Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pastor's Perspective: Holy Week and Beyond

Pastor’s Perspective: Holy Week and Beyond

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  (Luke 24:5)
These words, spoken by an angel at the empty tomb on Easter morning, haunt us—don’t they?  They are words of hope but also of chastisement.  We are people of the empty cross—we claim to celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday—and yet so often, we look for the living and breathing Christ only in the pages of record of a history that is dead and gone.  We look for the living among the dead when we try to trap Jesus in the pages of the Bible only, and we fail to see him in the everyday world that we inhabit.  As Jesus himself said, God is a God of the living, not the dead.  That isn’t to say we should have no appreciation for the story of what happened.  On the contrary, we gather together in the first week of April on Thursday and on Friday nights to remember that story that so often moves us to tears. 
            On Thursday we hear about the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples.  It was a celebration of the Passover meal, that yearly ritual in which all Jews remembered together with friends and family the powerful events of their own history, in which God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and carried them into the Promised Land.  God had commanded his people to remember this event by participating in a meal each year.  God knows us so well because God created us.  And isn’t it true that sometimes a smell or a taste can cue a memory in our minds so vividly?  Remembering is re-membering the past and how it continues to shape us. 
            On Friday, we hear the story of Jesus’ passion in the Tenebre service.  “Tenebre” means darkness, and as the story unfolds and candles on the bare altar are extinguished, we’ll experience together perhaps a small taste of the darkness that must have been experienced that day by Jesus and his followers.  That darkness is important.  Darkness is integral to a deep and vibrant spirituality.  St. John of the Cross was a 16th century Spanish priest who wrote about a “dark night of the soul” when describing the spiritual journey toward God.  It is our fate to suffer and to grieve and to not comprehend the depth and breadth of the Truth and Love which envelops us.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that we suffer and grieve on our own or remain ignorant forever.  So on Good Friday we gather in the darkness together.  We huddle beneath the cross and hear the last words a loving savior gave his faithful followers. 
            On Easter Sunday, the Good News breaks open like that jar of nard that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet for burial.  The Good News “fills the whole” place, as we hear of the surprised wonder of the disciples.  But, as the angel said, we do not look for the living among the dead.  The miracle of the resurrection, for us, is not only that Christ conquers death and returns to his disciples in a living and breathing body.  It is the miracle that continues 50 days later, at Pentecost, when Jesus imparts his Spirit on the group that is gathered in his name and changes them into a living, collective, body.  So, when we only seek Jesus in the pages of a story, however rich and beautiful and life-giving that story is—if our gaze is only directed toward the scriptures to try and find the meaning and power of a Living and Loving God, we are looking for the living among the dead.  When we enact those scriptures, when we respond to them by living lives that are inspired (literally “breathed into”) by them, they become the “Living Word” that we so often call the Bible.  Those words tell us to look around for God—look in our daily lives.  Look especially at the poor and mourning.  Pay close attention to those who are oppressed or maligned.  It is easy to be inspired by the beauty of creation—and I can attest to the power of finding God’s presence in a magnificent sunset or in a grand mountain vista.  But Jesus reminds us to not forget about the underbelly of creation too. Do we see God’s presence in the people the world says are repulsive?  Jesus says, “I am there.”  It is when we open our eyes to this truth that we seek the living among the living.

Palm Sunday Sermon: Throw your cloak on the ground!

Sermon Texts:

Sermon Notes
Jesus came into the world after being carried in his mother’s pregnant belly being jostled around on the back of a donkey bound for some place to stay in Bethlehem.  He was placed in a feeding trough while his mother rested after giving birth.  And here, at the end of his life, we see another donkey, carrying a 33 year old man in a parade where the excitement of the crowd was bubbling with hope and fascination.  Here is our hero!  Here is our Messiah!  He is the one we’ve been waiting for! 

Jesus enter Jerusalem as the prophets had foretold—on a donkey.  This is strange to us, it doesn’t seem like a very kingly type ride.  It is as if a newly elected president made a special request to be driven to the inauguration speech in Washington DC in a farm truck.  

But, though the choice of a donkey may seem odd, it certainly is consistent.  This man riding the donkey is the embodiment of the Holy of Holies.  He is the living, breathing incarnation of God.  And yet, as Paul writes to the Philippians in the words of an ancient hymn known to the church, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. 

This riding in on a donkey thing isn’t just to put on airs, it’s not part of the story merely to fulfill a prophecy, though a close look at some of the Gospel writers details surrounding this story may lead one to believe that “fulfilling a prophecy” is the main objective.  Matthew, confounded with the repetition found Zecheriah’s poetic description,  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” actually describes Jesus riding into Jerusalem simultaneously on a donkey and on a colt. 

It is what the prophecy means that Jesus is interested in.  Zechariah continues in his prophecy,
“I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

A donkey symbolizes peace and a horse symbolizes war.  Jesus comes into this city knowing full well what will happen here over the next few days.  The writing is on the wall!  He doesn’t have to be omniscient to see that those in power want to do away with him.  And he comes in peace.  He will never show hostility toward those who arrest him, accuse him, whip and beat him, or even nail his hands and feet into a cross.  On the night he is arrested, in fact, he must re-iterate this aspect of his mission to one of his disciples who draws a sword and tries to defend him. 

“You live by the sword and you die by it,” he says.  And so he shows us another way.  “You live by peace, and you die at peace.”  Paul goes on to say in that hymn, that this God made flesh “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.  He is humble as he stands there before the Sanhedrin, and they try to find blame in him.  He is gentle with Pontius Pilate, who callously plays politics with his life.  He is obedient as he is stripped, beaten, and dressed up like a bloody thorn-crowned king: mocked and ridiculed before being forced to carry the beam he would hang on to the trash heap of Golgotha.  And he is righteous on that cross, as he finds a moment, even in his own agony to impart grace and confidence to a common thief being crucified with him who sees him for what he is. 

 Humble and obedient, gentle and righteous—that’s how Jesus shows us to confront the madness of the world that seeks to blame, dominate, and crucify.  That’s a lot.  That’s a lot more than those 12 men who walked with for three years could handle.  They ran for their lives.  It is asking a lot of us to “carry our own cross” and follow Jesus.  He endures all of this punishment, and he does it by coming in peace. 

The disciples, we are told, throw their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to sit on.  They want to serve their master by making him more comfortable on this humble ride.  Then, as Luke tells the story, people take off their own cloaks as Jesus makes his way into the city, spreading the cloaks before the feet of the donkey to keep the dust from getting stirred up. 

That’s how this story is different than the other Gospel writers.  The others tell of palms, or palms and cloaks, but only Luke is devoid of palms.  We’ll call it Palm Sunday anyway.  Perhaps Luke wants us to think of cloaks.

What is a cloak worn for?  It’s worn to shield us from the elements.  And throwing them on the ground in front of someone used to be a gesture of honor and good-will.  Imagine all the waste and animal by-products in the road in those days.  We don’t really do that anymore, do we?  That gesture has gone out of our culture.  Has anyone ever thrown their coat on the ground so that someone didn’t have to step on something?

We also use the word “cloak” figuratively, a cloak may be anything that disguises or conceals something.  Magicians wear cloaks, don’t they?  This week is the most important in your spiritual year.  It is a week where we will hear about our savior being laid bare for the world.  We will hear about his fearful night in the garden, when he prays to be relieved of this task.  Jesus will be laid bare in the hands of the Romans, where he is stripped and beaten.  He’ll be laid bare on the cross, and nailed there and raised up into the air to hang.  And while he’s hanging on that cross, Jesus will lay bare his soul in the words of the Psalmist in the face of what seems to be utter abandonment, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” 

He will leave nothing concealed or disguised in his own walk with the Father.  This is his example to all of us.  In this week, don’t cloak your relationship with the Father.  His only son has made that unnecessary.  Join the crowd who sees Jesus and throws their cloaks on the ground as he comes.   Lay your soul bare to God’s love.  Don’t hold anything back. 

I find that this week, with it’s two special days when we recognize the events of the last days of Christ for what they are, God uncloaking His own love for us.  

How can you take your coat off for Jesus

So, the Messiah’s entry into Jerusalem upon an animal of peace is made ready with Palm branches yanked off the trees, and people’s cloaks from their backs.  They are impromptu displays of preparing the way for peace.  

Monday, March 22, 2010

Holy Week Schedule

This coming Sunday, March 28, we will begin our observance of Holy Week with our Palm Sunday service at 10:55am and Easter banquet and Easter Egg Hunt after church. Yes, we jump the gun a little with Easter activities, but we know many families have Easter lunches of their own on Easter Sunday, so we meet together on this Sunday to eat together as a church family. Everyone is welcome to bring a dish and join in the meal. Ham is provided by the UMW.

On Thursday at 7pm, we will remember the Last Supper and the Great Commandment of Jesus in our Maundy Thursday service. The service concludes with the ritual of stripping the sanctuary, which is a reminder that the sadness and grief of Good Friday happened after this meal of love and fellowship.

On Friday at 7pm, we will gather to hear the solemn story of the betrayal, abandonment and crucifixion at the Good Friday Tenebrae. "Tenebrae," or "Darkness" is based on a twelfth-century late night/early morning service, and is fairly stark and simple. Participation in the service typically enhances the power and reality of Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday is the most important occasion of the Christian Year. It is when the bold message of the resurrection is loudly and beautifully celebrated in song and in word. Our Easter Sunday celebration will begin at 10:55 am and continue for the rest of the year!
Communion will be served on Easter Sunday, so that Christ Jesus may be known "in the breaking of the bread." All are welcome to receive our Holy Sacrament.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lent 4 Sermon: Lost at Home

Sermon Texts: Corinthians, Psalter, and Luke
This is the story we always refer to as the “Prodigal Son.” What does prodigal mean anyway? It’s not a word we commonly use, except when referring to this story.

Etymology: Latin prodigus, from prodigere to drive away, squander, from pro-, prod-forth + agere to drive — more at PRO-, AGENT
Date: 15th century
1 : characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure : LAVISH
2 : recklessly spendthrift

I don’t know that Jesus would have preferred this title. He, after all, tells the story of two sons, and the second is as prodigal as the first when it comes to driving away people from his own heart and squandering his relationships.

We are most likely overcome with the story of the younger son because his story is so dramatic. He goes from a comfortable home to a pig sty in two sentences.

It is also compelling to us because it is the story of grace…..

I’ve always lingered over this older brother outside the party, asking the servants to give him news of what’s going on, and then complaining to his father for accepting his brother back into the fold.

The first part of the story is compelling because it is so dramatic in its shifts and so honest and bare in its emotionality. The second half of the story is so compelling to me because it so real. It seems more complex and subtle. The first son has lost his way, that’s clearly apparent to him by his realization that he is getting hungry looking at pig slop.

But, the older son who stayed home and helped on the farm perhaps doesn’t even realize that he too is lost. He’s lost right there at home.

More often than not, we don’t have dramatic “bottom of the barrel” type experiences like the younger brother. Some may, and those are compelling and inspiring times in our life, no doubt. But I don’t want to give the whole story to the younger son. After all, Jesus, the master storyteller, leaves the older son’s story as the lynchpin. He leaves it unanswered, compelling us to integrate the experience into our own lives and ask ourselves, “well, what would I do?”

I think it’s a great truth of this story that we can become just as lost in our work and in our dedication and in our obligations and sense of duty as we can by turning our back on the Father and going our own way and “scattering our substance” in dissolute living.

Yes, we can become just as lost dutifully coming here to sit in these pews every single Sunday as those who have never stepped foot in a church. And the glaring evidence of our disorientation can be found in our attitude toward those who find their way home and toward a God who welcomes everyone, no matter what, with open arms.

The reality of being home, being found, being alive to God’s grace has everything to do with an attitude of the heart. Do we harbor contempt? Do we consider others unworthy of God’s grace?

God is running down the road to throw His arms around a lot of people who I might not believe deserve a second chance—am I willing to not only accept that but celebrate that? To come in to the banquet and toast my brother’s return home—that is participating in grace. That is being alive to God’s grace.

Sometimes I wish I had a better story to tell. I wish my faith life was big and dramatic and compelling so that I could persuade all of you to a life of redemption and purpose because I have lived it—because I’ve been in the gutter, and boy can I tell you—you don’t want to be there. I hear preachers who have those kinds of stories, and there’s a part of my heart that whispers, “frauds!” “hucksters!” “What are you trying to sell?” “What are you trying to pull?”

My story isn’t as dramatic. My story isn’t as exciting, and I know you know this about me. I’ve been here close to four years now, and I know my story, who I am has not reached some of you—it has not “lit many fires” or prompted many Kleenexes to be used. Perhaps I’m boring, perhaps I’m pedestrian, perhaps I just haven’t had what it takes to convince you. I’m no prodigal son.

No, I’ve spent my whole life here on my Father’s farm. I’ve tended the sheep…and the goats. I’ve stuck around here like most of you. That’s not all that exciting. I’ve haven’t really had many compelling changes of heart. I’m pretty much the same person now that I was 5, 10, 15 years ago. I’ve never felt desperate for the nourishment and safety of home like that son sitting in the pig sty. I may have gotten some postcards from “distant lands” where debauchery and dissolute living are the trade, but I’ve never really been there—at least I don’t consider myself to have been there.

So, I feel the cliffhanger of Jesus’ story. I get it. I want to believe that I’m excited and celebrating what God is doing in the world—where grace is being shown—but sometimes I look out at the kind of people who are claiming God’s grace, and I say to myself, “what ass...inine people"

Let me assure you—it’s as easy to be lost here at home as it is out in the distant lands. And by God’s grace I’m reminded by this Heavenly Father—“Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate.” I want to go in to the party. I want to applaud God’s grace wherever it is being shown. I want to accept the grace that has been with me my whole life. I want to admit this grace into my spirit and let it shape me and mold me into the likeness of my Father, who is pure and unbounded joy and forgiveness. I want to go into the party.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

U2Charist Highlight: Atticus Dellinger plays and sings "Yahweh"

Our U2charist service was a lot of fun this morning.  The order of worship can be found here, and the highlight of the service, Atticus Dellinger singing U2's Yahweh, was fantastic.  Take a listen.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Readings for "Singing Our Lives" Study

The readings for our study group this Sunday evening are about U2--how's that for timing?  We'll debrief the U2charist service, and take a look at the article linked here.  The study guide can be found here

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

U2charist Service this Sunday, March 7

In this service of worship, we will be drawing from the music and lyrics of the band U2 to express our praise and thanksgiving, confession, and yearning for connection with God. The band has been making music on a world stage for 30 years. Each time they tour in concert, they draw millions of people, where they offer a sensory rich spectacle that attempts to focus fans toward goals in humanitarian causes developed by the United Nations. They offer prayers and even play Psalms and recite other Scripture when they play. They are a “secular band” that unabashedly proclaims their faith, and what it compels them to do in the world. Approach this service with the prayer that whether you are a longtime fan of U2, or have never really listened to them, God will open something new inside you.