Archive for March, 2016

The Easter Story: Joy and Courage
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Easter 2016
March 27, 2016

Luke 24:13-53 Psalm 136

The Easter story is a story of joy and courage. Good Friday is a story of sadness and weakness. But it is followed with the joy of the resurrection and the courage of the early Christian church.
Just three short days ago we reflected on humanity at its worst. The intimate friends of Jesus betrayed Him and denied knowing Him. These are examples of human weakness and fallenness. And in them, Jesus remained with the Apostles, even in their fallen condition. So God remains with each one of us in our fallen condition.
But in three short days, all that changes. The Apostles and the women following Jesus see Him resurrected. Paul tells us that in addition to the Twelve Apostles, five hundred people at once saw the risen Christ. At first the Apostles react with disbelief, so profound is their joy.
The Apostles must have been as confused as they were overjoyed to see the risen Jesus Christ. Let’s look at the way events unfolded. First there was Jesus, and the power of His personality and the healings and miracles and the wonder of His teachings. Jesus attracted a large following and He was critical of the religious orthodoxy and the powerful Jewish authorities. Jesus grew to such proportions that it looked like His ministry would continue through years and years. Then there was the notion of the Messiah. And if Jesus were the Messiah, He might live on a purified earth forever as a divine king. Then all this came to a screeching halt when Jesus was arrested. Jesus did not put up a fight. He was thrown into prison, flogged by Pilate, and finally crucified like a common criminal. None of all this made any sense. We have the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus that tells us they were confused, sad, and trying to make sense of it all. Finally, Jesus appears to them in the flesh, raised from the dead. Fear, joy, and wonder now overwhelm the Apostles. But Jesus opens their minds to the scriptures so that they can understand the complete story of Jesus. Now we have the beginnings of Christianity. We have the full account of Jesus—His life, His death, and His resurrection.
With the resurrection we are dealing with the very beginnings of the Christian church. At this point we might call it the Christian movement instead of church. Christianity began with few and grew over the millennia. It began with the Jews in the Holy Land and through the work of Paul and other Apostles, spread through the Gentile population.
What made Christianity prosper so? I ask that question because I think it is one we can ask of ourselves? When we ask what it was that started up the early Christian church and kept it going and growing, we are asking ourselves what it is that appeals to us in Christianity.
First, I think that Jesus is a God for the people. The Roman gods lived on Mount Olympus way far above humanity. They intervened in human affairs on a whim and their power was absolute. Jesus, on the other hand, walked on the dust of Palestine along with the people. His teachings and stories were often taken from earthy affairs, like farming, or family life, or business. And Jesus cared about humanity. Much of the Jesus story is about healing the sick and driving out demons. Jesus teaches that even the hairs on our head are numbered by a caring God and when a sparrow falls, the least of common birds, it is known and provided for by God. In Classical mythology, the god Prometheus cares about humanity and brings us fire. For this, the gods punish Prometheus. Not so with Jesus. The Father God is known through the Human Jesus and cares about us as much as does the gentle God Jesus.
Another factor in the success of early Christianity is community. Christians cared for one another and provided for burial rites as a burial society, for instance. Christians shared common meals together. They would eat together, sing hymns and tell stories about Jesus. These were called love feasts. This must have meant a lot in a cold, heartless world in which there were more slaves than free men. Christians cared for one another in the difficult times in the Roman world. These were times when people were forced out of house and home due to economic causes. Christian communities gave shelter to the economically displaced. And Jesus’ teachings took away the shame of poverty—“Blessed are you poor.”
I like to think that Jesus’ teachings are the real substance of Christianity. All the time I hear people say that they like Jesus’ teachings, even if they are not believers. Our world is becoming as uncaring and cold as was the Roman Empire. I fear we are losing a sense of community. My parents and grandparents told me about the depression days. Hard as those times were, my grandparents said that people helped each other out. Now, though, families are spread all over the globe at best, broken and scattered at worst. I’m not sure people care for one another as they grapple against their neighbor to obtain the BMW and find elite singles on dating sites.
Now, as much as ever, perhaps more, Jesus’ teachings are needed. Jesus teaches that we are to love the neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus teaches that we are to forgive our neighbor the wrongs we perceive. These are community-building teachings. And Jesus teaches us to honor God. We are to recognize that before God, no one can stand perfectly clean. But Jesus does hold out the challenge for us to clean up our act. “Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And Jesus teaches us to thank God for all the good things we have been given. We didn’t get them by our own power, but by God’s grace. These are humble-building teachings. These teachings put humanity in its place. These teachings remind us that even if we have the BMW and an elite partner from the dating site, we stand under an infinite Being and all our accomplishments are essentially equal to that of our brothers and sisters, our fellows. God is the great relativizer.
The complete Jesus story is not just about the early Christian church, the love feasts of early Christians, Christian love and community, and Jesus’ social and theological teachings and His emphasis on God. It is not even about the wonder of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. That takes up only a few chapters in all the Gospels. I think that the complete Jesus story is about the life Jesus. Early Christianity is about telling the life of Jesus at the suppers they held with one another. For it is the life of Jesus that exemplifies the Christian way. The teachings of Jesus may explain why Jesus did what He did. The teachings of Jesus may serve as ethical rules we can govern our lives with. The teachings of Jesus may tell us where we fit into the picture of the universe, heaven and earth. But we learn all this by studying how Jesus lived.
Remembering the stories of Jesus’ life are the best examples of how we Christians are to govern our lives. Jesus’ teachings go so far. He couldn’t say everything. But when we see how Jesus reacted to different things, we can extrapolate how we can and should react to challenges and celebrations in our lives. “What would Jesus do,” people say. And the more we know about the life of Jesus, the better we can guess how Jesus would respond to a given situation.
And the life of Jesus brings in a final point. That is the power of Jesus’ personality, His presence. There was something about Jesus that attracted multitudes. There was some power in Jesus that made people want to talk about Jesus years after His resurrection. There was something about Jesus that invoked people’s worship. I have to think that the power of Jesus’ presence is still with us in His resurrected and glorified Humanity. I feel Jesus’ presence when I read the Gospels. I feel Jesus’ presence when I pray, or in church. Jesus is a living being to me, still, 2,000 years after His resurrection.
In many ways we are like the early Christian church today. The great Christian institutions are fading. Sure, it’s going to take a long time for denominations like Catholicism to fade from the world, if it even will. But many mainline churches are consolidating their members and closing doors—even Catholic churches. We are losing the momentum of the Christian institution. People are turning to the church, when they do turn back, for similar reasons as early Christians found in it. They are coming back to church for community. They are coming back to church from humility and the worldly shocks that teach us we are not all-powerful. They are coming back to church because the words and the example of that one extraordinary life 2,000 years ago still have meaning today.

PRAYER

Lord, we come to you this Easter morning filled with joy. As the season begins to renew itself with warming weather, so we come before you with renewed hearts. We have lived through the times of penitence that Lent brings, and now we come to you ready for a new beginning. We pray this morning that you fill us with spiritual light and warmth. We pray this morning that you give us strength to begin spiritual life anew. We pray this morning that you inspire us with the will and power to reach for heaven once again, now and ever.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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And Still Remained in Relation
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Good Friday, 2016

The sad Good Friday story is also another example of Jesus’ unbounded love and forgiveness. In the Good Friday story we have humanity at its worst. And yet Jesus remains with humanity, forgiving and staying with humanity even in our worst behavior.
Tonight I don’t want to talk about the angry mob that turned on Jesus. The mob that welcomed Him with songs of praise just one week before calling for His execution. Tonight I’d like to talk about the Twelve Apostles.
The Twelve Apostles were the small group that Jesus chose to remain close to Him. These were the Apostles who followed Jesus wherever He went. They dined with Him, slept in His company, and they were privy to all the teachings of Jesus. Indeed there was a vast mob that followed Jesus. They heard some of what Jesus taught. They observed some of Jesus’ miracles and healings. But the multitudes by and large stayed in their villages when Jesus left to preach elsewhere.
But the Twelve Apostles left everything and followed Jesus wherever Jesus went. They saw all the miracles. They witnessed all the healings. They heard all the teachings. In fact, in John’s Gospel Jesus calls them friends. They may even have been as close to Jesus as was Mary, His mother. Maybe even closer. For the Twelve Apostles followed Jesus in His professional work, His ministry. And sometimes our colleagues and adult friends mean as much to us as our families when we are grown. Sometimes more. In any event, the Twelve Apostles were Jesus’ closest comrades, Jesus’ closest friends.
And these close friends of Jesus let Him down on a number of levels. I say that they let Jesus down because that is how it appears to me, not how it appeared to Jesus. One of the intimate Twelve, Judas, actually turned against his teacher and friend and gave Him up to the authorities. And he did it with a kiss, not by knocking Jesus out and dragging Him to the Jewish authorities. Jesus’ steadfast follower Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus would build the church, denied knowing Jesus when questioned by the mob. The Twelve Apostles couldn’t even stay awake and wait with Jesus as He prepared for His death. While Jesus was praying, they fell asleep.
These betrayals were all the worse because they were betrayals by Jesus’ closest friends, His most intimate relations. The mob that first loved Jesus and then turned against Him was bad enough. But the mod is rather impersonal. We wouldn’t say that the mob knew Jesus very well. But this was not the case with the Twelve Apostles. So it was especially painful and disappointing that Jesus’ most intimate followers would care so little as to fall asleep while Jesus is sweating blood, or deny knowing Him after His arrest, or to betray Him with a kiss.
Jesus knew all this. He knew Peter would deny Him and confronted Peter about it. He knew Judas would betray Him. But how does Jesus react to this disappointing knowledge? Does Jesus turn His back on the Twelve and shake the dust off His feet? No. Jesus says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). Knowing the weakness of humanity, knowing the shortcomings of His intimate followers, Jesus wants still to dine with them. Jesus wants one last supper with His Apostles. Maybe as much for Himself as to share His presence with them for one last time.
Despite human frailty, Jesus remains in relation with us. We all fall short of the glory of God at one time or another in one way or another. And yet God remains in relation with us. God stays with us. God loves us as He did His weak Apostles. God holds out His holy hand to us and offers to lift us out of the mire of worldly passions. And to hold out His loving hand, God stays with humanity in a love relationship. In the book of Revelation Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat supper with him, and he with me” (3:20).
The Last Supper of Jesus with His Twelve Apostles is the supper Jesus eats with all of us when we open the door to Him. In our fallenness and in our weakness, Jesus stays with us, loves us. Jesus knows our hearts and never turns from humanity. Let us pray not to enter into temptation, let us pray to hear Jesus’ knock on the door, open the door, and let Him in.

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The Unreliable Voice of the Mob
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 20, 2016

Zechariah 9:14-17 Luke 19:28-41 Psalm 118

The story of Palm Sunday is not one of people overjoyed with Jesus. It is rather a story about mob mentality. It is a story of people jumping on the bandwagon, not a story of people following their best instincts.
The story of Palm Sunday needs to be understood in the light of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For in a very short time, the same people who welcome Jesus with palm fronds and songs of joy—these same people in a short time will call for Jesus execution.
What could account for this dramatic turn in people’s reaction to Jesus? Why would people who shout for joy at Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem in a short while turn against Him? I think that there is an answer to these questions. I think the answer is that Jesus didn’t live up to the expectations of the people who cheered His arrival. And the disappointed mob turned ugly and saw Jesus as an imposter. All through Jesus’ ministry, people didn’t get it. All through Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had to correct people as to who He was and what His mission was.
The people living in Jerusalem thought Jesus would be a divine deliverer from Roman rule. Riding into Jerusalem on a colt, Jesus fulfilled a prophesy in Zechariah 9. Matthew calls our attention to this prophesy. It reads,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass. . . .
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:9, 10).
The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, riding on a young ass, was the way the magnificent all-powerful messiah was supposed to arrive. The messiah was the divine king who was sent from God to restore the fortunes of Israel after conquest first by Babylon, then by Greece, then by Rome.
Notice that in this passage, the prophecy is about a king. Our reading from Zechariah tells us just how great this king will be. Zechariah tells us that the king will institute peace among the nations. The nations would be all the kingdoms outside Israel. Zechariah tells us further that the king’s rule would extend “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). The River mentioned is the Euphrates River. From the Euphrates to the ends of the earth means that the king will rule the whole known world. The whole world will be at peace.
And especially, the people of Israel will be saved and raised to prominence on that great day of God, when the king restores a fallen world. The prophesy in Zechariah reads,
The LORD their God will save his people on that day
as a shepherd saves his flock.
They will sparkle in his land
like jewels in a crown.
How attractive and beautiful they will be!
Grain will make the young men thrive,
and new wine the young women (9:16-17).
God will save his people on that day. We see the familiar metaphor of a shepherd. The people of Israel will sparkle like jewels in a crown. Grain and wine will make young men and women thrive.
These were the hopes and expectations heaped on Jesus. The people in Jerusalem thought Jesus would accomplish all this, wanted Jesus to accomplish all this, expected Jesus to accomplish all this.
While the people of Jerusalem could still hope for all this, they listened to Jesus’ parables and teachings. I have no reason to doubt that the people of Israel were captivated with the charisma of Jesus. I have no reason to doubt that the people of Israel were caught up in Jesus’ storytelling and His lessons of peace and love. I have no reason that they even loved this prophetic God-Man.
But when Jesus was arrested, all that changed. Let’s try to imagine what was going through the minds of the people back then. I have tried to paint a picture of their expectations. The expectations of a divine king who would rule the world, establish peace in the world, and exalt the people of Israel. The divine king would drive out the Romans and allow the Israelites to rule themselves. The “shalom” or divine peace would fill the whole natural world and the political world of men and women. But Jesus didn’t do any of this. Instead He was arrested and did nothing to fight back. This must have been quite a shock. This couldn’t be. This couldn’t be the messiah, the divine king. Shock and disbelief must have been the initial reactions. Then, I imagine, feelings of being duped might have prevailed. They had been played the sucker. They had been reeled in hook-line-and-sinker by an imposter. This led to rage. Kill the bum! They must have wanted to cry out. And they got their chance. When Pilate presented Jesus to the mob, that is exactly what they did. With a little stirring up by the temple priests and Sadducees, the crowd turned on Jesus with the same vehemence as the joy they showed upon Jesus arrival in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the mob wouldn’t have been so enraged had they not expected so much of Jesus. Maybe if they had thought Jesus was an ordinary prophet, or a great rabbi only, they wouldn’t have turned so violently against Jesus. But they did expect much of Jesus, and they did turn violently against Him.
So I think that we can’t celebrate Palm Sunday without keeping in mind the upcoming passion of Jesus on Good Friday and the resurrection on Easter. I don’t think we would have Good Friday had there not been so much excitement in the Jesus everyone expected. The Jesus who Jesus wasn’t. In our reading from Luke, Jesus seems to anticipate the crowd’s turning against Him. Luke tells us,
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (19:41-42).
Jesus here points out that the people of Jerusalem don’t know what would bring them peace. This is yet another example of Jesus trying to correct the people’s understanding of who He was and what His mission was. The peace that Jesus brings is not worldly peace. It isn’t material well-being. When Jesus is questioned by Pilate, Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world. I imagine that sensitive people in Jesus’ day must have felt their hearts burn within them when they were near Jesus. But caught up too much in the politics of the day, they must have overlooked their burning hearts and thought only of deliverance from Rome.
The peace that Jesus brings is interior. The fortunes of the world come and go. There is nothing stable about material possessions and material goods. Of course it’s nice to have them, but we can’t really count on anything from this material world. I think it can be said that when we realize this, then we are able to find the peace that Jesus gives. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace,” Jesus says. Let us, then, turn our minds and hearts to a quest for just that. What would bring us peace. For that, finally, is the Palm Sunday message. “My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. And when we realize that truth deep in our hearts, then we will know the peace that is not of this world.

PRAYER

Lord, on this Palm Sunday, we think of all you do and have done to redeem the human race. And as the residents of Jerusalem did, we offer our heartfelt praises and thanks to you. You created the great universe. You created humanity. You continually work to save the human race. Your love is tireless and never lets us go. You always have and always love each one of us. You came to us in a human form we could understand and love. You yielded to the human condition even to death. And you did these works to save humanity from ourselves. For this and for all the countless ways of your holiness, your goodness, and your love and wisdom, we thank you and sing your praises.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

And Lord we pray for the healing of this ailing planet.

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Mar 13th, 2016

Declaring God’s Praise
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 13,, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21 John 12:1-8 Psalm 126

How do we praise God? When do we praise God? How do we strengthen our relationship with God? These are some of the questions our Bible readings bring up.
Our reading from Isaiah tells us that God formed us for Himself so that we can declare God’s praise. It is certainly good to praise God. God has done wonders—wonders we see more and more every moment of every day, the more we grow on our spiritual journey. God has done wonders to and for us. God gave us life. God continually gives us the gift of life. For without God’s sustaining power, our bodies would fall down lifeless in an instant. God lifts us ever upward into heaven’s glories. God is continually drawing us out of a lower state into a higher state. That is why one of our benedictions is, “The Lord keep our going out and our coming in from this time forth and even for ever more.” Our going out and our coming in means going out of a lesser spiritual state into a higher one. And God has created a marvelous natural world. The beauties of a flower, the grandeur of a tree, the glory of the sky and stars, the intricacy of the ecological cycle all testify to an all-knowing, all giving Creator. For all this and much, much more we can and should praise God.
It needs to be said that God doesn’t need our praise. When we think of humans who expect to be praised for their good deeds, we don’t think highly of them. Certainly He who is all powerful, yet came to humanity as a humble human baby does not have the vanity to expect us to praise Him.
But it does us good to show our gratitude and love for God. A wise friend of mine was talking with me about prayer once. He said that one of the things prayer does for us is to remind us that there is something greater than ourselves. Prayer reminds us that we don’t know it all. Prayer reminds us that our decisions, even our best decisions, are all relative to divine wisdom. Prayer, in a word, gives us humility. This humility is what praising God gives us. Praising God means that we don’t take the credit for the deeds we do. Praising God means that we aren’t the centre of the universe. Praising God means that we become aware that an all loving Creator formed us and the world around us, not we and human ingenuity.
In our story from John, we find Mary showing her love and gratitude to Jesus. Mary shows her love for Jesus by anointing Him with expensive oil. We don’t have Jesus here with us in person to do good things to. So the questions arise, “How do we show our love for God? How do we praise God?”
The words of Judas give us a somewhat surprising direction to ponder. Judas criticizes Mary for spending her money on expensive oil with which to anoint Jesus. Judas says that Mary should have sold the oil and given the money to the poor. Some of us may be somewhat surprised by Jesus’ words. Jesus says the rather pessimistic words, “The poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12: 8).
These words may sound surprising because in other places in the Gospels, Jesus says that we show our love for God by giving clothes to the naked, by feeding the hungry, and by visiting prisoners. The general impression that we get from the Gospels is that we should help those less fortunate than ourselves. So it might sound surprising to hear Jesus tell Mary she did a good thing by anointing Him with expensive oil instead of giving money to the poor.
But this passage suggests that there are other ways to show our love for God than through social issues like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and visiting prisoners and the sick. Loving God means developing a relationship with God. I think that our readings teach us that sometimes we need to take time to meditate on our relationship with God. Although I have said on many occasions that we love God and the neighbor by service to society in work and our personal relations, now I am saying that loving God requires more.
I think we do well to take time out of our affairs in the world. I think we need time to meditate and commune with God in some way. I have at times said we need not become monks and nuns and renounce the world entirely. But I would commend a time like renouncing the world. I think our society is too busy, values being busy too much. The poet Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us, getting and spending.” It can sometimes be that work and business and shopping and consumer goods occupy too much of our time. We can be over stimulated by all the media our world gives us. The poet T. S. Eliot called this, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” We fill our minds with our work, then fill our minds with the news on our ride home or half listen to music, then get home and put on the TV. Distracted from distraction by distraction. Eliot talks about a moment in a subway train when the train stops too long between stations. This fills the commuters with terror because there is nothing to occupy their minds, to placate their minds,
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Rather than being distracted from distraction by distraction, or the terror of nothing to think about, or the world being too much with us, there is another option that I think our readings commend. By praising God, we praise what is godly in our world. There are our beloved relations: spouse, friend, children. We can interrupt our over-stimulated lives by paying attention to those people in our lives that matter. We can show them that they matter. This is the example of Mary. In our story, Martha served while Mary anointed Jesus with perfume. Martha was busy, Mary showed her love for Jesus. In another story, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha bustles around and serves everyone. In that story, Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is just sitting there while she is doing all the work. Jesus, though, says that Mary has chosen the better path.
And as we take time from our worldly distractions to show our love for those dear to us, so, too, we need to take time out from the world to commune with God. We need to quite our radios, our TV’s our computer games, our newspapers and listen and talk with God. Eliot, drawing on the tradition of Christian mystics writes of a spiritual darkness. This darkness is when we still the mind, let go of the senses, and sink into the darkness which purifies the soul. He speaks of,
darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Emptying the sensual means closing off what comes to us from our five senses—sights, hearing, touch, taste, smell. It means turning off the TV, the radio, the computer, the snacks, and being quiet with the soul. For all those things, when we have too much of them drown out the voice of spirit. “Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.” I think it’s kind of funny that in this line from Eliot we find the word, “twitter.”
Well if I continue in this vein I’m going to sound like a world-renouncer myself, which I am not and do not aspire to be. I think what I am saying in this talk is that we do well to quiet the twitter for a time. We need to enter the darkness and leave off being distracted from distraction by distraction. We need to treasure our dear relations. And we need to treasure God, in whatever form that takes.

PRAYER

Lord, your wonders are beyond number. You have created a vast universe which you govern–from galaxies to atoms. And you have created animals of all kinds–from great bison and elephants to butterflies and tiny ants. And you have created humanity. You have created us to marvel at the wonders of your creation and to praise you for your wonderful works. And you care for every living thing. You care for each animal and every single person. The Bible tells us that even the hairs on our head are numbered. You continually flow into us with your life-giving love. And you continually flow into us with your saving grace, lifting us ever upward into heaven’s bliss. For this, and for so much more, we praise you and give thanks to you.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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