Monday, March 29, 2010

The Voice of the Gardener

Reflections on the Readings

Easter Sunday Morning - April 4, 2010

By Dennis Hankins

Acts 10:34, 37-43 Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23 Col. 3:1-4

John 20:1-9, (10-16a)

The Voice of the Gardener

...God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Peter - Acts 10:40, 41)

In his Gospel, John states that Mary Magdalene found the tomb of Jesus empty on the first day of the week. So, is it the third day, or the first day? Well, it's both. I'll tell you why in a minute.

So what is the meaning of the 'third day?' The period of 'three days' appears frequently in Scripture. Here are some examples of this motif.

As Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days, Jesus was in the heart of the earth, preaching to the spirits in prison for three days. (Matthew 12:40) (1 Peter 3:18)

Abraham and his son Isaac, took a three day journey to the land of Moriah. Isaac, the son of the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, is to be offered. It is to be a burnt offering. On the third day, just before Abraham offered his son, God provides himself a ram. Looking up from the strained face of Isaac who lay upon the altar, Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham names the mount and the occasion, Jehovah-Jireh, meaning, 'on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.'(Genesis 22:4, 13)

At the Lord's direction, Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven and invoked darkness over the land of Egypt. The darkness that settled all over Egypt was darker than a million midnights. Scripture describes it as a darkness that could be felt. In contrast, all the people of Israel had light where they dwelled. This lasted for three days. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Predicting his own humiliation awaiting him in Jerusalem, Jesus said he would be scourged and killed, and then rise on the third day. (Luke 18:31, ff.)

The third day is also Sunday, or the first day of the Jewish week. You will notice on our calendars that Sunday remains the first day of the week. For Christians, it is the weekly celebration of what occurred on the third day; the resurrection of our Lord.

In today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter describes the 3 1/2 year ministry of Jesus. Peter says, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him." (Acts 10:38)

Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast out seven devils, is one of several women, who also followed Jesus and his disciples. (Luke 8) She is one of the three Mary's standing near the cross of Jesus. (John 19:25) And on the first day of the week, it is Mary Magdalene who first arrives at the empty tomb.

She had tasted of the power that raised Jesus from the dead. Her love and devotion, inspired by her deliverance from Satan's power, brought her to Jesus' tomb that first Easter. Most likely she was coming to ensure that Jesus' body had been properly prepared for burial.

Because the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday at sundown, Jesus' body is quickly prepared and bound in linen cloths and hastily placed in the first available tomb in the garden. It is near the place of the crucifixion. Yet, it is Mary Magdalene, who first discovers that the tomb is empty. Fearing the worst, she reports to Peter and John saying, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

They in turn find the linen cloths lying and the head napkin rolled up separately in a place by itself. Not yet understanding the Scriptures, that he must rise from the dead, they went back to their homes.

It is Mary Magdalene who cannot leave the garden tomb. She lingers there alone in her thoughts, weeping outside the tomb. Again, longingly, she looks into the dark, empty tomb. But now the tomb is no longer dark, nor quite empty. Seeing two angels in white, sitting where the body had lain, one at the head and one at the feet, they say to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

It is then that the most poignant words in scripture drip from the lips of this heart broken woman. She answers, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

Someone who appears to be the gardener also asks her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?' Again, supposing him to be the gardener she says, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

It is then the gardener says to her, "Mary." It is the same voice who said to her almost three years ago, "Mary. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed!" Maybe he also said to her, "Go, and sin no more." Then hitching her life to that star of Jacob, Mary Magdalene never looked back.

On this first day of the week, may you hear the gardener say your name. Go ahead and think about what that may sound like. Bill, Mary, Cora, Debbie, Susan, Nick, Rob, Lisa, Ralph, Carla, Jim, "Why are you weeping?" Know that he lives and that he cares for you too. And upon hearing his voice, may the same power that raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, fill you with unwavering faith, unshakeable hope, and unlimited love.

May the Holy Spirit help you this Easter season to be the voice of the gardener in someone's life.

Let us pray: Dear Father, In Christ you raise us up through the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. Make us witnesses of the same Christ whom death could not hold. Amen.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reflections on the Readings
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion - March 28, 2010, Year C
By Dennis Hankins

The Divine Way of Loving

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)

What is the rest of the story? Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8) It is a complete and unrestrained sacrifice; the way of perfect love.

We see Jesus through the prophet Isaiah:

I gave my back to the smiters, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard. I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

At his last Passover with his disciples, Jesus makes himself forever the substance of this memorial:
“This is my body which is given for you.”
“This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

Jesus empties himself.
Jesus gives himself.
Jesus pours himself out.

Jesus lays down his life. No one takes it from him.

Jesus says, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”

He is the only God in all of time who agonizes over so many with so much of himself. With all of himself. Withholding nothing, inviting whoever will, saying, “Come unto me.”

Just a second. I hear something strange. It’s the disciples arguing. I understand Jesus has just shared with them a new meaning associated with the Passover meal. Listen.

“John. Ask him who will be the greatest in his kingdom. Andrew thinks he is. Ask him. Go ahead. Just ask him!”

I understand John is the closest one sitting to Jesus’ right side. When I can get the information, I will report back to you.

Whew! I just got the scoop. It seems Jesus predicts there is a betrayer among his small band of disciples. It is no secret there is an inner core of Jesus’ associates, namely, Peter, James and John. Additionally, according to my source near the upper room, one or two of the others, possibly Andrew and maybe Judas, are pressing Jesus to make a public statement regarding who is greatest in his kingdom. I understand this argument broke out between the disciples just after the Passover meal.

It is Jesus’ statement concerning who is greatest in his kingdom that I was frantically writing down. Here it is:

Jesus says, “The Gentile rulers have great power over those they rule. They see themselves as personally benefiting from those they lead. You will lead differently. Sacrificially. Lead as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at the table?”

I am told by a reliable source that it became very quiet as Jesus concluded:

“But I am among you as one who serves.”

Taking Jesus’ example of self sacrifice, how may we embrace the meaning of this Holy Week before us?

Perhaps we may weep in prayer for someone who feels stranded in life. For someone terminally ill. For someone recently betrayed. For someone who struggles for identity, completeness and wholeness that our Lord gives.

Maybe there is a hand to hold, a call to make, a letter to write, a daddy to hug.

Could this week include laying down grudges, burying the proverbial hatchet, and being the first to say, “I’m sorry?”

Perhaps this week of weeks will include embracing a spirit of evangelical friendliness, affirming someone who is different from you in talent or treasure. I recall a liturgically trained choir director telling a very well trained pianist, who is from a different church background, that her piano playing sounded too Protestant. Somewhere I read that love is not arrogant or rude. Nothing in the world outweighs our need for Jesus and for one another.

So today, offer your heart, lend a hand, help carry someone’s burden. For your King comes, riding on a donkey, making his way to the cross, the emblem of suffering and shame and the place where forgiveness begins.

It is the divine way of loving.

Let us pray: Dear Father, you so loved the world that you gave your only begotten Son. You are not willing that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance. Help us to embrace this season of grace and penance, rejoicing in the power of the name of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The First Stone

Reflections on the Readings
Fifth Sunday of Lent - March 21, 2010, Year C
By Dennis Hankins

The First Stone

"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." (Jesus)

Lent is a time for reflection. A time to embrace sober judgment in our self examination. A time to resist thinking more highly of ourselves than is warranted. It is a time to see whether we are remaining true to the faith; to our first love. This is deeply personal. It is deeply necessary.

It is the rule of faith that clarifies, restoring a true vision and perspective. This is sorely needed in our time. The darkness encroaching around us is the result of self blinding vindication. It is the intoxication of power felt in the clutching of the stone. The rule of might makes right while the still, small voice within goes unheeded. The rule of faith ignored. The life of God within diminished.

So why is confession necessary? Because we need someplace to drop our stones. My bag of stones might not be as large as some. Then again it may be the largest. It gets heavier every time I justify that bag of stones: like insisting on my own way, making my point with self gratifying words, being cocky, judgmental, vindictive, unloving, unkind, and unmindful. The more stones I throw, the more I have to throw. This bag of stones just gets heavier by the minute.

Who is he who is without sin?

Have you ever noticed that pointing out the sin in others makes you feel cozy in your own sins? Let's get real with ourselves and with our God. Even the greatest of saints regularly met with their confessor. Why? Because we are to 'work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.' (Phil. 2:12)

Salvation is deeply personal and dependent upon a humble and contrite heart; an offering God does not reject. (Psalm 51:17) The reason for the Church's ministry of reconciliation through confession is to assist all of us who 'strain forward to what lies ahead.' (Phil. 3:13) Even St. Paul urges us to remain true to what we have attained. (Phil. 3:16) Honesty requires we acknowledge we have spots, wrinkles, and blemishes; we are a work of grace in progress, let us confess our sins and be healed.

What would our world look like if personal house cleaning preceded the inventory we take of the dirt in our neighbor's life? As Jesus put it, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3) This was the blindness of the scribes and Pharisees. They caught the woman they brought before Jesus in the very act of adultery, but they could not see themselves clearly.

So they pushed ahead with their agenda. "What do you say, Jesus? Do we stone her like the law of Moses commands?" This they said to test him.

We can only speculate on what Jesus wrote on the ground. Pressing him, they look for a way to bring some charge against him.

Jesus responds, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."

Wow! The question on whether I need to go to confession this Lent is answered in that statement. Who is he who is without sin?

A diverse audience reads these Reflections on the Readings. Like many of you, I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that understands going to a priest to make confession of sins. Many of you like myself, come from a tradition of 'being born again.'
Additionally, I grew up with the understanding that it was not necessary to confess my sins to anyone but God. I've heard it a hundred times, "I don't need to confess my sins to a priest; he's just a man! I can talk to God."

However, sin usually makes us run from God, doesn't it? Ask Adam and Eve. Since becoming a Christian at the age of 9, I have wrestled often with my lack of holiness. So what is accomplished in confession? Coming to confession is like running toward God to be reconciled to God. The priest becomes the voice of Jesus in forgiveness and pardon. He who was without sin, takes all of my sin and remembers it against me no more. Burying it in the sea of his blood, he forgives and forgets. Then I grow in grace and holiness.

Jesus is a friend of sinners, sinners like you and me, saying to all who ever came to this feast, "Where are your accusers?"

Seeing none he continues, "Neither do I condemn you.

Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood."


Let us pray: Dearest Father, remove far from me a stony heart, and replace it with a heart and love for Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

There’s No Place Like Home

Reflections on the Readings
Fourth Sunday of Lent - March 14, 2010, Year C
By Dennis Hankins

There's No Place Like Home

But I have trusted in thy steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. (Psalm 13:5 RSV) 

Through Moses, God promised Israel a home of their own.  Their destiny? Their own land, from which they would eat the produce of the Promised Land.  Israel responded to God's promise.  Sometimes reluctantly.  Often in rebellion to God's promise.  Occasionally with faith. 

Moses brought them to the border of Canaan, the Promised Land.  He sent twelve spies into the territory.  It was a reconnaissance mission to determine the strength of the people, the vitality of the land, and to bring back some fruit, since it was the season of the first ripe grapes.  I remember a little grape arbor at my first childhood home.  There isn't anything quite like the first ripe grapes transformed into homemade grape jelly. 

After forty days sizing up the Promised Land, the spies returned with their report and the fruit.  They carried back pomegranates, figs, and grapes.  But the grapes were like no grapes ever seen.  One branch containing a huge cluster was carried on a pole between two spies.  Every Sunday School child has seen a picture of these two spies carrying back the grapes from the Valley of Eschol.  The sight of this fruit and its fragrance alone suggested the Israelites were home at last.

Then the report came out. 

"The Land flows with milk and honey.  Look!  Here's the fruit.  It is a beautiful place.  You couldn't ask for a better place to call home. But."

"What do you mean, 'but'?"

"Well, the people are strong, and their cities are very large and fortified and..."  

"And, and, and.  And WHAT?"

"The descendants of Anak are there. Giant people. We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them."

You could have heard a pin drop, or whatever you hear drop when you are in the desert.  

Only Caleb and Joshua assured Moses that Israel had the resources to occupy the Land of Promise. But the damage was done.  The ten renegade spies, walking by sight and not by faith, convinced the people that the Promised Land wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  

So God sent them back to the desert to wander one year for every day the spies were in the Promised Land.  It's the end of that forty year period today's first reading is about.  A new generation of Israelites, better disposed to the Promise of a New Home, begin eating the produce of the land of promise.

The forty days of Lent help us to be better disposed to the promises of faith.  Israel's call to posses the Promised Land is similar to our call to find our new home, our new life in Christ.  Like the prodigal son and his brother, we need reconciliation with our Father and one another.  St. Paul reminds us, we are reconciled to the Father through Christ.  Lent helps us to put sin behind us as Israel finally put Egypt behind them.  Like them we sometimes crave the pleasures and attractions of a past life.  These temptations are real, but can be defeated. 


By reclaiming our new life in Christ through confession and penance.  Lent is the promise that the door to Father's house is always open.  It is the Father's love for us wooing us back home.  Wherever we may roam, the fragrance of Father's house penetrates the foul, stale odor of sin.  And then we remember, there's no place like home.  

And in our Father's house we eat this bread, the body of His Son.  We drink also from this cup, which is the new covenant in his blood.  

May we never forget that there truly is no place like home.

Let us pray: Dear Father, you embrace us with a relentless love in the gift of your only Son, our Lord.  In the friendship you give us in your Son confirm us in your Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Season of Grace

Reflections on the Readings
Third Sunday of Lent - March 7, 2010, Year C
By Dennis Hankins
A Season of Grace

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners... St. Paul - 1 Timothy 1:15 RSV

Lent reminds us that we are sinners. Perhaps some are worse than others, but when it comes to sin, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is an uncomfortable thought, but it is one that keeps things in perspective.

The mirror reminds me of my bodily imperfections. But it is the mirror of God's word that reveals thoughts and words and actions not formed by love. It is good to remember that salvation is ongoing; we are a work in progress. As St. Paul wrote, the Christian life is about pressing toward the goal; reaching for the prize and keeping our eyes on the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. Ours is a lifetime of growing in grace.

The Galileans perished under Pilate and eighteen died at the Siloam Tower, but they didn't die because they were greater sinners than us. The message is that we too will perish spiritually unless we repent. Like the unfruitful fig tree receiving extra attention, care, and fertilizer, we also need pruning and ongoing care to be a fruit bearing Christian.

To be that kind of follower of Christ, we need confession and repentance and forgiveness! And not just one time, but more often than not. Believe me. I'm a husband and a father. I need it. And the bottom line for you and me is that we need the grace of sacramental confession. It is a means of grace and spiritual healing that connects our Lenten observances

Confession brings us the beauty and the power of grace. So let us not say we have no sin, for if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

Even a brief review of the Ten Commandments will reveal none of us is without sin. Just as nobody suggests a single shower is sufficient for personal hygiene, so also frequent confession purifies the soul. As it has been said, confession is good for the soul. And confession during Lent is spring cleaning at its finest.

Some common objections to confession include:

"I'm saved. I don't need to confess anything."

"I can confess my sins to God. I don't need a priest."

"Only God can forgive sins."

"Christians aren't sinners; they don't need to keep repenting."

A good dose of humility is probably good about now. I understand the above sentiments. I used to embrace all of them and preached them fervently for many years. For the record, confession is not a 'get out jail free card.' The goal of confession is reconciliation with God and his Church. Always it is linked to a firm resolve to avoid the near occasion of sin. Especially the sin that most often besets us.

So where does the Church get its understanding of confessing ones sins to a priest? It comes from John the Beloved who records, ...He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven..."(John 20:22-23) This ministry continues in the Church through her priests. A season of grace has prevailed in the Church for two thousand years. And the words of forgiveness and absolution will flow from the Church until Jesus returns in glory.

Hearing the priest give the words of absolution is to realize that Jesus keeps on saving us. Not just once or twice but always, often, and forever. Yet too many go it alone. Too many carry the wounds and scars of sinful habits, decisions, and past behavior, thinking some things are better left buried in the past. Then the festering wound gets infected and affects relationships, careers, and personal wholeness. Oh, but joy unspeakable is just one confession away.

As we come to the table of the Lord, let us remember all of Christ's benefits. He pardons all of our sins, heals all of our waywardness, and redeems our soul from destruction. And now he crowns you and me with kindness and compassion, in these gifts of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus.

It is a moment of grace.


Let us pray: Dearest Father, help us to never become strangers to your love and your grace. May we come often to the fountain of mercy found in the acts of confession and contrition. Draw us to your mercy by your Holy Spirit. Amen.