Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Ultimate Endurance Contest

The Ultimate Endurance Contest
Luke 21:5-19
November 17, 2013[1]

On one level, our Gospel Lesson for today seems pretty bleak and foreboding.  It can be easy to get caught up in the warnings contained in this reading that we miss the glimmer of hope that we find at the end of the reading.
There is good news in our Gospel Lesson today.  Our Lesson concludes with these words:  “By standing firm, you will save your souls” (Luke 21:19, NIV).  The NRSV puts it this way, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”  
Perhaps you remember that old poster that hung in many a dorm room with the picture of the waterlogged cat hanging from a tree limb.  The caption on the poster reads, “Hang in there, baby!”  It's the ultimate endurance contest!
Let’s start with some context:  Jesus has been teaching and preaching in Jerusalem during that final week that we call Holy.  By this time, Jesus already has turned over the tables of the merchants in the Temple.  The religious establishment is churning, trying to decide what to do about this rogue prophet who is drawing so much attention during the Festival of Passover. 
Some of His listeners are captivated by the majestic appearance of the Temple, that great symbol of Judaism.  It’s hard for us to understand how important the Temple was to ancient Jews.  Some might suggest that the Vatican holds that same level of significance for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, but I don’t think that even the Vatican inspires quite the same degree of devotion.  The Temple represented the identity of the Jewish people--both religious and civic.  It truly was their national treasure.  For Jesus to suggest that the day would come soon in which not one stone of the Temple would be left standing upon another was shocking indeed. 
I should point out that many Bible scholars believe that Luke wrote these words sometime around A.D. 80 and 90, although others suggest that it could have been written even later.[2]  That would mean that Luke was recalling these words of Jesus some 50 to 60 years after Jesus spoke them, and ten to 20 years after His words came to chilling fruition when Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans in A.D. 70.  That would be somewhat like recalling the words of a street corner preacher in 2001 warning of the coming destruction of the World Trade Center.  Luke was helping his audience of Greek readers catch the connection between Jesus’ teachings and the horrible reality that unfolded.
Those who heard Jesus teaching that day certainly were shocked.  They questioned Him, “Teacher, when will these things be?”  “What will be the sign that these things are ready to take place?” (Luke 21:7).  Natural questions, perhaps.  But Jesus knew that if His followers became too preoccupied with those signs of what was to come, they would be too tempted to abandon ship when the time arises.  At the same time, they would become easy prey for others who claim to have “inside information.”  In their parallel accounts of this teaching, Matthew and Mark both add the quote from Jesus, “about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32).
Jesus then points out that things will get worse before they get better.  There will be wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues.  Dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  Persecutions and betrayal.  With the persecutions will come opportunities to speak in my name.  Jesus assures us that we don’t have to worry about what to say—He will give us the words and wisdom (Luke 21:15).  Up to this point, Jesus has been giving us a pretty bleak picture.  But there is good news, also.  For it is then that he says, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
To be honest, in my heart of hearts, I hope that I am not placed into that position.  I am pretty non-confrontational.  I don't have any fantasies about being the last man standing.  I am much more the one who would proclaim, “why can’t we just all get along?” 
Yet, whether our testing comes looking like a scene from Apocalypse Now or the silent bedside vigil of a loved one who is nearing their final breath, Jesus still calls us to faithful endurance, to “standing firm.”  It is the ultimate endurance contest.  What does that sort of endurance look like?
First, it means faithfulness.  We are called to remain faithful and trustworthy to our task.  I recall hearing the stories of police and rescue workers in New Orleans who abandoned their task to seek personal safety.  Against this picture, I think of Detective Robert Williams.  At the time Katrina hit, Detective Williams was undergoing treatment for cancer—multiple myloma—that eventually would take his life.  But when the storm was raging and his co-workers were urging him to get out of town so he could continue to receive the life-extending treatments, he stood firm.  He was honored just yesterday when a new Police Substation Unit for the 8th District was named in his honor.[3] 
It’s the sort of faithfulness that we teach to our kids.  Remember the Dr. Zeuss story about an elephant named Horton who keeps his word and hatches an egg?  Through all sorts of conditions, Horton kept his word.  Even in the worst of times, Horton would repeat the words:
I meant what I said and I said what I meant.
An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.[4]
This sort of faithfulness is the character of martyrs—of Stephen, James, Peter and Paul, of Perpetua and Felicity, Joan of Arc, Jon Wycliffe, Thomas Cranmer.  In more recent days, of Jean Donovan.  But there are so many more that we rarely hear about.  I read an estimate that in the 2,000 years since Jesus lived among us, there have been 70 million Christians who have died for their faith; 45 million of these deaths took place during the 20th century.[5]  I have no idea how that number was calculated, or how liberally they defined what it means to die for Christ.  Even so, it is a huge number.  Even if you took only one-tenth of that number, it is huge.  In our world of relative safety, it is hard to imagine.  Children of God who chose to stand firm, even in the face of death itself.
But these martyrs, whether ancient or modern, were not trusting in their own power; they were trusting in the One who is most worthy of their trust—in Jesus Christ himself.  It was this same Jesus who assured them that He would give them the words to speak when it was time.  Now those words of Jesus are not an invitation to go unprepared.  They don’t excuse the preacher from entering the pulipt unprepared.  Rather, Jesus is inviting them to live boldly, trusting in His promise to be with them and, when necessary, to give them the words to say.
Yet, I still have to wonder what motivates women and men to stand up in the face of death and witness for their Lord.  How would you respond in those circumstances?  How would I respond in those circumstances?  I don’t believe any of us can say for certain.  The challenges we face are much more mundane.  We live quiet lives in a quiet town and ultimately even die quietly.  Enjoying times of love, life and laughter along the way. 

Yet, that quietness masks the struggle that many of us face along the way.  The struggle to provide; the struggle to survive; the struggle to raise our children with the work ethic and the moral ethic that they need to survive, if not thrive, in today’s world.  When I preached this sermon this morning (November 17, 2013), I relied on a quote that was attributed to Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau was said to have written that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”[6]  I subsequently found another source that that this actually was a combination of quotations:  one from Thoreau and one from Oliver Wendell Holmes.[7]  So much for internet integrity!  But the point remains—we lead quiet, desperate lives and we keep our song bottled up.

I think that the words of Jesus in today’s lesson, urging us to “stand firm,” are an invitation to let our song escape.  If we are to live authentic lives with the joy that God has given to us, let us stand firm.  Let the song escape, whether we are celebrating the joy of marriage, the birth of a new life, the maturing years of seniorhood, or offering prayers of thanksgiving for a life that has left us.
But when those times of desperation come, Jesus invites us to keep on singing.  Not ignoring the realities around us, but joining with the hymnist in affirming that “whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”[8]
Perhaps you have seen the picture that has been circulating on the internet and on the news in the past few days:  a picture that shows the devastation that has taken place in the Philippines, caused by Typhoon Haiyan.  The picture was taken in Tanauan a small town in the central Philippines.  You can see the remnants of buildings, lying on the ground.  You can see the trees completely devoid of leaves.  But in the center of the picture you can see a statue of Jesus, standing tall, arms outstretched, beckoning to all to stand firm. 
Some say it’s a miracle.  Others say not.  I can’t say for sure.  But I certainly can say that it is a testimony to the assurance that Christ offers to us all, telling us to stand firm, to endure.  Telling us to "Hang in there, baby," reminding us that we are God’s children, and assuring us that He will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 175.
[3] Dan Lawton, “New N.O. police substation honors dedicated officer, ” from The Advocate, viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at
[4] Dr. Zeuss, Horton Hatches the Egg (New York: Harpercollins, 2004).
[5] Susan Brinkmann, “The Greatest Story Never Told” in Catholic Online:  The Catholic Standard and Times (December 5, 2008), viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at national_story.php?id=30882.
[6] See “Henry David Thoreau>/Quotes,” viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at
[7] See “The Walden Woods Project,” viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at  The Walden Woods Project indicates that the first portion of the quote—“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”—was a slight adaptation from Thoreau’s Walden, and the second portion of the quote—“ and go to the grave with the song still in them”—was from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem, “The Voiceless,” which reads “Alas for them that never sing /but die with all their music in them.”
[8] Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 377.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tricky Questions, Life-Giving Answers

Tricky Questions, Life-Giving Answers
Luke 20:27-40
November 10, 2013[1]
While growing up, I had a close friend named Keith.  Keith was my age and we were in the same Sunday School classes at church.  We both had strong spiritual leanings, but we also had active, inquiring minds.  There was no Sunday School teacher and no adult in a position of authority who could feel safe from the cross examination that was likely to take place when they appeared in our class room.  It shouldn’t have been a surprise what happened that Sunday morning when we were in the Seventh Grade and they entrusted our class to a well-intentioned sixteen year-old girl to teach us.  She wasn’t prepared for the intensive grilling she would receive from her “know-it-all” students when she insisted that Jesus turned the water into “unfermented wine.”  When we challenged her, we did so with such enthusiasm that she fled from the room in tears.  We weren’t quite sure what we did wrong.  That was the last time that the sixteen year-old girl taught our class.  If I remember correctly, she was replaced by the retired grandfather of another kid in the class.
Little did I know at the time that our Socratic style of interrogating our teacher was nothing new.  Jesus faced such interrogations himself on multiple occasions.  Our Gospel Lesson this morning records one of them.
We often talk about the Pharisees—the Gospels mention them frequently.  We don’t hear about the Sadducees so often.  It is hard to compare them to any group in our society today.  In the religious circles of Jesus’ day, the Sadducees represented the high priesthood, the aristocracy of the religious establishment.  In order to make it to the inner circle of the highest levels within the Temple order, you had to be a priest, born of the House of Aaron.[2]  There seems to have been a certain “air” among the Sadducees.
Our Lesson this morning takes place after Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, riding into town on a borrowed donkey, amid the palm branches and the hosannas.  Jesus has been teaching in the Temple.  The chief priests and scribes had taken their best shot to stump Jesus and they had failed.  The Pharisees also had tried to stop Jesus, but without success.  On this particular day, the Sadducees decided to try.
They came to Jesus with a question—not a sincere, truth-seeking question, but with an absurd hypothetical question.  Most Jews those days knew that the Sadducees did not believe in any notion of resurrection, so when they asked this long-winded question about resurrection, Jesus knew that they were trying to set a trap. 
A man who was one of seven brothers dies, leaving a childless widow.  Under the law of Moses, it was the duty of the next eldest brother to take the widow in marriage to perpetuate the name and family of the older brother.  Any children born of the second marriage would be treated as if the first husband was the father.  Those children would stand in line to inherit the estate.  You can read about this practice, known as “levirate marriage,” in Deuteronomy 25:5-10
Now in this hypothetical question, one after another of those brothers died, still childless, and the next brother does his duty and marries the unlucky widow.  None of these marriages produces a child.  (I’m not sure who would worry more about this practice—the widow or the youngest brother.)  The questioner then asks, in the world to come, whose wife would the woman be?  (Luke 20:29-33).
It’s an absurd question.  It’s not a question that was grounded in reality, in a real world quest to find meaning and truth.  It is a question in which smart men were trying to outsmart Jesus.  It is the sort of question that Jesus very well could have ignored.  In their question, the Sadducees were really trying to press their own case that there was no such thing as resurrection.
It was clear to Jesus that this hypothetical question was a thinly-veiled attempt to pigeonhole Jesus into an ideological or theological category, but Jesus refused to be categorized.  He did point out that that resurrection was inherent even the Torah’s story of Moses and the burning bush—the Sadducees could not quarrel with Jesus here, within their own frame of reference.  Jesus then made his real point:  the Sadducees were so caught up in an earthly understanding of resurrection that they missed entirely the promise of life, of eternal life in the spirit, that God offers.  God is the God of the living and not of the dead.
The scripture tells us that some of the scribes congratulated Jesus on his response:  “Teacher, you have spoken well” (Luke 20:39).  Although not everyone was convinced, Jesus seems to have quieted the Sadducees questions, at least on that day.  I suspect that Jesus knew that logic would not have persuaded the Sadducees who were out to trick Him.  The Sadducees were not looking for truth; they were looking for someone to agree with their own preconceived notions.  They were not seeking pastoral care or advice on issues of life and death; they were seeking a pretext to arrest Jesus.
Had they been looking for direction on how to find eternal life, they would have heard Jesus point them to the commandments, then invite them to let go of their possessions that actually possessed them, and to follow Him (Luke 18:18-25).
Had they been seeking, as did Nicodemus at night, the secret of being born anew into the life of the spirit, they would have heard the assurance that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Had they been looking for comfort in the face of death, they would have heard Jesus proclaim, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26a). “I go to prepare a place for you… I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
Instead, they tried to put Jesus into a corner with their trick questions.  Even so, under the glare of their questions, Jesus responded with words of life, taking the opportunity to affirm that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—are not dead but alive” (Luke 20:38).
By their question, the Sadducees demonstrated that they really didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about.  They were asking an earthly question about a marriage as they knew it and an ancient custom that was created to solve an earthly dilemma.  Jesus responded to their question by talking about life—but not just ordinary life.  There are two words in Greek that are translated as “life” but they have very different connotations.  The first one is the word from which we get our word biology.  It means physical, biological life.  The Sadducees seemed to assume that resurrection meant an extension of physical, biological life with its various customs.  Jesus responds, however, by speaking about ζωὴ, about spiritual life—life that may begin as natural, physical life but into which God breathes the breath of life and we become living souls.  This is the eternal life to which Jesus invites us (John 3:16).  This is the abundant life that Jesus offers to us (John 10:10).  This is the life Jesus was speaking about when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
So often, we come to Jesus with questions about life and death and what lies beyond.  Jesus doesn’t mind our questions.  He understands our questions.  But he doesn’t want us to seek the “living among the dead” (Luke 24:5).  He responds to us with life, with bread, with himself, the “bread of life”.
As we come to the Table this morning, Christ invites us to come with our questions.  But let us come seeking life—the life that Christ offers to us freely.  For God offers to us a choice:  “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, NIV).
May it be so!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] See Daniel R. Schwartz, “Jewish Movements of the New Testament Period” in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament:  New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 526 at 527.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Saint in the Sycamore

A Saint in the Sycamore
Luke 19:1-10
November 3, 2013[1]

Where do you look to find a saint?
On a day almost 2,000 years ago, while traveling through Jericho, Jesus found a saint (or at least a saint-in-progress) perched in a sycamore tree. 
To most people, Zacchaeus hardly seemed like saint material.  Physically, he was unimpressive.  He was short.  He did not command much of a physical presence.  Socially, he was an outcast.  He was a tax collector, but not just an ordinary tax collector.  He was the chief tax collector in a very wealthy district.  It’s possible that Zacchaeus compensated for his short stature by overachieving in his work.  He rose to success, and his success put him in league with Rome.  He may have been successful financially, but spiritually, he was lost.  His financial success was earned at the expense of his Jewish brothers and sisters. 
Luke describes Zacchaeus as being so desperate to see Jesus—desperate to see just who this Man was that was stirring up so much excitement—that he ran ahead of the crowd so he could find a place to get a good view—a place where no one would be able to crowd him out of the way.  The best place he could find was overhead, in a sycamore tree.  No one would be able to block his view there.
Zacchaeus didn’t care what everyone thought about him.  He didn’t care that running to get ahead of the crowd, and climbing up a tree were both beneath a man of his station.[2]  He was used to that.  Nobody liked him; but he didn’t care as long as they paid their taxes.
So who did Jesus see when he raised his eyes into the treetops?  Did Jesus see the local agent of the Roman Empire, who cheated his fellow Jews and lined his own pockets?  Did Jesus see a desperate man who broke all the rules of decorum?  Did Jesus see who Zacchaeus was or who Zacchaeus could become?  Did Jesus see a sinner in the sycamore tree, or did He see someone who was a beloved child of God and who could be transformed into a saint, a holy man of God?
Perhaps Jesus saw both sides of Zacchaeus.  Clearly, Jesus saw the promise of sainthood in Zacchaeus, for Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s home for the evening.  Jesus could have stayed with any of the rich and famous of Jericho, with any of the religious community, or with any of the devoted throng who followed him.  Yet Jesus sought out this sinner who had the promise of becoming a saint.  This is another example of God’s prevenient grace—grace that seeks us out even before we know we are lost.
When Jesus’ words begin to sink into Zacchaeus’s psyche, Zacchaeus undergoes a remarkable conversion.  Life will never be the same for him.  He offers to give away half of his goods to the poor, and to make restitution four-fold to anyone he had cheated.  In doing so, Zacchaeus proves the genuine nature of his repentance; he goes above and beyond the duty of restitution required by the Law of Moses.[3]  As a result, Jesus is able to proclaim that “salvation has come to this house” and he confirms that Zacchaeus also is a “Son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).  By affirming that salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus, Jesus also affirms that Zacchaeus has been restored to the community.  He is no longer the outcast.  Zacchaeus has been made whole, just as surely and just as miraculously as the lepers who were cleansed.  Jesus uses this incident to reaffirm his purpose in ministry:  “to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
But does Zacchaeus’s repentance make him a saint?  Just what is a saint, anyway?  Sometimes we tend to put saints on such a high pedestal that no one ever could attain that status.  At other times, we dilute the meaning of sainthood so that anyone who is not evil incarnate makes the cut. 
To my knowledge, the Bible never really defines the word “saint.”  In fact, when our English translations use the word “saint” as a noun, the original text actually is an adjective, hagios, that would be better translated as “holy one.”—someone who has been set apart for a sacred purpose, someone who has been made holy by our holy God.[4]  The Bible makes it clear that are called to repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 5:32), that God calls people to be saints (Romans 1:7), and that God calls us to transformation through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). 
I’m not sure that God cares so much about the label of sainthood; I think that He cares much more about the underlying reality.  To be a saint, you don’t necessarily have to pass a theology exam, work for the church or become a martyr.  The two keys to sainthood that I see in the story of Zacchaeus were that (1) he desperately wanted to see Jesus; and (2) he committed to turning his life around.  Jesus was able to see those two qualities in Zacchaeus even while Zacchaeus was hiding in the sycamore.
Can it really be that each of us is called to become a saint?  I feel as though I have a long way to go.  We can see our own sin, our own failures, our own brokenness and, like the Psalmist, confess that our “sin is ever before” us (Psalm 51:3).  The Good News is that Jesus sees beyond our sins and sees that we are children of God.  He sees that we, too, can become saints.  He may not find you in the sycamore tree, but He finds you wherever you are and just as you are.  He can find you where you are right now.
But even that is not the end of the story.  The key to realizing our identity as children of God comes, not because of what we do, but because of what God through Jesus Christ has done.  In a very real way, we can celebrate “All Saints’ Sunday” not because of the towering achievements of holy women or holy men; rather, we celebrate the transforming work of the Resurrected Christ in the lives of ordinary women and ordinary men.  Because we have seen the work of Christ in their lives, we too can live in the hope that Christ can transform our lives.  We celebrate this hope every time we celebrate Holy Communion, as we look forward to the day that Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
It is our custom on All Saints’ Sunday to take a few moments to remember the saints in our lives.  We do not remember them just because we love them or just because we miss them.  We do not remember them in order to gloss over their human frailties and make them more perfect than they were.  We remember them, instead, as a powerful testimony of the power of the Resurrected Christ to change lives.  Just as He did it for them, He can do it for us today. 
Where do you find a saint?  Look to the left of you.  Look to the right of you.  Look in the mirror.  Jesus may not find you in a sycamore tree, but he is calling to you now, right where you are.  All of us are called to become saints!  May it be so, today!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church on November 3, 2013 (All Saints’ Sunday).
[2] See M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 240 (re:  Luke 15:20) and 253 (re:  Luke 19:5). 
[3] See M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 254 (re:  Luke 19:8).
[4] Michael J. Gorman, “Saint” in Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, gen. ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2009), 41.