Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Highlighting the Bible, Part IX: 1 and 2 Corinthians

A. Hanson, NYC 2014
Paul's first and second letters to the Corinthians are part of an ongoing conversation with the community at Corinth.  It is theorized that Paul wrote an earlier letter to this community, and these letters continue conversations.  They are an interesting snapshot into the lives, concerns, disagreements, hopes, and joys of these early churches.  Portions of 1 Corinthians are often read at weddings because of the focus on love.

The following passages from 1 and 2 Corinthians do not appear in the lectionary:

1 Cor 4 (The Ministry of the Apostles; Fatherly admonition)

1 Cor 5 (Sexual immorality defiles the church; Sexual immorality must be judged

1 Cor 6:1-11 (Lawsuits among believers)

1 Cor 7:1-28 (Directions concerning marriage; The life the Lord has assigned; The unmarried at the Widows)

1 Cor 7:32-40 (more discussion about marriage, love, and honor in relationships)

1 Cor 9:1-15 (The rights of an apostle)

1 Cor 9:24-27 (talking about enslaving the body to belief)

1 Cor 10:14-33 (command to flee from the worship of idols; Do all to the glory of God)

1 Cor 11:1-22 (Head Coverings; Abuses at the Lord's supper)

1 Cor 11:27-34 (Partaking of the Supper unworthily)

1 Cor 14 (Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues; Orderly Worship)

1 Cor 15:12-18 (The resurrection of the dead)

1 Cor 15:27-58 (more commentary on the resurrection; what happens to the physical body after resurrection)

1 Cor 16 (The collection for the saints; plans for travel; Final messages and greetings)

2 Cor 1 (salutation; Paul's thanksgiving after affliction; postponement of Paul's visit)

2 Cor 2 (more about Paul's visit; forgiveness for the offender; Paul's anxiety in Troas)

2 Cor 3:1-11 (Ministers of the new covenant)

2 Cor 5:1-5 (we know that our earthy dwellings will not endure)

2 Cor 6:11-18 (the Temple of the living God)

2 Cor 7 (Paul's joy at the church's repentance)

2 Cor 8:1-6 (Encouragement to be generous)

2 Cor 8:16-24 (commendation of Titus)

2 Cor 9:1-5 (the collection for Christians at Jerusalem)

2 Cor 10 (Paul defends his ministry)

2 Cor 11 (Paul and the false apostles; Paul's suffering as an apostle)

2 Cor 12:11-21 (Paul's concern for the Corinthian church)

2 Cor 13:1-10 (Further warning to examine their lives of faith)

Highlighting the Bible part VIII: Romans

A.Hanson, NYC 2014
Paul's letter to the Romans is one of the most beloved Pauline epistles (or letters).  Paul had been a missionary for a number of years at the time of its writing.  Romans has a well developed theology (hence its favored status among Lutherans and other Protestants) and is distinct in that it is the only letter that was not written to a congregation founded by Paul or a person whom he converted.

All of Paul's letters begin with a salutation.  The letter to the Romans is written to "all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints."

The following passages from Paul's letter to the Romans do not appear in any lectionary passage:

Romans 1:8-32 (Prayer of Thanksgiving; The Power of the Gospel; the Guilt of Humankind

Romans 2 (The righteous judgment of God; The Jews and the law)

Romans 3:1-18 (continuing the argument that law does not save; None is righteous)

Romans 4:1-12 (The Example of Abraham)

Romans 7:1-13 (An Analogy from Marriage; The Law and Sin)

Romans 9:6-33 (commentary on God's election of Israel; God's wrath and mercy; Israel's unbelief)

Romans 10:1-4 (commentary on Paul's desire that all be saved)

Romans 11:3-28 (Israel's rejection is not final; The salvation of the Gentiles; All Israel will be saved)

Romans 11:33-36 (a hymn of praise to God)

Romans 13:1-7 (Being subject to authorities)

Romans 14:13-23 (Do not make another stumble)

Romans 15:1-3 (Please others, not yourself)

Romans 15:14-33 (Paul's reason for writing so boldly; Paul's plan to visit Rome)

Romans 16:1-23 (Personal greetings; final instructions

Highlighting the Bible, Part VII: The Acts of the Apostles (Acts)

A.Hanson, NYC 2014
The book of The Acts of the Apostles is part of a series with Luke's Gospel.  The title is quite informative, as the book does indeed refer to the actions of Jesus' apostles.  It tells the story of the growing Christian church from its very beginnings in Jerusalem.  We often only pay attention to Acts when the story of Pentecost is read (Acts 2:1-21) or perhaps the story of the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11).  This book traces the path that the first believers traced in their work of evangelism and many of the places mentioned in Acts will be found in letters that the apostle Paul writes.

The following passages from Acts do not appear in the lectionary:

Acts 1:18-20 (a commentary about the scriptures being fulfilled about Judas' betrayal)

Acts 3:1-10 (Peter heals a crippled beggar)

Acts 3:20-26 (commentary cited from Moses about the coming of a prophetic messiah)

Acts 4:1-4 (a description of the arrest of Peter and John because they were telling the story of the resurrection)

Acts 4:13-31 (The believers pray for boldness)

Acts 4:36-37 (a description of Joseph, called Barnabus, who sold some land and gave the proceeds to the apostles)

Acts 5:1-26 (Ananias and Sapphira, the healing of many by the apostles, and the persecution of the apostles)

Acts 5:33-42 (A pharisee named Gamaliel convinces the crowds not to arrest the apostles)

Acts 6 (Seven chosen to serve: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, also the arrest of Stephen)

Acts 7:1-54 (Stephen's speech to the council)

Acts 8:1-13 (Saul's persecution of the church, Philip preaching in Samaria)

Acts 8:18-25 (Simon offered to pay the apostles to lay hands on him and give him the holy spirit)

Acts 9:19-35 (Saul preaches in Damascus, Saul escapes from the Jews, Saul in Jerusalem, the healing of Aeneas)

Acts 10:1-33 (Peter and Cornelius)

Acts 11:19-30 (The Church in Antioch)

Acts 12:12-25 (Peter is released from prison and goes to visit Mary the mother of John.  No one believes he is alive; the death of Herod)

Acts 13: (Barnabus and Saul are commissioned; The apostles preach in Cyprus; Paul and Barnabus in Antioch of Pisidia)

Acts 14 (Paul and Barnabus in Iconium; Paul and Barnabus in Lystra and Derbe; The return to Antioch in Syria)

Acts 15 (The council at Jerusalem; The council's letter to gentile believers; Paul and Barnabus separate)

Acts 16:1-8 (Timothy joins Paul and Silas; Paul's vision of the man of Macedonia)

Acts 16:35-40 (the magistrates release Paul from jail in Phillipi)

Acts 17:1-21 (The uproar in Thessalonica; Paul and Silas in Beroaea; Paul in Athens)

Acts 17:32-22 (a few believers come to the church based on Paul's sermon at the Areopagus)

Acts 18 (Paul in Corinth; Paul's return to Antioch; Ministry of Apollos)

Acts 19:8-41 (The Sons of Sceva; The riot in Ephesus)

Acts 20 (Paul goes to Macedonia and Greece; Paul's farewell visit to Troas; The Voyage from Troas to Miletus; Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders)

Acts 21 (Paul's journey to Jerusalem; Paul visits James at Jerusalem; Paul arrested at the Temple; Paul defends himself)

Acts 22 (Paul tells of his conversion; Paul is sent to the Gentiles; Paul and the Roman Tribune; Paul before the Council)

Acts 23 (Paul before the Council; the plot to kill Paul; Paul sent to Felix the Governor)

Acts 24 (Paul before Felix at Caesarea; Paul's defense before Felix; Paul held in custody)

Acts 25 (Paul appeals to the emperor; Festus consults King Agrippa; Paul brought before Agrippa)

Acts 26 (Paul defends himself before Agrippa; Paul tells of his conversion; Paul tells of his preaching; Paul appeals to Agrippa to believe)

Acts 27 (Paul sails for Rome; The storm at sea; The shipwreck)

Acts 28 (Paul on the island of Malta; Paul arrives at Rome; Paul and Jewish leaders in Rome; Paul preaches in Rome

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Your sighs and groans and mumbled prayers are heard by God in heaven…a sermon on Romans 8:26-39

A. Hanson, NYC 2014
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God who promises to hear our prayers.  Amen. 

Let’s listen one more time to today’s reading from Romans, chapter 8, verses 26-39:

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            This portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written as a sort of encouragement to followers of Jesus. Paul is acknowledging that the road that believers walk is difficult, and that even in their present suffering, God bears with them. Paul is NOT equating suffering with what it means to be a Christian or saying that suffering now will pay off with salvation in the future.  Paul is saying that suffering is part of what it means to live in a broken world.
            While we do not live under the oppression of the Roman Empire, we certainly know what it means to live in a broken world.  And while we are eavesdropping on a letter written to another people in another time and place, Paul’s letter to the Romans provides hope for us even now. We need to hear that in the midst of what feels like a broken God-forsaken world, with immigrant and refugee children being detained in unimaginable and inhuman conditions in our own country, passenger planes being shot out of the sky in Ukraine, and land strikes on children and families in Gaza, we need to hear that God is present and knows that our weeping and our groans and our sighs are prayers. 
It is easy to become discouraged with all the suffering in the world.  It is understandable to ask, “where is God in all this mess?” and believe that suffering points to God’s absence rather than God’s presence.  I don’t have some theological rationale for why suffering exists.  I don’t have a neat answer for you.  It would be a mistake to look at this text from Romans and parse out sound bites that would attempt to explain suffering in this broken world, such as, “ We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  This sounds suspiciously like it could be manipulated into the baseless platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason” or “God never gives you more than you can handle.”  Sometimes suffering is just suffering.  Life is hard.  Suffering is not part of the roadmap of how to be a Christian, but unfortunately, it is part of what it means to be human.
So is there any good news? It’s good news to me that the Holy Spirit helps us pray when we are too weak to do so on our own.  When we cannot even form words, just sighs. And that same Spirit intercedes for us with God who promises to hear our prayers. Somewhere along the line, maybe in Sunday School, maybe as a result of memorized prayers before going to bed or table graces, many of us got the idea that a prayer is only a prayer if it makes sense and sounds good.  Anne Lamott writes in her book, Help, Thanks, Wow, “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” So your sighs and groans and tears and mumbled prayers are heard by God in heaven. 
I remember how liberated I felt when I learned that I could actually shout at God when I was angry because God can take it.  God does not want or need us to kneel quietly, fold our hands neatly and pray with the eloquence of Jesus himself.  God loves us just as we are and wants us to bring our whole selves to our prayers. God does not love us any less if we are not blessed with the gift of words or if we shout “God, where are you?!” or even if our prayer is something along the lines of “Whoever you are, I hope you are listening.” 

And while it is good news that the Spirit intercedes for us, the even better news is that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Suffering is real.  Pain is real.  Sin is real. It can feel like God is absent from our lives, and yet, God became human and lived among us and lives in us, so we never have to be apart from God again.  Nothing will separate us from God.  Not hardship, distress, addiction, mental illness, divorce, abuse, persecution, famine, nakedness, poverty, wealth, peril, fear, doubt, certainty, sword, war, politics, violence or even we ourselves.  Nothing in all of creation, in this broken world, can separate us from God. Sin still exists in the world.  Brokenness still exists in the world.  But the hold that sin, death, and evil has on God’s beloved people, which is ALL people, has forever been broken.  Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles

July 22 is the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles.  It is also my birthday, so I feel a special affinity for this brave woman.  Mary Magdalene was the first preacher of the Gospel.  She testified to what she had seen, this crazy story that the tomb was actually empty and  that Jesus had risen from the dead. I draw on her strength when I am feeling like I just don't have it in me to preach.  And I remember Mary Magdalene running to the disciples crying, "I have seen the Lord!"   It was a simple sermon, yet it meant everything. I draw on her strength when I feel like the deeply entrenched patriarchy of the professional clergy is too much to bear.  I hold Mary Magdalene in my heart every time I step up to the pulpit to preach.

Here is her story from John 20:11-18,

 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene was the first preacher of the resurrection!  In one of my first Bible classes at seminary, we learned that if a woman was actually named and described in the scriptural texts, she was extraordinarily important. We don't hear much about where Mary Magdalene came from, or how she came to be a follower of Jesus.  She is not a prostitute like so many people think. 

In the other Gospels, she appears primarily at the time of Jesus' death and at his empty tomb. 

Matthew 27:56-61, Mary Magdalene and other women sitting vigil at the death of Jesus, sitting at the tomb after the burial

Matthew 28:1, Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to the tomb, presumably to tend to it with spices 

Mark 15:40-47, Mary Magdalene sitting vigil at the death of Jesus and participating in the burial

Mark 16:1 (shorter ending of Mark) Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James go to the tomb to anoint Jesus.  They witness the empty tomb.

Mark 16:9 (Longer ending of Mark) We hear that Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene (from who he had cast out seven demons) and she goes out and tells the good news to the disciples

Luke 8:2, We hear that Jesus has cast seven demons out from Mary Magdalene, and that she, alone with Joanna and Susanna, helped to provide resources for Jesus and the disciples 

Luke 24:1-11, Mary Magdalene and the other women are again at the tomb with spices.  But they find it empty.  They remember the words of Jesus and run to tell the disciples, who do not believe them.