By the Rev. Darren Miner
This is only the second Sunday in Lent, but I am already longing for Easter, for that glorious celebration of the Resurrection. But that is in the future, and for now, I find myself lamenting. I lament not just my own sins, which are many, but the brokenness of this world. The news coming out of New Zealand about a mass murder weighs heavily on my soul. Such evil is a mystery, and it is hard to live with mysteries, with things we just can’t explain or understand. But, if the truth be known, evil is a lesser mystery. Fortunately for us, there is a greater Mystery, a countervailing Mystery, a triumphant Mystery, whom we call God.
We encounter that Mystery in the first reading from Genesis. Abraham, who has not yet received his new name from God and is known as Abram at this point, is the recipient of a divine vision. God promises Abraham a great reward. But Abraham laments to God that no reward has any meaning to him since he has no children. God responds by promising Abraham offspring, despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah are both far too old to expect children. And God further promises that, from his offspring, he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. To his great credit, Abraham believes the Lord.
What happens next seems bizarre to us. God commands Abraham to collect five animals and to cut three of them in half! Why? Well, this is where a little knowledge of ancient Near Eastern customs comes in handy. What is being proposed is a solemn oath-taking. In the ancient Near East, one way a person might make a solemn oath was to cut an animal in two and then to walk between the two halves while making the oath. The idea, whether spoken or left unspoken, was that the person passing through the cloven animal was accepting a curse upon himself should he fail to fulfill the oath: “May I die like these animals if I forswear myself.”
So, the cutting up of the animals is not all that strange after all. What is strange is that it is not Abraham who passes through the cloven animals and takes the solemn oath. It is God! At sundown, Abraham falls into a deep trance, and in that altered state of consciousness, he witnesses a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch being carried through the midst of the slaughtered animals by an invisible figure. A voice then declares this oath: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
God kept his oath to Abraham. He had children. And they had children. And some of their descendants did indeed inherit the Promised Land. Nowadays, we have DNA tests that you can take at home and mail in. And I suppose that it would be possible to try to trace one’s ancestry back to Abraham. But that would be missing one important point. Not only did Abraham have many descendants according to the flesh. He had even more descendants according to the spirit.
By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of forty days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those who attended the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy introduction to Lent that ends with this invitation: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
The purpose of self-examination during Lent is not to admire ourselves in the mirror and praise ourselves for our accomplishments, but to become aware of our temptations and to repent of our sins. Now, unlike the rest of us, Jesus did not sin, not ever. But he did know what it was like to be tempted. And in today’s Gospel, we hear the story of his temptation.
It begins right after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The English translation we heard today says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It makes it sound like the temptation of Jesus was a chance occurrence. The original Greek text, however, says something a little different. It says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness in order to be tempted by the Devil for forty days.” In other words, the entire event takes place at God’s behest, not the Devil’s.
Why would God test his Son? Unfortunately, we are never told explicitly, but I have some ideas on the subject. I suspect that this time of testing was necessary for Jesus to figure out what kind of Messiah he was going to be and what kind of Kingdom he was going to proclaim—and then to come to terms with the consequences of those decisions. Each of the three temptations serves in its own way to clarify Jesus’ thinking. At least, that’s my claim!
In the first temptation, the Devil preys on Jesus’ desperate hunger. After all, Jesus had not eaten for forty whole days. The Devil dares Jesus to magically transform a stone into a loaf of bread. In good Rabbinic tradition, Jesus responds by quoting scripture, in this case Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” Now, to be honest, it doesn’t seem at first glance that the Devil is tempting Jesus to do anything even remotely sinful. But I suspect that the Devil is hoping that, if Jesus gives in to even one self-serving act, it will eventually lead down a slippery slope to a Messiah who is more concerned with feeding himself than he is with feeding a multitude of 5000.
By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the Episcopal calendar, today is known as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the color of the day is rightly green. In other denominations, it’s called Transfiguration Sunday, and the liturgical color is white or gold. For some reason, our Episcopal lectionary insert displays a gold heading, instead of a green one. I have a theory about this: I think there’s a Methodist mole at Church Publishing Incorporated!
But no matter what we call this particular Sunday, it marks the end of the season of Epiphany, and it does so with three Bible readings about epiphanies. The first is an epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, if you will. Then, we hear St. Paul’s take on what that event meant to him in his context as an evangelist to his fellow Jews. Lastly, we hear the story of an epiphany to three of Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor.
Let’s begin with Moses. After spending forty days on Mount Sinai with the Lord, he comes down the mountain to bring his people the Ten Commandments, the covenant between the Lord and the Israelites. Moses was transformed by the time that he had spent in God’s presence. How exactly he was transformed is not clear. The Hebrew text says that “the skin of his face was horned.” When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he translated the Hebrew literally. That’s why Michelangelo’s Moses has two horns! Most modern-day Bible translators understand the phrase to mean that Moses’ face emitted rays of light, which the Hebrews might very well have called “horns of light.”
By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. We heard the first part last Sunday. Remember the Beatitudes and the Woes? For some reason, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain has never achieved the popularity of his more famous Sermon on the Mount. Maybe it has something to do with the aforementioned Woes. Or maybe it’s because of three demands that Jesus puts on would-be disciples: love your enemies, do not judge anyone, forgive everyone.
Now, that word “love” has a multitude of meanings, but Jesus makes clear what he means in this context. To love your enemies means to “do good to those who hate you, to bless those who curse you, to pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus is not asking us to “like” our enemies. “Love” in this context has less to do with feelings, than with actions. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans said, “‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:20–21).” The idea is that doing good to your enemy might bring about a conversion. Having said that, this approach isn’t always successful. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter written while he was being escorted to Rome to be executed, famously commented how, the nicer he was, the worse his guards were in return. At least he tried!
Jesus then touches upon the question of retaliation when he speaks of “turning the other cheek” and surrendering your clothing. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus is advocating absolute passivity in the face of active evil. But something more nuanced is going on here. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is mentioned that the cheek being struck is the right cheek. Believe it or not, this little detail makes all the difference. For, if the attacker is striking the right cheek of his opponent, he is either using his left hand to do it (which was forbidden by Jewish custom), or more likely, he is giving a backhanded blow with his right hand. And in first-century Judea, a backhanded blow was reserved for social inferiors. Turning the other check to your attacker is meant to lure the assailant into striking again, but this time as he would strike an equal.
By the Rev. Darren Miner
Last Sunday, we began that long season commonly called “Ordinary Time.” This season is marked by green vestments, and during Year B of the lectionary, we hear Gospel readings from the Gospel according to Mark. Despite the name “Ordinary Time,” some of the readings during this season are anything but ordinary. Today’s reading from chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel is a case in point.
Jesus has started his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s love. The crowds are so large that he can’t tend to them all. So he appoints twelve apostles to assist him. That same evening, exhausted and hungry, Jesus returns home to Capernaum longing for a meal and some rest. But the desperate crowds follow him home and won’t give him the time or the space to eat that meal.
That is where today’s Gospel reading begins. Then, we are told, back in Nazareth, some 25 miles away, Jesus’ family hears a rumor that Jesus is out of his mind, and they decide to intervene, to put a stop to his ministry. Perhaps they are afraid for Jesus’ safety. Perhaps they are concerned that Jesus might really be mentally ill. Or perhaps they are just embarrassed by the all the gossip. We don’t know their motivations.
Eventually, the rumor of Jesus’ miraculous healings reaches the capital, 100 miles to the south. (Even before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, word traveled fast.) And religious officials are sent to check out the situation. In reaction to Jesus’ miracles, these officials accuse Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul, another name for Satan. They claim that he casts out demons by the power granted him by the king of demons. Jesus responds by demonstrating the faulty logic of their reasoning. For “if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus proceeds to tell a short parable that I would like to call the “Parable of the Home Invasion.” In this parable, a robber invades the home of a strong man, binds him, and then robs his house. Surprisingly, Jesus is the robber in this parable! And Satan is the victimized homeowner. One can infer that the robber’s plunder represents the people whom Satan has tormented and whom Jesus has set free. Satan may be a strong man, but Jesus is the stronger man, it would seem.
Jesus senses that the religious officials are not convinced. And he warns them that all their sins and blasphemies can be forgiven with one exception: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. For that, he says, is an eternal sin.
This idea of an unforgivable sin has puzzled Christians for some two thousand years. In the context of the Gospels, the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is a form of spiritual perversity in which a person witnesses God’s loving action and then proceeds to condemn it as the work of the Devil. In the Letter to the Hebrews, however, the one unforgivable sin is said to be apostasy, the abandonment by a Christian of his or her faith in Jesus Christ. And in later Church tradition, the unforgivable and eternal sin is understood as the total rejection of God’s saving love. Perhaps the best way to characterize this unforgivable sin is to say that it is the stubborn and willful refusal to recognize God when we encounter him.
But let’s get back to the story! Jesus’ family finally arrives to put an end to Jesus’ ministry. The problem is there are so many people crowded in and around the house that the family can’t get to him. So they ask someone to pass the word through the crowd and inform Jesus that his family is outside and insists on seeing him without delay. Jesus’ response is unexpected, to say the least. Recall that Jesus came from a culture in which a child could be put to death for showing disrespect to a parent. And seemingly, that is just what Jesus does. He asks the rhetorical question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He then goes on to answer his own question: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” It would seem that Jesus is renouncing his biological family and replacing them with his followers. But if so, he has left the door open for his family to be received back into his good graces. All they have to do is to submit to God’s will. And eventually they do. We know that by the time of Jesus’ death, both his mother and his brother James were active members of the Christian community.
But what about us today? As modern-day Christians living in the United States of America, how should we answer Jesus’ question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Whom should we recognize as our family? I would submit that the answer Jesus gave still applies: whoever does the will of God is our brother and our sister and our mother. In particular, the faithful Christians doing the will of God in Israel and Palestine are our brothers and sisters and mothers. As you know, I just got back from a two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, the group I was with had the privilege to meet with Archbishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. He confirmed what we had already seen with our own eyes: Christians living in the Holy Land need our support. He went on to tell us that the Anglican hospital in Gaza is quite literally overwhelmed by patients injured during recent conflicts with the Israeli security forces. They are running out of medical supplies and fuel for their generators. So today, we have the opportunity to acknowledge our family in Israel and Palestine and to give them some much-needed help. If you will make a donation to the “Rector’s Discretionary Fund” by June 24, I will forward the amount collected to our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem to use where the need is greatest. I pray that you will find it in your hearts to make a very generous contribution. After all, they are our family!
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
By the Rev. Darren Miner
When I was going through the ordination process, I was asked again and again to explain my experience of God’s call to serve. The question was a bit embarrassing for me, because I didn’t have a dramatic story to tell. For me, God’s call came as a rather vague sense of spiritual hunger. Have you ever been hungry but didn’t know what you wanted to eat? You look through the cupboard, and you root around in the refrigerator trying to figure out what it is that you are craving. Well, that’s what it was like for me when I first experienced God’s call. But God’s call comes in many shapes and forms, and in today’s scripture readings, we have references to three rather dramatic calls to ministry.
First, we heard the story of Isaiah’s call to serve God as his prophet. It begins with a vision of God’s throne room in Heaven. Isaiah sees God himself sitting on a throne, being served by fearsome seraphs singing God’s praise. (And the song they sing should sound familiar, for it is the Sanctus, which we sing at every Eucharist.) Isaiah cowers in fear and shame, bemoaning his sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people. A seraph responds by touching Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal, thereby purifying him from his sin. Ouch! Then God speaks out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” With unbelievable bravery, Isaiah pipes up, “Here am I; send me!”
Now, the lectionary allows us to stop there, on a high note. But if we do that, we miss Isaiah’s actual commission. As it turns out, Isaiah is given the difficult job of going to his people and pronouncing God’s judgment on them. God warns Isaiah that his message will fall on deaf ears. The Children of Israel are expected to do what American children do when they see or hear what they don’t like. They close their eyes. They put their hands over their ears. And they try to drown out the unwanted message by intoning, “La, la, la, la, la….”
By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today we get part 2 of the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. You may recall from last week’s Gospel reading that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. What he read was a mission statement for the Messiah of God: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the release of captives, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and finally, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (also known as the Year of Jubilee). After finishing the reading, Jesus began his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, I warned you last week that the story doesn’t end well. I wasn’t exaggerating, was I? At first, the reaction of the congregation is one of amazement. They are astonished that the son of the town carpenter could preach so eloquently. Seemingly, Jesus had his audience right in the palm of his hands. But then, almost inexplicably, Jesus verbally attacks his audience, accusing them of lack of faith, of needing to see miracles before they will believe. Why would he do that? Since we aren’t told why, we just have to guess. My best guess is that, being a prophet, Jesus knew what was in their hearts, maybe even before they knew it themselves. And he does what every prophet of God does when confronting faithlessness, he denounces it.
The congregation couldn’t have enjoyed having their hardness of heart brought to light. But Jesus might have got away with it if only he had stopped there. But he didn’t. He went on to quote two Bible stories about how God had singled out unbelieving Gentiles for his favor. The implication of these two references to Scripture was that he would have more success with unbelieving pagans than with the folks in his home synagogue. Evidently, being unfavorably compared with Gentiles was just too much to take, and the congregation drove Jesus out of the synagogue and tried to push him off a nearby cliff. But Jesus escaped, passing right through the angry mob unscathed.
By the Rev. Darren Miner
Two Sundays ago, we heard Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. According to his chronology, last Sunday’s Gospel reading should have been the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But instead, the lectionary gave us the wedding feast at Cana. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit. Just keep in mind, that Jesus had just come back from 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness when today’s Gospel story begins.
After his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, to the town where he grew up. He does what every good Jew does on a Saturday morning; he goes to the synagogue service. Small synagogues often didn’t have a regular rabbi to preach, so men in the congregation would take turns reading the appointed scriptures and giving some form of commentary or explanation. (Note that in Jesus’ day the preacher stood to read the appointed scripture, then sat to preach. As some of you know, that’s what I like to do at the Tuesday Eucharist.)
It’s not entirely clear whether Jesus read the appointed scripture or one of his choosing. In any case, what he read is a portion of Isaiah that had long been understood to be the job description of the Messiah. Jesus begins his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The rest of the sermon isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the congregation was so stunned by the opening line that the rest of the sermon was a blur!