Flames Shaped Like Question Marks

Acts 2:1-21 – Pentecost Sunday – for Sunday, May 24, 2015

“When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.” (Acts 2:6)

Flames shaped like question marks . . .
Flames shaped like question marks . . .

They are two spare, stunning, seminal sentences. They occur after the Pentecost verses that cause even dedicated church folk to grit their teeth and before the verses that often inspire giggles and guffaws out in the pews.

The day of Pentecost, fifty sunrises and sunsets after Easter, sparked the traditional birth of the Christian community. God’s spirit—please take it as fact, please take it as fiction, please take it as truth, please take it as myth—roared through a room crammed with Jesus’ followers. The roar was fire and wind, as contagious as a virus, as vivid as gulping for oxygen after nearly drowning.

“They began to speak in other languages,” the writer of Acts enthused. In other words, all could understand God’s ways and witness! Jesus’ followers were suddenly transformed into Christ’s leaders! Continue reading →

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490 Times (or More)

Matthew 18:21-35 – The 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me…’” (Matthew 18:21)

The “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” which is the subtitle used in my old New Revised Standard Version, is easily understood.

(And maybe unsettling.)

The disciple Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive another.

ForgiveNot surprisingly, Jesus told Peter a parable. In the parable, Person A forgave Person B. Did it matter that Person A was the “master” and Person B was the “servant?” While it added detail and tension, I’m not sure it’s important. One forgave another. The story continued, becoming more complicated. Person B, having felt the joy of forgiveness, was next seen confronting Person C.

Person C owed Person B.

B didn’t forgive C. Indeed, B did bad things to C.

A, clearly in the loop of information, learned what B did to C.

As quick as you can say a-b-c, Person B, once forgiven, once the recipient of compassion, was tossed into the slammer by A.

(Whew. Bad things do happen to bad people!)

Christianity, from the earliest Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions through today’s rise of non-denominational churches, has emphasized the healing power of forgiveness. But what about other religions? The Qur’an, in Surah 7:199, implored: Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant. The Buddha invited: To understand everything is to forgive everything.

Isn’t forgiveness central to every faith tradition?

(Please forgive me if you think I’m wrong!) Continue reading →

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On, By, Near, or Upon

Matthew 14:22-33 – The 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 10, 2014

“. . . and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:30)

Jesus walked on water*.

Yes or no? Fact or fiction?

  1. It’s in the Bible, so it must be true that Jesus performed miracles and ignored the laws of nature. Therefore, Jesus strode across the lake.
  2. The believers who wrote the Gospels wanted to demonstrate Jesus’s superiority over Roman power. Therefore, his water-walk was a metaphoric response to imperial arrogance.
  3. People in the ancient world of Jesus experienced the world differently than we moderns. For example, a storm destroying crops could be God’s anger at a person/village. Thus, it can’t be affirmed or denied that Jesus performed miracles since he lived in a superstitious, pre-scientific era.
Walking on "water."
Walking on “water.”

Which would you choose? Or what fourth explanation might you add to explain your faithful response to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s liquid stroll?

Walking on water’s not so hard during the right season. Give me a frozen stream or a snowy meadow and I’ll risk crossing to the other side. But Matthew’s story of Jesus’s miracle didn’t occur in a Wisconsin winter.

I recall a seminary professor who offhandedly pondered the preposition in the sentence, Jesus walked on water. A preposition like “on” is a (says Merriam-Webster) “function word that typically combines with a noun phrase” to express a “modification.” Ah, a modifier! That which changes! In the original Greek, the word on in the Matthew 14:25 sentence was epi. (Epi begins the word epidermis, or on the skin.) And yet, if you check a Greek-English dictionary—a tome I’ve resisted opening when I stopped regularly preaching—you’ll find multiple meanings for the simple three-letter Greek preposition. Epi appears in sentences not only as “on,” but as “upon” or “near” or “by.” Therefore my seminary professor mused, what if the sentence “Jesus walked on water” was translated instead, Jesus walked near water? Or by water?

Do you buy that? Continue reading →

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