable are efforts to reveal to us the Kingdom of God.  If we seek Jesus out only for a miracle or to hear His wisdom, we in fact are limiting His power and mission, and failing to see what He was trying to point out to us or to point us toward.  A miracle and a parable both can somehow help us have a better life in this world, but their purpose is to point out life in the world to come.

A Parable and an allegory are not exactly the same thing, though in history the two have been intertwined and sometimes the words have been used interchangeably.  In an allegory proper, each name or noun stands for something else (King = God, seed = the word of God), and we read the allegory to help us understand some other reality (so we hear a story about a farmer but realize it is telling us something about  a prophet).  On the other hand, in a parable, one has to read the entire parable and look for meaning in the entire story not just in each separate word.  In a parable, a seed = a seed, a king = a king.  The meaning in a parable is found not in replacing each word with another word (like solving a code), but the meaning is revealed in the “big picture” of the entirety of the story.  

A parable invites interpretation.  For though the parable can stand alone as a story and be sensible, its purpose is to get the hearers of the parable to discern what the purpose, meaning or moral of the story is.   So the parable always points to some reality and meaning beyond its details.  In Jesus’ teachings, parables like miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God – they point to the reality, and help reveal it to us.  In Luke 19:11, we are told the parables were told precisely to refute the idea that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately, the parables are the signs that point to a future reality, which was just beginning to appear.  The parables point to the coming Kingdom because the Kingdom has not yet arrived – they point to the Kingdom already given yet which is to come.  A parable helps point beyond a purely literal reading of the text.   The significance of a parable, as versus an allegorical parable, lies not in decoding what each noun stands for, but in sitting back and contemplating the entire story and trying to see what is the story revealing.

Though the Gospels have Jesus telling parables, Jesus sometimes interprets the parable allegorically (as he does, for example with the sower and the seed in Mark 4).  And since Jesus Himself did it, so too did many early Christian preachers apply allegory to most of the parables of Jesus.  And while this is a possible way to understand the story, we need also return to the fact that the Gospel says these are parables not allegories and so we should also consider the stories as such.

In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus invites his hearers to contemplate what they had heard:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   And even this statement is a parable – for all those who came to listen to Jesus had ears, but Jesus is saying hearing isn’t enough, one has to interpret and understand and comprehend the meaning of the parable.

Sadly, it is possible to understand to whom a parable is directed, and even to understand the purpose of the parable without understanding its meaning and power.  ” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them”  (Matthew 21:45).   They could understand that the parable was directed to them and even against them and yet could not hear what the parable was really saying and so be moved toward God.  They did not bother to try to comprehend the parable’s meaning because they had already rejected the parable teller and parables as a means for conveying God’s truth.  The opponents of Jesus were firmly embracing the Law and a very literal interpretation of the Torah, and so their hearts were not opened to revelations of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a warning for us post-Enlightenment Christians and are penchant for reading the Bible only literally, always seeking sound bites, and trying to proof text everything.   When our approach to Scripture is limited in this way, we limit the power, beauty and creativity of God, and we miss the signs of the kingdom which are evident in the big picture of the parables, longer biblical passages and entire books of the Bible.

Next:  Part 2   The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

The Kingdom of God is at hand: Jesus reaches out to Peter

Gospel for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost 2008:            (Matthew 14:22-34)

Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” [28] And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So    Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to  Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and  beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

This sermon is a follow up on last Sunday’s sermon, The disciples’ Private Picnic. Last week if you recall Jesus and the disciples were tired and wanted to escape to a deserted place to be by themselves.  The disciples apparently had packed a little picnic with which to surprise Jesus –  5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  But when they got to their wilderness beach retreat the crowds like the paparazzi had guessed where they were headed and beat them to the beach using a land route.  So when Jesus and the disciples come ashore at what they think is going to be a deserted place, a large crowd is waiting for them.

The crowd who crashes their private picnic is not like Aunt Sue , Uncle Jim and your four cousins.   For it is 5000 men who show up besides the women and children!  This is like the first Woodstock, with people coming not for a concert, but to be hear Jesus teach.  In the time of Jesus 5000 men plus women and children would have been an entire fair sized town.

And you remember the disciples’ problem – they eventually get hungry and want Jesus to send the crowd away so that the crowd can go buy food for themselves.  Meanwhile the disciples are hoping to show Jesus their little surprise – they have brought along a little food, just enough for themselves.

Our Lord Jesus has other ideas and tells the disciples to feed the crowd which makes the disciples incredulous, but that is exactly what happens.  Jesus takes the food the disciples brought and by praying over it, miraculously multiplies the food so that everyone has more than enough to eat.  And as it turns out it is the disciples who have to distribute the food to the thousands of people sitting there waiting to be served.  And so the disciples learn a significant lesson about being leaders in the kingdom of God – their role is to serve the people, to feed and nurture and care for the people of God before they feed themselves.

And they see the sign of the kingdom of God, that it is not by their strength and preparation alone that God’s Kingdom breaks into the world.  They realize they also are there to serve their Master.  And they learn humility, and generosity and charity all in one lesson.

At the end of the day, there are 12 baskets full of food leftover – just enough for each disciple to get to take one basketful home with him. They are overwhelmed with the abundance, as if they were in Paradise. 

Jesus sends the disciples off in their boat, stomachs full and now the boat is full too of all of this blessed food.  All in all the day didn’t turn out so bad.  They were fed, it didn’t cost them anything, the crowd was very pleased, and they had plenty of food left for the next day.   The Kingdom of Heaven is a blessing indeed.

Jesus waves to the disciples as they disembark, and he stays behind to dismiss the crowd.  The crowd is an interesting phenomenon itself.  5000 men besides their families came to this wilderness place, all to hear Jesus.  They gave up their day’s work and routine to follow Christ.  This is not insignificant in a subsistence culture where one has to work every day in order to be fed.  But here they give up pursuing the things of this world in order to hear about the Kingdom of God, and for this they are richly rewarded, for Jesus feeds all of them.  And he does it purely to give them a sign, a hint about what the Kingdom of God is really like.

And we know Jesus wasn’t mainly a miracle worker, but the Messiah.  And we know this because if Jesus was mostly a miracle worker and could so easily feed the masses, he could have opened up a wilderness resort restaurant right on that spot and the masses would have come every day to be fed, not 5000 but 500,000. 

But Jesus’ miracle was a sign of the coming Kingdom, a foretaste of God’s blessings.  And certainly in Jesus’ own teachings He makes it clear that people should not seek Him just to have their bellies filled with food, but should look beyond the miracle and the food, to what secret and hidden power the miracle refers:  The Kingdom of God!

Meanwhile the overfed disciples are having a rough time of it at sea, and that is where we return to them.  The wind is blowing hard against them and they can’t make progress toward their destination.  It is now past 3am and they are still at sea, and no doubt feeling a lot less secure about this  Kingdom of God thing, for what good does it do to have 12 baskets full of food if your boat can’t make it to land, or if the weather threatens to swamp the boat?    Worse yet, it is Jesus who sent them off into this storm and He chose not to come with them.  And then suddenly their worst fears are realized, for not only is the weather against them, but suddenly they see a ghost walking on water, a sign of sure doom, death is stalking them.

And the fact that the Messiah provided food for them becomes much less important as they realize that despite the signs of the Kingdom, disaster can still strike, and they are not protected from every single threat the world has to offer.  They are blessed by God’s Kingdom, but still living in this unpredictable, fallen and hostile world.  And in this world they have to work hard to survive – in this world even receiving from God’s hand a banquet does not magically protect  one from danger, nor does it mean that we no longer have to work or worry in this world. The Kingdom of God is real, but so are the problems which come with living in a fallen world. 

And it turns out it is no ghost stalking them, but it is their Lord and Master walking on the stormy, turbulent sea.   He does not stop them from having to work hard, nor from having to worry about threats to their existence.  But he once again in an unpredictable way gives them another sign of the Kingdom of heaven.  That Kingdom is coming but is not here yet, and Peter wishing to experience the blessedness of that Kingdom is not yet ready to live in it as he is far too threatened by this world.

And in this world of the kingdom of God, Peter is saved even if shaken by the events, and the disciples recognize that Christ is somehow bringing that Kingdom to them, as He enters their boat, they realize the kingdom of God is very different than they might have envisioned it.  And the Kingdom of  Heaven is not cheap or to be taken lightly, for it is a matter of life and death.

Even when we experience the Kingdom of God breaking into our lives, and when we are filled with the blessed food – the Holy Body and Blood of our Savior – we are not spared the stormy troubles of life.  And sometimes Jesus sends us into these storms, and we feel left alone, and sometimes in these storms we are confronted by our worst fears – our demons and ghosts which haunt us.  But the blessings of the Kingdom of God are real, as real as the storms of life.  We are promised salvation by the Savior, but we are not told that we will be spared the storms of life.   And sometimes we walk in faith onto the stormy water, but the storm is more real and threatening than the kingdom of God and we begin to sink and we cry to the Savior for help.

Indeed, at every liturgy, when we say the petitions of the litany and cry, “Lord have mercy!”  We are taking on the role of the Apostle Peter in the midst of the storm and asking God’s mercy not just for us in the ship of salvation but for the entire world.