Ash Wednesday Homily

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Hey everybody, sorry this is a couple days late but I wanted to share with you what I shared with my congregation on Wednesday.

One of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned in life came from my high school youth pastor.  I can’t remember the context or the setting but I remember that one day he explained to us that we had never and probably would never experience hunger.

Now I was a growing teenage boy who was skinnier than your average stick and who ran Cross Country and Track.  I lived my life under a constant state of hunger and so I immediately begged to disagree.

But then he explained to us the process of fasting.  When one fasts food entirely they go through various stages of discomfort but none of that discomfort is truly “hunger.”

The first stage starts around 10am the morning the fast began.  If you awaken and don’t eat breakfast at your usual time, your stomach eventually figures it out.  After waiting a couple hours it sends signals to your brain that get translated not as pain but as “indigestion” or a small discomfort sometimes signaled by stomach groans.  It does this for a couple reasons.  First, at this point your stomach only has acid in it because a well regulated body knows when to expect food and dumps a bit more digestive acid into your stomach to prepare.  If this acid has nothing to digest it makes you feel uncomfortable.  Second, your body is expecting sugar to dump into your blood stream.  If it doesn’t have the usual dose of it, it sends a very early warning signal to your brain.  People call that warning signal, “hunger” but it is not.

Shortly after this early warning sign, some people might start shaking.  The shakes occur because your blood stream does not have the sugars it expected and didn’t yet know it was supposed to break into your fat reserves to find it.  At this point many people will add an adjective to their hunger and say, “I am so hungry” and the more dramatic will say, “I am starving.”  Yet at this point they are neither hungry nor starving, just a bit shaky while your body breaks down the fat and dumps its sugar into your blood stream.

In fact, the third thing that happens is your body eventually figures out you are not going to feed it and it begins to break into your fat reserves to find the necessary sugars it needs to continue your daily activities.  At this point your stomach stops growling, the shaking stops and suddenly you completely forget that you are fasting.

Day two works much like day one.  Around breakfast, lunch and dinner you feel a little bit uncomfortable.  You get episodes of shakiness that soon resolve themselves and then your body finds the necessary sugars in your fat stores to keep going.

By day 7 of the fast, most bodies have recalibrated themselves and the person fasting reaches a new equilibrium where they do not feel hungry or shaky at all.  This equilibrium can last for quite some time, depending on how much fat you have stored in your body.  Most people can survive and feel just fine for 30-40 days.

When the fat stores are gone is when true hunger begins.  Like most of you I have never felt this sensation but from what I understand it is debilitating and painful.  True hunger begins when your body does not have the nutrients or the calories it needs to sustain your lifestyle.  It begins by shutting your body down for longer periods of time.  You sleep for 12 hours a day and take long naps.  It gets worse when your body begins to eat your muscles to find the fat stores.  As it digs into your muscles, you experience awful spasms accompanied by jolts of pain every time you move.  If you can manage to move, you become dizzy and disoriented.  At this time, your nails become brittle and begin to break off of your fingers.  The same goes for your toes.

After your body is done eating your muscles, it starts in on your organs and bones, causing massive and extreme internal pain.  Eventually one of those organs will fail resulting in death by starvation.

When you hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” that is the type of pain, discomfort, fatigue and longing for calories that he describes.

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit uncomfortable with the sin in their lives and the evil in the world.”

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit sad because someone said something mean.”

And he is not saying, “Blessed are those who are saddened by the amount of unsaved people or who feel just a little bit guilty about the sinfulness in their own lives.”

He is saying, “Blessed those who long so much for righteousness, who long so much for the world to become a better place, who want the sin and the evil in the world to go away that they hurt and they ache and they get dizzy over it.”

I am not advocating anorexia today and I am not advocating a type of “spiritual anorexia” where Christians remain in a constant state of bawling, crying and feeling guilty all the time.

But I am trying to remind you that unrighteousness and evil is a big deal.  The things we do that hurt others, or hurt our planet or violate the ethos of a loving God are severe.  The things that go wrong are worth hurting over and crying over and groaning those groans too deep for words.

This is why we ask you to suffer with Christ during Lent.  This is why we ask you to give up something you like for 40 days.  I would hope that you picked that “something” well.  I would hope it is something you are going to dearly miss on a daily basis so that when you long for it, you can remind yourself that is what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I hope it hurts you just a little bit so you can be reminded of how much Christ hurt over the awfulness of our world.

But we also ask you to begin this journey knowing that Easter is coming where the other half of the beatitude will come true.  For those of us who ache, long and hurt for the kingdom of God, Easter is that morning where God says, “Let them be filled.”  For those of us who are willing to hurt over the kingdom of God, to cry the tears that need to be cried, to suffer under the agony of a fast, please know that a blessing is coming called Easter morning, where we are reminded that our suffering only last for a night but joy comes in the morning.

And in the Easter season you will get to feast for 50 days that which you only fasted for 40 so that we can remind ourselves that the awfulness of our world is passing away so that God’s righteousness may reign.

500 Years Later, We Doth Protest Too Much!

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On October 31st 1517, 500 years ago yesterday, a German Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the Church on the door of his local Cathedral.   For a few centuries before him the church in Western Europe had been in severe moral decline.  There were certainly many who remained faithful to the gospel but there was a general sense across Western Europe that Christianity as a whole had strayed too far from its roots.  Martin Luther’s 95 complaints began the process of reforming those wrongs.  Luther and his followers were very quickly labeled, “Protesters” or “Protestants” by their critics.  It was thought that all they did was protest.  However, they called themselves Reformers because they wanted to reform the church into something resembling its earliest roots.

When I teach classes about this time in history I always end up talking about one thing Luther had that nobody before him had, namely the Printing Press.  Before Luther, someone could write something in England and someone else would write the same things in Austria or Egypt and they never would have known about each other.  It took information a long time to circulate and because it traveled so slowly, it was easy for those in authority to stop the spread of ideas before they could take off.

Then came the printing press and suddenly all it took was a month for information to circle the continent of Europe.

As I explain to my classes, the Reformation did not begin when Luther nailed his 95 complaints to a wall.  It actually started when someone took the complaints down, ran them through a Printing Press and circulated them across Europe.  Luther was one of the very first historical figures to experience the odd sensation of going viral.  In no time at all he was both famous and infamous.  Within months his name was well known but he was also being accused for heresy and treason.

As people joined his cause and started a movement, Luther’s followers gained a popular nickname by their Roman Catholic countrymen.  They called them “Protesters” or “Protestants.”  It was thought that all they did was protest.  They protest so that they can protest so that they can protest some more.  Their critics cast them as ugly, violent protesters who were lazy and uneducated.

Some of them kind of earned it.  The first generation of Protestants were more violent and more vitriolic than we are today.  Some of those who read Martin Luther’s 95 theses responded in obscene ways and the German people ending up staging a brief but violent revolution against the Roman Catholic church.  Some of them went around burning down entire towns and doing all kinds of ugly things in Luther’s name.  Luther, of course, denounced all of it but when you start protesting you give the violent a means of exercising the violence that is within them.  Some people go around looking for any and every reason to do harm and Luther unfortunately gave them one.

Now I reside in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and our piece of this narrative is a little bit more insane.  Twenty years after Luther posted his complaints, a hormonal king named Henry VIII decided he was going to protest his wife and he asked the Pope for permission to divorce her.  The Pope refused so Henry protested the Pope and he left the church to start his own church.  Strangely, though, Henry could never quite figure out if he was Protestant or Catholic and this created an identity crisis in England that resulted in hundreds of years of civil unrest and war.

This century of church-inspired violence led the early American forefathers to stage their own kind of protest.  Along with taxation without representation and divinely endowed monarchies, they also protested having a state sanctioned church.  Tired of the Protestant Vs. Catholic Vs. Quaker wars that had defined England, our founding fathers decided to not establish a national church.  The phrase that one of them chose to describe it is “separation of church and state.”

But after 240 years many have noted that we haven’t separated churches from the state nearly as well as we have separated churches from each other.  By not having a state sanctioned church we have given anybody permission to do what Henry VIII did.  Any dissatisfied soul can start their own Protesting Reformation and start their own church, making up their own doctrine.

I know of at least three or four churches that have had a Protestant Reformation in the last six years.  In these churches a group of people got angry about something trivial.  They didn’t like the songs.  The pastor wasn’t Republican enough or Democrat enough.  The women’s ministry stopped doing the afternoon tea social.  The denomination wasn’t firm enough on “key” convictions.  So they went to their social media and posted 95 theses for all to see and then they took their cronies and like Henry VIII started their own church.

They have staged these coups using their own version of the printing press, the internet.  In fact, historians believe that the internet is the most significant invention since the printing press.  Some of you have perhaps heard the famous quote by Eric Schmidt who said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

After the printing press it took a month for ideas to circulate the globe.  After the internet it takes mere seconds.  The internet has made posting complaints and protests on walls one of the most popular things you can do.  Social media has made us all Martin Luther. Or are we Henry VIII?

The Printing Press started the Protestant movement.  The internet has completed it.  But some of us are wondering if all this has made us Protestants the very thing we have been protesting.  Many of us in fact have begun to ask ourselves, “Doth we protest too much?”

I’ll be honest when I look at our modern day Protestant movement I don’t see much of the gospel.  Instead I think that our protests have made us the very opposite of that which we claim to protest.

By protesting we have rejected Christian charity for secular hatred.

We have also rejected the peace of Christ for the wars of the principalities and powers.

We have rejected the unifying power of the cross for the divisive rhetoric of useless doctrines.

We have rejected the justification that comes from God for the self-righteousness that comes from thinking I am right all the time.

We have rejected Scripture’s repeated and clarion call to “be quiet,” “be still,” (Psalm 46:10) “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” (James 1:18) and to “live quiet lives among the pagans.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

In sum, we have rejected the Spirit’s quiet wisdom and guidance to chart our own noisy path to destruction.

The Protestants doth protest too much and after 500 years I think maybe it’s time to end the protestant part of our movement.  It is time for us to stop protesting and stop complaining.  It’s time for us to shut our big mouths and stop our quick fingers from typing.  After 500 years it’s time to do what Scripture commands, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”  (James 1:19).

As Protestants we doth protest too much.

But We Doth Reform Too Little!

But Martin Luther’s followers called themselves by another name, that is Reformers.  The title “reformer” signified a hope that both drove their protests but was much deeper than protest.  The word “Reformer” hinted at the deep and abiding conviction that the church and the world could be better.  They would tell you that they were not just protesting to protest.  Their goal was not a never ending protest but they protested because they believed that all of us could do better.  More than that, we could be better.  We could work harder and think longer and study the scriptures more diligently.  They believed that we could love the poor and that we didn’t need to tolerate systems in government or church that oppressed them.

They started the Protestant Reformation not because they were self-conceited but because they were hopeful for a better world and a better church.  Not all of them were angry just to be angry.  They were angry because they believed in a better world and in a heavenly kingdom that was and is still coming.

By the way, their hope was rooted in the Scriptures.  They believed in the kind of church that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 12-15.  They believed that we could have a church which is for all people, not just for the rich and powerful.  They believed in a church which welcomed outsiders free of charge instead of making them buy indulgences to be among the in-crowd.  They believed in a church devoid of arrogance and pride but instead built on the humble love of God given to us through the Holy Spirit.  They believed in a church which is not led by hypocrites who tell the everyday people to do something while they do the opposite in private.  They believed there could be a clergy class defined by the fruits of the spirit instead of their opposite.

They were not just hoping to protest those things.  They were hoping to reform them.  And we have now spent 500 years working towards those goals.

In sum, we do protest too much but after 500 years we have not reformed nearly as much.

We need to stop the protests but keep up the reformations.

For us every Sunday is reformation Sunday.  Every Sunday we gather around the Scriptures and the table and ask God to reform us.  Every month our board meets and we do reformation meetings.  We talk about how to continue reforming our local congregation so that it can better resemble the love of Christ to this sinful world.  Every bible study we use the Scriptures to hold each other accountable to the Reformation process.  Every time I meet with someone over coffee or breakfast or dinner, I am hopeful for a Reformation.

In conclusion, over the last summer God gave me a wonderful verse.  I was revisiting Philippians and I was enlivened by Paul’s admission:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

After 500 year, us protesting reformers have not laid hold of that for which we are laid hold of.  We have not attained to the perfection to which we were called.  But for 500 years now we have pressed on and I hope for 500 more years we will continue to press on toward the goal.

Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.

Celebrating Easter in Hyrule and Eden (UT)

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We are now counting down the days the end of the most wonderful season of the liturgical calendar year.  Now, I know, you all think Advent is the most wonderful season of the liturgical calendar year.  But we all love Advent for all the wrong reasons.  Advent is meant to be somber.  We force it to be festive, prolonging the 12 days of Christmas into 30+.

But the fifty days of Easter is and always was meant to be all festivity.  This is why as I have fasted the 40 days of Lent I have come to realize the Lenten cycle isn’t over until you have feasted the 50 days of Easter.

And I have certainly been feasting over the last 48 days!  It has been Easter in my life this past month and a half.  I have tried to enjoy and celebrate the Resurrection, Restoration and Redemption every moment.

Image result for hyruleThe first way I have done this is by playing Zelda.  Many of you know that I fast video games during Lent so on day 2 of the Easter season I began my feasting by dusting off my old copy of “Twilight Princess” and putting it in my aging Wii so that I could waste time riding across Hyrule, collecting gadgets and solving puzzles.

It goes without saying to you who have played them that the Zelda games are unlike any other video games.  The aesthetic and gameplay are incredible.  Even the darkest of Zelda games are still pretty lighthearted and cartoonish.   The graphics are incredibly beautiful, as is the music.

 

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Despite her awkward appearance the true “Twilight Princess” has one of the best stories in all Zelda.

But more than all that, the characters are diverse.  They come in all shapes and sizes and styles of clothing.  Most of them are downright weird.  This is probably because of Zelda’s Japanese origins but I love the characters nonetheless.  They resemble some of the weird people I know, many of whom have attended churches I pastor.  If you add to all that the over arching theme of driving darkness away with light, you might realize that Zelda is certainly a wonderful and beautiful gift.

This Easter season I taught my youth group that the secret to finding joy is Philippians 4:8 which teaches us to think and dwell upon whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely excellent and praiseworthy.  The Zelda games have so much of those wonderful attributes.  Enjoying these artistic pieces is one great way to celebrate the light of the world and the light that is in the world.

I also spent this Easter season training for a marathon in and around Eden, UT.  The road to Eden goes through, “Mountain Green” whiImage result for eden, utch is aptly named because green abounds on those mountains, especially this time of year.  To accent the green, the mountains were still snow capped.  The lake was smooth as ice, partly because some of it was still ice.  I spent hours running up there marveling at the beauty of it all and celebrating Easter by praying, reciting Scripture and smiling at the various wildlife.  The marathon was a couple weeks ago and we began running right as the sun was rising to illuminate a gorgeous, green day.

I can’t help but draw parallels between the fabricated world of Hyrule and the actual creation of our God.  Eden, UT resembles Hyrule in its beauty.  Actually, Hyrule resembles Eden but it doesn’t match it.  Real life is somehow always better than fabrication.

It also reminds me that, like Hyrule, darkness still threatens this world.  It makes itself known every time I catch myself striding over a dead deer on the highway.  Those carcasses remind me our world is indeed still broken.  Death is still the enemy and he has not yet been vanquished.  As the hymn, “My Hope is Built” reminds us, “Darkness does sometimes veil [God’s] lovely face.”

But so too, the light shines out all the clearer during Easter season.  After all, Jesus didn’t just save me.  He saved and is saving all creation.  Creation was and still is groaning under the oppression of futility.  Unfortunately the ground is still cursed because of Adam.  But Paul teaches in Romans 8 that all creation too “shall be liberated from its bondage to decay.” (Rom. 8:21)

And now as this wonderful Easter season winds down and we march into common time or Kingdomtide, the season for work, we are reminded that God has done God’s part against the darkness and the death.  Now we too must work out our own salvation (see Phil. 2:12-13).

Come oh Jesus, we long for, we work for, you.

 

Resurrection Sunday Reflection: Going Back to Galilee!

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Well, I made it.  We made it!  It is now Easter again.  Such a remarkable day, yet an exhausting one for a pastor.  It began around 5am this morning, as Easter’s usually do for me.  The Lord blessed me with a full bladder right around the time I had to get out of bed which I wish would happen every day–He is risen indeed!

And after a day of much glorious celebrating and feasting and festivities here I sit pondering Jesus’ first words post-tomb.  Maybe for the first time in my life, I am reading the Resurrection story in Matthew 28 and realizing how remarkable it is that angels tell the good news but Jesus has something different in mind.  “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matt. 28:10)

Wait, what?  I mean, I like the “don’t be afraid” part.  That’ll always preach.  But the next part isn’t very inspiring.  It isn’t very eye catching.  It isn’t very thrilling.  “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee?”  Jesus, shouldn’t we at least first talk about how you are still alive?  Shouldn’t you tell us what it all means?  Shouldn’t we do some theology?  Shouldn’t we at least sing some songs about forgiveness, grace, mercy and the like?  Shouldn’t you tell us what God the Father is doing/thinking/wanting?  In fact, shouldn’t we talk about anything other than Galilee?

We sang around 6 songs about Jesus’ Resurrection this morning.  By the end of the Easter liturgical season we will have exhausted many more.  All of them are more melodic and poetic than, “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee!”  Kindergartners write better poetry than that!

But for those of you who do not know, Galilee held a pretty unique spot in the Roman Empire.  Don’t let my word choice of “unique” trick you.  Unique here does not mean special and it certainly does not mean glorious.  Instead it means weird.  Galilee was a weird place for so many reasons.  They were like the Puerto Rico of Rome.  They were totally a part of the country but everybody kind of forgot they existed.  (No offense to the Puerto Ricans.  In fact you have my humble apologies!)

Beyond that, Galilee had its own government, kind of.  In fact, their kings were kind of a drag.  The citizens were too.  They were farmers and fishermen and shepherds.  They didn’t have the temple, or really many great buildings at all.  They were Jewish but not always faithful ones.  They were also Romans but not always loyal ones.  They were simple, slightly uneducated and, as I all ready said, mostly forgotten.

Yet Galilee is where Jesus lived.  Galilee is where he ministered.  Galilee is where he made his namesake and Galilee is where he began the revolution of love against sin and evil.  And Galilee was where he apparently couldn’t wait to get to after defeating death and all that.

That’s right, Galilee.

That might be the most awkward part of any Easter liturgy:

He is risen!

He is risen INDEED!

He is going to Galilee!

He is going to.  .  .wait.  .  .Galilee?   Um, indeed.   .  .Galilee indeed?

Yet where else would he go?  In fact, what better place to go?  He is not just risen.  He is risen and going back to Galilee.  He is risen and going back to the forgotten, poor, rural communities.  He is risen and journeying back to those who are marginalized, weak and foolish.  He is risen and you will find him where you were always able to find him, in Galilee.

So as I sit here after a full and wonderful but exhausting day and wonder where this Easter might take me or might take you, I find myself hoping that the resurrection of the Lord will find us in the Galilee’s!

Happy Easter!  He is risen (and in Galilee) indeed!

Saturday Vigil Reflection: The Lamb Before Its Shearers Is Silent

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I never know what to feel on Holy Saturday.  The liturgical Holy Week is brilliantly designed to take us through the emotions of Jesus’ last week.  Palm Sunday lifts our spirits.  Jesus’ teachings on Monday through Wednesday confuse and frustrate us.  The foot washing and Eucharist of Maundy Thursday comfort us.  The cross on Friday saddens us.

But then what?  What is Saturday supposed to do to us?  I have no idea.

My home church growing up did an Easter egg hunt on Saturday before Easter.  I protested one year, claiming it was wildly out of place and such festivities should wait for Sunday.  My pastor rebutted that it was strangely fitting.  When else should we have an Easter egg hunt?  The Saturday after Good Friday represents life returning to normal after a rather disappointing and absurd Friday.  Easter egg hunts, with their complete lack of any sort of sacramental backing, show the absurdity of it all in ways nothing else can.  I don’t know if he really believed this, or if he was trying to keep the peace with people who were not as liturgically minded as us and so came up with a clever logical argument to justify their silliness.

But his argument resonated with me and still does today.  What else should we do on this Holy Saturday?  Hunting eggs with chocolate in them seems almost as absurd as the fact that yesterday we just killed God so why not.  .  .

And today, a decade later I am getting a haircut and cleaning my house.  What other ways are there to commemorate this day of silence?

Speaking (or writing) of this day of silence, after a week spent studying Jesus’ final teachings, it is worth noting that right before his death he was silent as well.  Matthew 26:53 reads, “But Jesus remained silent.”  He did so again before Pilate.  Now Jesus was not exactly silent.  He did speak a few words but his silence was a response to the accusations.  He gave no defense.  He called no witnesses.  He sat there and took their accusations.  He rested his case before even offering one.  He remained silent and gave no answer.

This is quite profound.  On Palm Sunday he was called, “prophet.”  He spent the week teaching in the temple courts.  Particularly in Matthew, Jesus never was lacking for words to say.  But now he has nothing left to say, no logical argument to make, no defense.  Just silence.

There are different arguments for why he remained silent.  The most shallow argues that he was just fulfilling prophecy and nothing else.  The most elaborate has to do with legal rules and precedents.  Everything you say and do can and will be used against you after all.

However, I think he was silent because of the absurdity of it all.  What else can you say when you are the adult in a room full of angry children?  To speak is to play by their rules and to stoop to their level.  They will always beat you there.  At least by remaining silent in the midst of their childishness, Jesus remained adult.  At least thousands of years later we can say, “See how mature he was.  See how resolute in the face of absurdity!”

And like the centurion, we can look at the silent dignity he portrayed while being crucified and say, “Surely he was the son of God.”

So here on this silent Saturday may we recover in ourselves some of the dignity that Jesus portrayed.  In the face of the ridiculousness of Good Friday, may we be silently dignified as we go through the motions of yet one more Sabbath day.  Tomorrow, like the women, we will put ourselves together and bring spices to the tomb to finish off what the authorities started.  The linens themselves are signs of dignity in the face of absurdity.  It was as if the women were saying to each other, “They killed him for no reason but at least we can adorn him for the sake of respect.”

But before we join them there, let us lift our heads, hunt silly eggs, get haircuts, clean our house and rest a bit while we wait to see if hope just might break through again tomorrow.  .  .

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Sheep and Goats and Which One You Are Going to Be

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I grew up having the cross described to me.  They started explaining it when I was two and it continued throughout my youth.  I eventually landed in a private Christian high school where we talked almost exclusively about it and then I went on to College and Seminary where I got degrees in it.

So I know a lot about this cross.  I know all about how it saves us.  It also forgives us.  It secures God’s presence for us.  It promises us an eternity of bliss.  It is both God’s love and the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

Yet it is also so much more than we will ever be able to comprehend.  There are depths to this cross which we may never reach until the New Jerusalem.

With that said, one thing we never talked about regarding this cross is that it itself is an act of judgment.

I was taught it is the exact opposite.  It is a delay of judgment, some sort of satisfaction that delays God’s wrath for a couple millenia until it boils all up inside God again and pours over to destroy us all, well all who are not saved by the blood.  God just can’t help but pour it out all again but at least Jesus delayed it.  Shallow readings of Revelation have certainly fed this view, that God’s wrath is not satisfied, only delayed.

I have come to disagree with all that.  I believe the cross itself is an act of wrath, an act of judgment.  Paul’s letters make this plain.  The most obvious place is Colossians 2:15 which describes the cross as humiliating, a mockery of the rulers and authorities.  He made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them.  To put it simply, the powers and authorities were judged, weighed and found wanting that day when Jesus died.

This thinking of the cross is perhaps why Jesus’ last teachings before the crucifixion have to do with judgment.  The very last one, recorded in Matthew 25:31-26, is the most blatant.  It is a passage which us good Christians know really well.  It has to do with sheep and goats and heaven and hell.  Anybody who grew up singing Sunday School songs know which one they want to be.

It might be a stretch to call this a parable and yet the metaphors have resonated for millennia and it is a very popular passage from Jesus’ teaching.  Because of its popularity it is so tempting to explain away its bluntness and thus minimize its importance.  But the parable is blunt, obvious and demands a verdict.

Simply put, Jesus teaches that at the last judgment the sheep, those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked, will be welcomed into eternity.  The goats, those who ignored the hungry and despised the naked, will be thrown into hell. There is no other way of reading it.  This is what Jesus said will happen.

And right after he said it, the motions of crucifixion are put in place.  The rulers conspire.  Judas betrays.  Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine.  The guards arrest.  The disciples flee.  The governors judge.  Peter denies.  The soldiers beat.  The cross is carried and the nails are hammered.  The crowd mocks while Jesus breathes his last.

Right after teaching us about the sheep and the goats, Jesus becomes yet one more sheep who is terrorized, tortured and killed by yet more goats.  This is the way things always are and the way they always were.  Goats win.  Sheep lose.  Compassion is stupid.  Tyranny is awesome.  Generosity is foolish.  Selfishness is brilliant.  The strong and the mighty always survive.  The sheep always die.

Yet Jesus, our compassionate sheep, our lover of the poor, our feeder of the hungry, our tailor of the naked, our water for the thirsty rises from the dead!

Jesus’ death and resurrection proves that in the end the sheep do win!  In the end the goats do lose!  In such a way the cross absolutely judges the goats.  It strips them naked and makes a public mockery of them.  Those goats could kill a sheep but they couldn’t keep the sheep dead!  In fact, he rose with power to save those who by faith and the grace of God enter into sheepishness.  The rulers and authorities, the goats, become such a joke after the cross.

So this Maundy Thursday, as this weekend really begins, the question remains, who is welcome at your Eucharist table tonight?  What hungry and thirsty people are you inviting in?  What are their names?  What are their stories?  Who are the sheep?  Are you among them?

If you can’t answer those questions, the cross tomorrow night may find you judged, measured and wanting.

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Bags of Gold and Virgins Who May or May Not End Up Being You

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“It is finished.”  That is one of the more confusing things Jesus said from the cross.  If only we knew what “it” was or is or will be.  Does “it” refer to his life or to our sins or to Jesus’ mission or to the reign of evil or all of the above?  If only we knew what “finished” meant.  Is it “finished” in the way my car was finished when its engine caps cracked or is it finished in the way I finish a dresser top or is it finished the way I cross a “finish” line.

Unlike some of the other things Jesus said from the cross, we don’t have much Biblical context to help us out on this.  Unlike some of the other popular ones, it isn’t a line from one of the Psalms.  The word “finish” is too common in both Testaments and in the Greco-Roman world for any word study to be of much help.  However, the actual Greek word refers to a paying off of debts so there is some help there.

Putting all the confusion aside, the statement is still quite profound.  After all, it is not uncommon, especially in Evangelical Protestant Circles, to look at the cross as a beginning and a wonderful one at that.  The crucifixion happened in the Spring and so Easter has always been celebrated during this wonderful time of the year when everything begins, or rather springs, anew.  This event is about newness, not finished-ness.  It is about beginnings, not endings.

Yet here on the cross Jesus declares an end, a last day if you will.  And it has not been uncommon in 2,000 years of church history to refer to the time after the cross as the “end times.”  “End times” as it was originally used did not refer to destructive times or collapsing times or apocalyptic times.  Instead the word “end” is the Greek word “telos” which refers to something reaching its goal or being fulfilled.  After the cross, we live in times of fulfillment, the times when creation has reached its purpose.  After the cross we stand on the “finish line.”

Therefore, it may not be surprising that Matthew, Mark and Luke record for us that Jesus taught about the “end times” during his last week.  The days before the crucifixion, Jesus told stories and taught parables about the end times, the finishing times.

Matthew 25 records two such parables for us.  The first is about virgins waiting for a bridegroom.  Five forgot to bring oil and so were out buying more when the bridegroom showed, missing him entirely.  The others had enough oil and got to join the wedding party.  The second parable is about investors.  Some of them took the bags of gold the master gave and invested it wisely, doubling their share.  One of them foolishly buried his bag, refusing to invest it for fear of losing it.  He was punished most severely.

At first glance these parables don’t really belong in Holy Week.  In fact, we have another season of the church year where they are taught, namely Advent, which commemorates Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming.  The church, through the lectionary, has us read these in December to remind us to be ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Yet in their original context they were some of Jesus’ last teachings before taking up the cross and finishing “it,” whatever “it” was.

Therefore, maybe what we need to hear in these parables during this week is not judgment or warning but promise.  To be sure, the parables were told for judgment, particularly against the religious elite of Jesus’ time.  But we now live in “finished” times.  We now live in the time when the master’s presence is with us through the Holy Spirit.  We confess that God is here, walking and dwelling among us.  But the Holy Spirit is merely a deposit which means God is not yet fully here.  We live at the beginning of the “end times” but still with a deposit, a promise, a guarantee of our inheritance.

Therefore, those of us who have spent this week and the entirety of our lives fasting, praying, longing, studying and, most importantly, loving need to hear the assurance from these parables.  Unlike those who fall asleep or do not prepare, our oil will not run out before the groom’s coming.  Unlike those who have buried their gold in the ground, our bags of righteousness will multiply.  Our faithfulness and our readiness to do good will not go unnoticed.  In fact, the one who notices and rewards them is all ready at the door!

Therefore, I think I can say with confidence, keep on keeping on.  For like the wise investors and the smart virgins, the cross has guaranteed our reward.

Holy Tuesday Reflection: Evil Tenants, Absent Guests and People Who Are Pretty Much You!

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Over the course of my lifetime I have become increasingly wary around war metaphors when it comes to theology.  I grew up singing, “I’m in the Lord’s Army” complete with hand motions and now my daughter sings it as well.  But I also grew up in the post 9/11 era, watching everybody from terrorists to politicians use religious metaphors to describe their desired war efforts.  I am often not sure if they are using religion to promote war or war to promote religion but I definitely know both make me super uncomfortable.

However, when you react against something you often embrace all the errors of the opposite.  So in reacting against a God of War many of us have found ourselves over embracing a God of passiveness, a God who is unaffiliated with our world, unfamiliar with the true evils that lurk among us and who wants to just go around handing out Pepsi’s to riot police and protesters without acknowledging the deep evils that lie under our world.

In such a view, we remake Jesus into a kindhearted, compassionate do gooder.  He never raised his voice and never said anything remotely offensive.  And of course they crucified him for no apparent reason.

In reading Matthew this week, I have come again to realize Jesus was nothing of the sort.  There was a true conflict going on between Jesus and the authorities and he stoked their ire quite deliberately.  They were perpetuating grave evils and he did not mince words while calling them out.

The parable I wrote about yesterday was just the warm up act.  Jesus follows it with two more stories which are more cruel and far more deliberate in their attempts to stoke their anger. (See Matthew 21:28-22:10)

The first, sometimes called “the Parable of the Tenants” has to do with a landlord trying to collect rent from his tenants.  The tenants want nothing of it, beating and killing every money collector sent.  The story climaxes when the landlord sends his son who is then also killed.  These tenants are not just evil but also stupid.  Killing the servants is not going to guarantee the landlord will stop trying.  Killing the son is not going to guarantee them the inheritance.  In fact, the Chief Priests correctly use the word “wretched” to describe them.

But then Jesus turns that on them.  “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produces its fruit!”  It is almost like he was saying:  You are evil and stupid and wretched!

The second parable, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, makes a similar point.  A King throws a wedding banquet and all the honored and invited guests refuse to show up.  So the King ends up letting everybody come.

These parables are not quite “war” stories or metaphors and yet words of violence saturate them.  There are beatings and mockings and killings.  There is gnashing of teeth and people being captured and tied up.  These are hardly stories describing a passive, almost apathetic God.  This God cares about the fruit and the land that produces it.  This God cares about people.  This God cares about the servants.  This God cares about the rejected.  And this God is angry at those who do not care, especially when they are the Chief Priests who wear God’s name and claim to act in God’s best interests.

Yet notice how God deals with the situation?  Yes, he ousts the tenants but then he gives the farm to others.  And when the guests of the bridegroom refuse to show, God goes out and invites others in.  Both these parables end the conflict with inclusiveness.  People are welcomed who were earlier rejected.

Both these parables point to the cross, that moment when Jesus is completely rejected by the religious establishment but then God throws open wide arms of mercy to invite all sinners in.  God wins the conflict not by conquering or by killing but by inviting.  Those the chief priests and elders rejected become the children of the King!  God’s wonderful kingdom gets bigger.

Yes there is a conflict.  Yes God is at war with the corrupt and the uncaring.  But God wins the war by throwing open the doors of the kingdom to everybody who will believe and repent.  So too, the church wins our various conflicts when we take up our crosses, throw open our arms  and open our doors to the tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, the greedy, the manipulative, the battered, the poor and the broken.  Only in so doing will the reign of love increase!

Prostitutes, Tax Collectors and People Who Are Pretty Much Not You

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I don’t know about you but I grew up learning a lot about Jesus’ parables.  I think we all did.  If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, surely every Evangelical 6th grader is an expert on Jesus’ parables.

I was taught these are the fun little children’s stories that came straight from Jesus’ mouth.  They are clever extended metaphors with cute little object lessons that aid dumb people in understanding who God is.  It is still not uncommon for me to read a book that suggests my teaching and preaching should follow the same path.  In so many words these chapters plead for me to be a good Christian teacher who uses silly stories and illustrations for my poor and super dumb pew sitters.  Only by teaching like Jesus did, can my ministry be effective and prosperous.  I wrote a satire piece on this awhile back but let’s just say if your ministry is going to be effective and prosperous doing things the way Jesus did them is not going to help!  After all, the guy was crucified.

I also hope it goes without saying that the gospels do not corroborate this view of the parables.

Instead, Jesus’ parables are deeply offensive and profoundly critical of the religious elites.  He couched his severe criticism in silly stories so that they would dismiss him as harmless.  Then, when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (See Mark 4:34).  He probably hid his criticism in this way so that they wouldn’t crucify him until his time had come.

Nowhere is this dark side of the parables more evident than in the ones from Holy Week in Matthew 21-25.  During Holy Week Jesus’ parables are more abrupt and less clever.  The attacks become obvious.  The veneer drops off and everyone who hears them know that these parables have a target.  As such, the authorities begin to catch wise that this Jesus guy is not harmless at all.  He is exposing them for the corrupt hypocrites they are.

The first one, in Matthew 21:28-32, is sometimes called “The Parable of the Two Sons.” It goes like this: 

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.  Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

It is not so much a story as a question and when the Chief Priests answer, “The first one” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Let me interpret that for you, “Yep the first one is better than the second and you the second!  But the people you consider evil are actually the first!”

Sometimes I do think it is no wonder that they crucified him.  After all they put in huge effort to looking and sounding pretty in order to convince people, or maybe just themselves, that they were doing God’s will.  After all, most religious types will tell you God likes pretty people, especially if they’re also polite.  Jesus uses this parable to rip off their pretty, polite masks.  So exposed, everyone sees that what lies underneath is not pretty nor polite but scorn and violent intent.  So of course they wanted him dead.

But what about you and what about me?  Does this parable unmask us as well?  Do we need to hear it as the offensive slap to the face it is?  Do we need our pretty politeness to be stripped off of us?

What if I reworked it a bit?  Try these ones on for size:

There are two sons.  One is a bit unruly and a lot reckless but the minute you need him to run an errand he is there to do it.  The other will smile at you to your face and say, “Yes, father” but the minute you leave town for the weekend, he’ll steal your Harley and crash it into a semi truck.

There are two daughters.  One is kind of a tom boy.  She swears, chews and spits.  She’s never worn a dress and she hangs out with those goths, who dress all in black.  When you ask her to do something, she’ll roll her eyes at you and ask “why?”  But then she always does it.  The other daughter is very beautiful and super polite.  She always says the nicest things.  She remembers her “please’s” and her “thank you’s” and she compliments all the right people.  But whenever you aren’t in the room she lies to your family and friends about how you are cruel and abusive to her and claims you wish she had never been born.

There are two employees.  One shows up a little late, forgets to shave, wears ragged clothes, tells off-color jokes to your most profitable clients and he curses like a sailor.  Yet, boy, does he know his stuff and work his tail off to meet and exceed quarterly goals.  The other always shows up on time.  He wears nice suits and has perfectly formatted hair.  His smile is broad and his words are charming.  But the minute the manager leaves the room he goes back to playing free cell on his computer.

If you will allow me one more, this one for my own unmasking.  There are two pastors.  One is a bit of a mess.  Her sermons are long.  Her exegesis is lacking.  Her mind is forgetful.  But the minute trouble finds you, she rushes over to your house, or hospital or morgue and cries with you until morning.  The other is professional in the extreme.  Her sermons are meticulous.  Her bible knowledge is unparalleled.  Her board meetings are well organized and always get out on time.  But she can’t remember your children’s names and nobody in the church can get a hold of her any time other than on a Sunday morning.

Which of these brothers, sisters, employees and pastors does the will of God?

And which are you?

And are you really going to let the others enter the kingdom of God ahead of you?  Are you going to let them beat you to Golgotha?  Or are you going to pick up your cross and follow?