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!

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.

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?

Palm Sunday Devotional: The Divine Stir Stick (From Matt. 21)

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This morning my eyes beheld something not entirely unique, but still fairly special: April snow!  It didn’t last long.  It was gone by the time our Sunday worship service began.  I spent our Sunday School hour watching it melt quite quickly off of our church roof.  It is still glistening in the sunshine on the mountains outside my window but won’t be for long.

I spent the informal parts of our morning services talking to my congregants about the snow.  Some were thrilled.  One woke up at 4am just to watch it fall.  Others were not quite as excited, a few choosing to sit the morning out in order to stay in the confines of their homes.

Overall the snow seemed to have a calming effect on my congregation.  It’s effect was not too much different from a heavy dose of Nyquil.  A full five minutes before we were set to begin worship, our full sanctuary was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.  This became humorous the minute my son started screaming because someone (me) would not let him have something he wanted.

We began our service by showing an introduction video, (which you can watch below).  We turned the lights off before playing it which was a mistake.  The dark killed the last vestiges of energy and made everybody all the more sleepy.  The opening songs wakened us up a little but not much.  My sermon didn’t help much either.  On such Sundays I often joke that I keep a pillow in the pulpit to pull out and use when the last faithful parishioner nods off!

It’s been a couple hours now.  The sun is shining, the snow has melted and I am sitting here at my dining room table in my own Sunday afternoon stupor, worn out from another morning’s activities.  While I sit here stupefied, or rather stuporified, my eyes can’t stop staring at one word in Matthew 21:10, at the end of the Triumphal Entry.  “The whole city was STIRRED.”

The people were stirred.  This means that they picked their heads up.  They focused their eyes.  They took notice.  They were alerted.  They were awakened.  They maybe even were energized.

We should be so jealous!

To be honest, the last five weeks of my life have been anything but “stirring.”  This time of life continues to take a large toll.  There have been miles driven, poopy diapers changed, arguments with toddlers, marathon training, marathon board sessions, emotionally exhausting counseling sessions, long phone calls with mentors, family members and friends and on top of that many sleepless nights.  In sum, the last five weeks have been the opposite of “stirring.”  They have been exhausting.  They have been numbing.  They have been tiresome.  And they have taken their own toll.

I don’t write this out of any illusion that I am alone in this exhaustion.  My quiet sanctuary this morning certainly proved that we are all tired.  We are all worn down.  We all have been beaten up on this weary road we travel.

How badly we need to be stirred again!  How badly we need to be awakened anew to the power and presence of life in our lives!  How badly we need resurrection!  How badly we long for Easter!

As I prepared to lead my congregation into Holy Week this morning I could not help but realize that I desperately need Easter.  I need Resurrection.  I need an uplift and a facelift!  I need to be stirred again to the realities of life breaking into death, holiness breaking into sin, hope breaking into fear and light conquering darkness.  I think you do too.

The sentiment about “stirring” only appears in Matthew.  Luke, Mark and John go other directions.  And not surprisingly it is followed by a very typically Matthean sentiment: “[They] asked, ‘Who is this?’  The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the PROPHET from Nazareth in Galilee.”

From everything else we read in Matthew, he really loved poinImage result for stir straw in cupting out Jesus was a prophet, particularly a teaching one.  Allusions to the prophets appear in almost every story of Matthew’s gospels.  And Jesus’  prophetic teachings are central for Matthew in a way that they are not for Luke and Mark and to a greater extent than they are for John.

So here is Evangelist Matthew reminding us again that Jesus is the prophet.  Jesus is the divine stir stick.  His prophetic teachings mix us all up, throwing us here and there, turn our heads, capture our hearts and awaken us, illuminate us revive and pull us towards that Glorious Easter Morning!

Do you need to be stirred again?

Tune back in tomorrow where we will look at some of the prophetic teachings that Jesus gave the week before he died.

Until then I hope Palm Sunday is still stirring your hearts and your minds.  This video might help:

At the Casket of a Newborn: A Lenten Reflection

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Yesterday for the second time in my life I stood over a casket that was only a couple feet long.  I had to be there.  The word “had” is such a modest word, designed to be over used and yet I use it here reluctantly and carefully.  I did indeed “have” to stand there.  Nothing external compelled me, only the internal bonds of friendship forged over years of shared experiences with the father of the infant who lay in the casket.  My friendship with Camden was so deep and so suddenly profound that I told many, “I couldn’t NOT be there.”  I had to come.

We arrived to the funeral forty five minutes early and walked into the sanctuary, which happens to be “ground zero” for my spirituality.  It is the sanctuary where I worshiped weekly for nine years during my youth.  It was the sanctuary where my friends and I played ridiculous night games.  It was the sanctuary where I spent hours in prayer and the sanctuary where I was ordained.  That sanctuary holds some profound mysteries.

It’s the season of Lent and so the sanctuary also held the colors and slogans of this time of the liturgical year.  The purple hue was everywhere.  A giant wooden cross, much longer than the casket, hovered over us on the platform.  Decorated cloths held pictures of crowns of thorns and nails with the words of Isaiah woven into them.  “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

And there right in the middle of it all, was the infant laying in a casket.  And here, right in the middle of my own Lenten journey, was the infant laying in a casket.

Ten short, but tortuously long days earlier her heart had stopped beating during delivery, sending the family and friends into a downward spiral of grief.  I personally read the news in a grocery store parking lot, where I sat in my car for a good ten minutes crying before mustering the strength to go into the store.

Ten days later here I was, standing in Lent, staring at a two foot long casket unable to keep myself even remotely composed.  I wanted to turn around, wipe the tears from my eyes, tell a joke or two and flee back to sunny Utah where I could bury myself back in the drudgery of daily ministry.

Yet as I said at the top of the post, I “had” to be there.  I had to stand there and look at it and cry because this casket is a profound piece of the Easter story that we tell and commemorate every year, even every Sunday.

As I sat there looking at it through tear blurred eyes, I could not escape from the fact that there is something desperately wrong with the world in which we live.  It is as if the casket was calling out, “Houston, we have a problem.  Heaven, we have a problem!”  And as I contemplated the mystery of the infant’s casket, I realized the problem it proclaims goes much deeper than human behavior.

In fact, this Lent I have been thinking a lot about the Galilean Pharisees of Jesus’ time, these people whose job it was to fix people’s behavior.  In the Gospel of Mark we see them partnered with the politicians, known as the Herodians.  They were strange bedfellows for sure, but they had one great thing in common, other than their mistrust of Jesus.  Both of them sought to build religious and political systems and structures to mitigate personal behavior in the hopes of fixing what is wrong with the world.

Then I thought about Jesus who wept at his friend Lazarus’ tomb.  Lazarus didn’t die because of human behavior.  He died because, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the world has been subjected to futility.”

All of us, from every dot on the spectrum from sinner to saint, carry that futility with us in our bodies and every once in awhile that futility makes itself plainly evident, as it did for my friends on the delivery bed two weeks ago and as it did for my sister five years ago when my niece died of SIDS.  The Pharisees would have chalked the casket up to “secret sin.”  But we know the truth.  This infant did not die because of sin.  This baby died because of a world subjected to futility.

How ridiculously powerless we are in the face of that futility.  In fact, how absurdly powerless all of our pastors, all of our politicians, all of our churches and businesses and universities and clubs and committees and manuals and TV shows and pharmaceutical pills and self help books and rules and laws and systems and structures and so much more are when faced with the casket of an infant!

This Lent, at the casket of an infant, only the almighty God, maker of Heaven and Earth and Jesus Christ his son, savior of Heaven and Earth can break the chains of futility and unleash the tide of Resurrection.

Come oh Easter.

Come oh Christ.

Come oh God.

This world desperately needs you and only you.

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Photo courtesy of my friend Robin Wheeler.

Viewing Nativities

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I try to write this blog with a few simple rules.  One of them is that I try not to write what I might one day preach, or have preached before.  At the same time I try not to preach what I will one day blog or have blogged before.

With that said, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon about the little town of Bethlehem from Micah 5 I have been viewing nativity scenes all afternoon and pulling 40 of them into a Powerpoint to be the backdrop of Sunday’s sermon.

I was very moved by Micah’s statement that the savior’s influence would spread around the world.  Jesus’ influence has certainly done that.  The nativity pictures on Google are proof.  Some are made with cartoon characters and action figures.  They are from China, Russia, Native America, churches, storefronts, the middle east, Africa, South America and even the suburbs.  I tried to pick 40 of them for my Powerpoint, 40 that illustrate that Jesus’ greatness truly does extend to the ends of the earth.

 

While scrolling through pages and pages of nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels and stars, I found that I was deeply moved in the Spirit.  It was hard not to shed a tear of joy and appreciation as I studied hundreds of them.  You see, for centuries now, people from all ages, all walks of life and all countries have paid homage to the baby with these incredible nativity scenes.

Micah is quite correct that Jesus’ influence has stretched around the world.

Below are some of my favorites.  I would welcome you to turn on a Christmas song and scroll through them or do a Google search of the “nativity” yourself while you consider that this baby in the manger is the one who:

Will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

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My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

Beyond the Talking Points: Let’s Reclaim Persecution

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Yesterday Robin Williams died.  My Facebook exploded with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about what Robin Williams actually taught us.  Then a very well meaning person said, “Yes, an actor has died but lets not forget Christians are still being beheaded in Iraq.”  A few hours later several had commented on her post trying to justify why they care more about Robin Williams then the Christians in Iraq.

Of course caring about Robin Williams and caring about Christian persecution are not mutually exclusive.  You can actually care about both at the same time.  In fact my Facebook has been filled for 2 weeks with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about the persecution.  This morning, as if on cue, I saw a link to another blog titled, “Why Christians Need to Grow A Pair.”  As the title would suggest, the author spends a few hundred words ranting about why we aren’t doing enough about the persecution in Iraq.  She argues that we quickly ignore and scroll past the stories about it because it makes us uncomfortable.

And she is right.  It has made me very uncomfortable and I struggle with what to think and feel about it all.  Even during church on Sunday I fought with myself during the prayer time to put words to the tragedy.  I want to be fair.  I want to be balanced.  I want to avoid propaganda of any sort but I also want to acknowledge that these persecuted Christians are us.  They are our brothers and sisters and we should care about them.

This is a difficult dilemma for a pastor.  The source of my discomfort is the word “persecution” has been way over used recently.  The religious right overuse it to score cheap political points.  The older people in my community overuse it to argue the world is getting worse and worse because their narrow definition of Christianity isn’t broadly accepted.  And people from most faith traditions overuse it in their propaganda to get those who don’t agree with them to be sympathetic to their cause.  In fact ISIS even uses the word “persecution” to defend its action.

But in the spirit of “growing a pair” I think the Iraqi tragedy gives opportunity to reclaim persecution for what it really is.  And the pictures in that blog give us a pretty accurate definition.  Persecution is not being told you can’t pray in schools.  It is not giving rights and privileges to people who don’t agree with your religious beliefs.  It is certainly not the Supreme Court deciding against your particular brand of faith and it is not an elected leader disagreeing with you.

Instead persecution is being driven away from your home and threatened with starvation or execution because you believe in a God who doesn’t endorse violence.  Persecution is fleeing into the wilderness without food and water because you refuse to take a side between two warring factions.  Persecution is choosing not to renounce Christ when your children are at gunpoint.  Persecution is denouncing the violence of the world when that violence is targeted against you.

I had a wonderful professor in seminary who told us, “You all talk about the church being persecuted and the church in exile.  Exile is having a fish line run through your lip and being led in chains away from your home to be slaves in a foreign land.  That is not what is happening to the church in the USA right now.  Instead what is happening is what happens when the owner of your favorite restaurant sells the joint to someone who doesn’t like you.  You used to go to the restaurant and you were given the best seats and your food was prepared meticulously.  But now the new owner makes you sit by the kitchen door, when every time the door opens it bangs against your table.  Then they bring your food late and it is cold.  It is frustrating as can be, but it is not exile.”

In that spirit, can I recommend we reclaim the word “persecution” for what it really is?  Can I recommend we come face to face with the true horrors that are happening overseas?  Look at the pictures.  Study them to the point where you are defenseless against them.  After that reclaim your faith.  I would recommend you use the words of Jesus, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”

The Iraqi Christians are the blessed ones.  They are the privileged saints.  And that confession does not excuse the violence or the perpetrators.  In fact, it does just the opposite, it condemns them.  Because when ISIS curses them, the Christians are blessed.  When ISIS kills them, they live eternally.  When ISIS drives them out of home, they find eternal rest in God.  When ISIS imprisons, God liberates them.  This is how God’s wrath works itself out, by blessing those who are cursed.

Neither does their blessedness let us in America off the hook.  Again, it does the opposite by putting us in the driver seat.  We are called to join God in doing the work of blessing the persecuted.  The author of the “grow a pair” blog recommends we join God in three ways.  First we should pray for them.  Second we should give to them.  Third, we should use our social media.  Every prayer offered, every dollar given, every retweet or share online increases our unity with the persecuted.  As we pray, give and share we participate in God’s blessing to them and at the same time, denounce and condemn the deeds of hatred and violence.

So lets use our prayers, gifts and apps to honor the martyrs because they are the true saints, the ones who have stared evil in the face and chosen Christ.  I hope if persecution ever does find me, I can face it with half the courage they do.