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We Need to Talk About Friday

Here is my sermon from Sunday. It is offered in the hope that it will bring hope and comfort in a place of despair and grief.

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-11.

I was going to say something very different until Friday came. I was going to talk about what is coming, about a vision God has for us, about something we cannot see. Now it seems so empty, unreal, theoretical.

We need to talk today about what happened on Friday. We need to tell each other what we think and feel after seeing images and hearing stories like the ones we saw and heard from Newtown, Connecticut. We cannot stuff our tears down into our souls and hope they will go away – they cannot. We cannot hide behind some policy argument and pray that our spirits will be healed in the meantime. Nor can we put away our memories of this shooting in the same place as the one we put our memories of Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; and the others still more weeks and months in the past. Here in this space we must have the courage and the compassion to shed our tears, to share our anger and our grief, to wonder about our world and God’s movement in it. Because if we cannot grieve here in the presence of God and the community of disciples of the Crucified One, where can we possibly hope to grieve?

On Friday we saw parents running to their child’s school and then to the local fire station, terrorized by the thought that their child would not be there but still in their classroom. On Friday we saw a school building turned into a morgue, a place of death and destruction. As the governor of Connecticut noted, “Today evil has visited the people of Newtown.”

We gather today knowing full well that evil is real. We have seen it with our own eyes and heard it with our own ears and we can no longer run away from it. Evil torments us, terrorizes us, oppresses us. We turn our lives upside down in an effort to protect ourselves and our children from evil only for it to slither its way through a crack in our defenses anyway. So we throw up our hands and wonder if anything can be done to prevent evil from visiting our lives too. We despair, we cry, we rail against the injustice of it all, and we lift all of it up to God and beg Him to do something with it.

We are not the first to have the visitation of evil, nor will we be the last. The Israelites of old had their land, their temple, their freedom and their families all ripped away from them. Some stayed to work for empire after empire who took their crops for their food and their children for their armies. Others were deported and forced to serve their new masters. There were certainly the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. There were plenty of ashes and tears.

And into this place where evil has visited steps the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah peers into the future (whether near or far we cannot say) and sees something more than the pain being endured in the present. He sees cities and communities being rebuilt. He sees garland instead of ashes, comfort where there is mourning. He sees justice against those who brought evil to his people. He proclaims a year of the Lord’s favor.

To be honest, today all these things seem very far away. They seem empty, unreal, theoretical.

They also seem revolutionary.

We live in the heart of the American Revolution. The great orator and governor of colonial Virginia Patrick Henry lived only a few miles from here. He also led and participated in the American Revolution against Great Britain. He saw the evils of oppression bearing down on the people of the colonies and he did not shy away from them. He noted, “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and provide for it.”

But Patrick Henry did not stop at knowing the worst – he looked forward to something better. He had no qualms about acknowledging the reality around him and the reality of human beings, that we thirst for power over one another and seek to enslave one another given the chance. Patrick Henry also saw that it didn’t have to be this way, that there could be something more. He knew that it would be a struggle; he knew he would have to fight for it, even die for it. But he pressed on anyway to that vision of liberty for all. Thus began the revolution.

Today, this Sunday after Friday, we hear the call in Isaiah of another revolution. It is a revolution against evil in our world. It is a fight to honor every living human being, to break the chains of oppression and to comfort those who grieve with hope. It is the acknowledgement of reality and looking forward to something better, something purer, something God-infused.

Now the revolution among the American colonies was fought muskets and cannons as well as with words and documents. The revolution of God is fought not with guns but with relationships, not with declarations of independence but recognition of dependence. The kingdom of God outlined in Isaiah begins not with a battle at Lexington and Concord but with the surrender at Golgotha. The Advent hope we cling to on Sunday is directly linked to a different Friday, one that we can only the see the goodness of given that Sunday always follows Friday.

In the bleakness of winter the ground turns from green to brown and the winds grow cold. It seems that death has laid its claim all around us. It seems that it will always be Friday, that the power of evil has won, and that our grief will never be consoled. But remember the words of Isaiah: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Today it is hard to hear those calls of righteousness and praise through the sounds of mourning. But it is coming, and we know it because the cross stands empty to the sky and the tomb contains only a few pieces of linen.

And so we stand together, we cry together, we huddle together, we get angry together, we fight together, we proclaim revolution together, and we say what we believe together. We know that evil is real and we do not turn away from it. Instead we fight it with good, with love, with Christ. And still we believe despite the pain and suffering that comes and finds our doors. We know how this revolution ends.

This is our Father’s world. Not evil’s, not sin’s, not death’s.

This is our Father’s world.
O let us ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.

And someday soon we will offer the second part, singing it with all the brokenhearted around us.

This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

Until that day comes, until the revolution of the Christ-child is complete, we believe, we hope, we look to the stable and to the cross. We remember. And we also say together with voices cracking or shouting or somewhere in between, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

God Chooses

Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” – Luke 5:13

“I thought you would be mad at me.”

The vase lay broken on the kitchen floor, the roses that Father had brought home to Mother strewn about. Ruined, it was all ruined. But little Timmy wanted to make up for his mistake, so he tried to clean up.

He hadn’t meant to bump the vase with the flowers. But he had, reaching across the table for something he had bumped the vase and it had gone crashing to the floor. The glass shattered into a gazillion pieces, the flowers were shredded by the flying glass. Timmy went to get the broom to clean up.

But he forgot to put on shoes, so as he started to clean up the glass lodged in his feet and blood began to flow causing an even bigger mess and pain for Timmy. After a few minutes Mother walked in – broken vase, ruined flowers, and most important crying and bloody Timmy. Mother reached down for her son, “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Sniffle.

“Why didn’t you tell me the vase was broken? I would have helped you fix it.”

“I broke the vase, and I wanted to clean it up. I didn’t tell you because I thought you would be mad at me.”

In the time of Jesus and even today there is a sense that those who are in misery are there at least partly because of their own doing. God may be punishing them for a sin committed or a sacrifice forgotten. You can imagine the man with leprosy coming forward to Jesus here in Luke 5. He has nothing to give to Jesus. He can only ask. And like little Timmy, there is an undercurrent of fear here. What if Jesus says no? What if God doesn’t want to heal the leper?

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” I think God might be mad at me, but God has the power to heal this disease. Will you do it, Lord?

“I do choose, be made clean.”

God chooses healing and wholeness over disease and brokenness. I do not write this easily, because the evidence to the contrary seems overwhelming. There is so much suffering, so many who are not healed, so much broken like a vase bumped from the table turned into shattered glass.

And so Luke 5:13 is also a statement of faith. This is what we believe: that God chooses to make people whole again. That God wants to bring the broken pieces of life together again. That Christ on the cross is the ultimate choice of God to bring his children into His arms and hug them and tell them. “It’s okay, Daddy’s here,” after we have cut ourselves up.

We all make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean God is forever angry. Instead God chooses to heal. And for that we give thanks.

Realizing What We Are Saying

"Let us stand and say what we believe..."

I believe in the God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…

We say it every week in worship, right after the hymn after the sermon. We know where it falls every week, and we know when it is our turn to begin the ritual.

“Let us say what we believe.” So we begin saying that we believe in God and somewhere about the time we mouth “creator of heaven and earth” our brains are moving on. Like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed is one of those sets of words that we say a lot but in reality don’t pay much attention to, despite the awesome power those words convey. Do we realize what we are saying here?

Do we realize that we are placing our belief in one God in three persons, whatever that means?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…

Do we realize that with these words we are declaring that we follow Jesus and Jesus only, not any powers of this world nor any powers in the spiritual world other than the one who died on a cross in Palestine in the first century?

Do we realize that we are saying that we believe in the virgin birth, the movement of Jesus from Earth to the place of the dead (“sheol” in Hebrew and “Hades” or “hell” in Greek) on his way to rising from the dead, and that he will come again?

Do we realize that we are saying this with Christians from every time and place, those who say it openly and those who whisper it behind closed doors?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,…

Do we realize that believing in the Holy Spirit means the Spirit might actually act in and through us to transform the church and the world? Do we want that, really?

Do we realize the covenant we are making here? Do we realize the awesome responsibility we are undertaking, to commune with the saints and to actually forgive those who hurt us?

the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Do we realize just how radical this statement of faith truly is? Just how hopeful this truly is? Just how faithful?

Do we realize that we are committing to live differently, to live as if there is more here than what we know here or see here or feel here?

Do we believe this?

Amen.

Daily Lenten Devotional – February 23

“Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us.”
– Daniel 9:7

We don’t talk about shame much. Strike that, we don’t talk about our own shame that much. We laugh at the shame of others. (What is America’s Funniest Home Videos if not an exercise in laughing at the shame of others?) However, we rarely if ever acknowledge the shame within ourselves.

We have been taught from an early age to not show our shame. We are told to buck up, push back the tears, keep a stiff upper lip. We are reminded that winners persevere and do not dwell on failure. So much of our time is spent covering our shame from view, even shame that is not our responsibility. Families go overboard covering for an alcoholic or an abuser. “Everything’s fine here,” we say when everything is most definitely not fine.

And then there are the days when our shame is revealed for all the world to see. We are embarrassed as our carefully constructed scaffolds tumble and the real edifice of our imperfect lives is illuminated for all to see. Jesus said, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12:46) The light is scary place in which to live. Just ask any presidential hopeful with opposition researchers scouring the country for anything that could bring scandal.

And yet the in the light our shame dissolves and our embarrassment retreats. The beautiful thing about the light of Christ is that in the light we recognize the amazing grace God has for us. The cross shows us the depths of God’s forgiveness and mercy and enables us to step out of the darkness and into the light. Indeed, “happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Psalm 32:1)

Lent is a time to take that step from darkness into light. It seems scary, but know that the shame we hide will be washed away in light of truth and grace.

Holy Week Reflection – Maundy Thursday

Jesus knew it was coming. Jesus knew he was going to be betrayed, knew he was going to die. It had all started earlier in the week, when he went into Jerusalem on that donkey, with people proclaiming him king. That got everybody riled up, including Pilate and the Temple leaders. With Rome and the Temple establishment on his tail, it wasn’t going to take long. Jesus knew it was coming.

And Jesus knew how these events tended to come out, someone in his group was going to tell them where he was and when he would be alone. That would be the time to arrest him and not have the possibility of a revolt. Jesus knew that was coming too.

Instead of turning paranoid and going into a hiding place that no one knew, the gospel writer tells us, “He loved them to the end.” Jesus shared his life with others, knowing full well that someone would take his life and turn it over to his enemies. He ate with his disciples that night of Passover, knowing that he would face the fate of the firstborn of Egypt rather than the miracle of salvation, liberation, and independence.

Jesus sat at the table, and he ate of the lamb reminding them all of that fateful night when God moved. He shared with them bitter herbs to remind them of the slavery in Egypt. He dipped parsley in salt water as a remembrance of the tears shed under oppression. He ate haroset, a mixture of nuts, apple, cinnamon and wine designed to look like straw to remember the treasure houses of Pharaoh and the hope of freedom from slavery. And he ate unleavened bread with his disciples as a remembrance of the haste in which Israel left Egypt.

Before that Jesus did something extraordinary. He took the position of a servant and washed the disciple’s feet. We hear in tonight’s reading that when Jesus got to Peter, Peter refused to have his feet washed. Peter couldn’t understand how Jesus could be his servant, when Peter spent his life following Jesus. But what goes unmentioned – and that gets me all the more – is that in the middle of all this was Judas Isacariot, who John tells us had already decided to betray Jesus. Jesus washed Judas’ feet. And John tells us that Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him. Yet Jesus washed Judas’ feet anyway. And I don’t understand how Jesus could be Judas’ servant, not when Judas is going to turn on him.

And after the supper was over, Jesus passed around the bread and the cup, and told his disciples that this was his body and blood. “Do this in remembrance of me.” And Judas ate the bread. Judas drank from the cup. The one who was going to lead others to kill him received Jesus’ instructions about washing others’ feet and remembering him through breaking bread and drinking of the cup.

Tonight we celebrate the institution of the Lord’s Supper. And we come to the table as disciples, following Jesus through Holy Week. But we have been reminded that we come to the table not as perfect disciples, but as those who betray Jesus each day to the powers of this world. Because if we were there that night we would have seen not just Judas, who betrayed the Savior of the World, but Simon Peter who denied him and ten others who fled in fear of their lives daring not to show their faces. None of the people in the room that night could say that they didn’t betray Jesus in some form during the next 24 hours.

In Communion, we give thanks that Jesus invited us to the table. None of us is worthy of it. None of us deserves it. But in the mystery of divine grace we are invited anyway. Take the bread, drink from the cup, and do it in remembrance of the one who died and rose for us, the ones who betray him so often.

Holy Week – An Explanation

As we come from the preparatory season of Lent into the celebratory season of Easter, we go through Holy Week. Holy Week commemorates the final days of Jesus’ life and his final journey into Jerusalem. It begins with Palm Sunday, a day of celebration with undertones of the crisis and violence to come. According to the Bible, as Jesus entered Jerusalem a crowd gathered laying their cloaks on the road and waving palm branches. On the other side of Jerusalem, the Roman governor Pilate would be entering to his own parade. Palm Sunday sets the scene – Jesus took on the Roman authorities, claiming to have more power than even Caesar himself.

On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the Passover with Jesus, and the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion (also known as The Last Supper or the Eucharist.) Christians do not celebrate the Passover described in the book of Exodus, but Maundy Thursday would not exist without it. Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room of house to celebrate this Jewish holiday.

When we celebrate the Last Supper, we commune with Christ. We also remember how Jesus took bread and broke it, saying, “This is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.” The bread broke would have been unleavened bread, in remembrance of Israel leaving Egypt so quickly they could not add leavening.

Jesus took a cup of wine and pass it to the people assembled, saying, “This is the new covenant, shed in my blood for the forgiveness of sins. Take, drink, and do this in remembrance of me.” The cup passed would have been the cup of Elijah, the most major prophet of Israel’s history. Jesus intentionally claims to be both the incarnation of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. Jesus fulfills God’s plan first made known to Abraham all the way back in Genesis.

On Good Friday that plan goes into another act, this one a political and religious drama which culminates on the cross. Jesus is taken before both the religious authorities and the Roman occupational authorities. He is mocked, beaten, and forced to carry his own cross up Golgotha. There he was crucified. To the Roman government, crucifixion was meant to show the world how powerful the empire was. To Christians, the crucifixion reminds us of our sin and of the willingness of God to forgive. The cross reminds us also that death is not final, and that Good Friday is merely a way station on the road to the final act.

This final act is Easter Sunday. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead and this day we celebrate the resurrecting power of God that made Jesus come alive again. Easter celebrates that death is not final – that the light of God always pierces the darkness of sin and death. Easter is a celebration of hope: hope in God’s Son, hope in the resurrection, hope for the world in which we live.

Join in celebrating Holy Week this year from April 17 through the 24. Palm Sunday worship begins at 10 am on April 17. Maundy Thursday worship begins at 7 pm on April 21 and includes a cantata sung by our wonderful choir. Easter Sunday brings two opportunities to worship, including a sunrise service at 7 am held at Westhunt Baptist Church and our regular 10 am worship. Come and worship the Risen Lord this Easter season!

 

Keep Your Eyes on the King

One of the most well known card tricks ever played is the Three Card Monty. A mark who doesn’t know what’s going on comes up to the dealer. Three cards are laid down on the table, one of which is a Queen of Hearts. The mark is shown the Queen of Hearts, and then all three cards are turned face down and the dealer starts exchanging the cards one for another, back and forth, all the while chanting to the mark to “keep your eye on the Queen.” Eventually the shuffling stops and the three cards are lined up. The mark is asked to choose a card. Inevitably the mark is wrong no matter how much they kept their eyes open, because the whole thing is an illusion. The dealer has hidden the Queen up his sleeve; the mark is intently watching a bunch of superfluous cards.

Jesus once saw the eyes of many trained on the superfluous. He was in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Sukkot (or Booths or Tabernacles), a celebration of abundant harvest given by God. In the midst of the feast Jesus is teaching in the temple courts and doing quite well – he is the Son of God after all, he knows more than a little about Judaism! Yet as some in the crowd begin to wonder out loud if Jesus is indeed the Christ and others wonder why the authorities who want to kill him are dithering on the sidelines, a new trick emerges. “How can the Christ come from Galilee?”

They’ve taken their eyes off of what is important – is Jesus the Messiah or not? – and begun staring at where he is from on the map. Now at first this seems important: ancient prophesies had dictated that the Anointed One of God would hail from the City of David (aka Bethlehem). But in the midst of overwhelming revelation such as signs, wonders, miracles, teaching, is geography really that important? I would say, “No.” Although Luke’s gospel goes to great lengths to tell us Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem.

In Lent, we are challenged to discern what is important. We are called to keep our eyes on the King, to search intently for God’s kingdom and pray for its coming, and to know when we are being given an illusion. So often we lose the forest of the Gospel for the trees of the Law, and Lent challenges us to step back for just a moment an reorient ourselves towards God’s kingdom.