Tenebrae Friday Reflection: Who’s On Trial Here

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To Read: Mark 12:38-43

Today is Tenebrae Friday, a day of shadows and darkness where we remember that our God died.  Today we make much of the trials of Jesus before the Chief Priests, the Jewish governor of Galilee and the Roman governor of Judea.  We talk a lot about the accusations against Jesus and how that all led to the horrible moment when Jesus spoke the final words, “it is finished” and breathed his last.  We do this in various ways.  Some of us attend a traditional candlelight service.  Others pray through the stations of the cross.  Others watch various film depictions of the event like the Passion of the Christ or the Jesus film.  Still others read the Passion narratives in the four gospels, taking special note of the 7 last words Jesus spoke while on the cross.  The truly super spiritual do all of the above!

But no matter how we commemorate Good Friday, we are prone to realize again that the real trial at the heart of the crucifixion was not Jesus’ but ours.  All of humanity was put on trial before the throne of God.  After all the God who loves us, who created us, whose very presence sustains our being, pitched his tent and camped out among us and we killed him for it.

My devotional reflections this week have been following Mark 12 where Jesus is repeatedly questioned by various members of the Jewish scholarly elite during the last week of his life.  Jesus successfully parried attacks by the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and one over confident teacher of the law.  These various tests serve as a precursor to his upcoming trial.  Even though they had yet to arrest Jesus under the cover of darkness and serve up a mock trial to reaffirm their own prejudices, they publicly tested Jesus in the hopes that the surrounding crowds would be the jury and judge.

It didn’t work.  In fact, after Jesus successfully answered their questions and avoided the traps they had set, he turned the attack on them.  In chapter 12, verse 38 Jesus says, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Right after that he contrasts them with a very poor widow who offered two tiny pennies to the temple system.  Her offering, Jesus says, is worth more than all the others.

This image of the humble widow becomes a forerunner to the image of the crucified God.  The arrogant chief priests and teachers of the law respond to the presence of Christ by trying to trick and trap.  The widow responds by giving all she has.  It is her two mites that become the image of true humanity, a humanity formed and shaped and called to the image of the sacrificial and self giving God.

Days later, Jesus as fully God and fully human magnifies the image of the widow for us as he hangs on the cross.  This image of sacrificial and self giving love is who we are supposed to be.  Such an image shames the know it alls and the proud and the arrogant and the powerful.  The cross is a verdict on our own ability to save ourselves by pretending to be more than we are.  It is a sentence of “guilty” for those who “walk around in fancy clothes and soak up the praises bestowed upon them while sitting in the most important seats in public gatherings but who devour widows’ homes.”

And it is a call to repent from our arrogance and pride and embrace the sacrificial giving of a poor widow.  Only by picking up our own crosses of shame and following Jesus can we arrive at a Resurrected morning.

Heavenly father, restore unto us the joy of our salvation as we gaze upon your self giving cross.

 

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Loving God by Loving Our Neighbor

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To read: Mark 12:28-34John 14:15-21

If you are reading this today my guess is that you know the answer to the question, “what is 2+3?”  You probably didn’t even have to think about it.  In fact, from what I understand about how our crazy subconscious mind works, you saw the formula and didn’t even register the 2 or the 3 but just thought 5.  I am also guessing if you have gone anywhere near a church in the last 20 or so years and I say, “quote John 3:16,” in no time at all the words”For God so loved the world” will fly out of your mouth.

Some questions are too easy to answer.

So it is that Jesus’ time of testing in front the Chief Priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees comes to a close with the dumbest question of all questions, at least to a 1st century Jew.  “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?”

They grilled him about his authority.  They tried to capture him on taxes.  Then they brought a ridiculously complex hypothetical about the resurrection.  Now all that is left is something akin to 5 year old theology.  They may as well have asked him to sing the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

The question about the greatest commandment was not an opinion question.  It was not the stuff of political debates or news columns.  It had a right answer and a wrong answer and everybody around Jesus had learned the right answer at the beginning of their lives.  The greatest commandment was that there was one and only one God and we are to love that God with everything we have.  This had been clearly established for thousands of years.

On that note, I have no idea what the teacher of the law hoped to prove by asking the question.  He may have seen the failure of his friends and grasped at desperation.  He may have been something akin to a sophomore theology student who had just heard a convincing but vain argument that “loving God” wasn’t the most important and he seriously wanted Jesus to weigh in.  We have no idea but somehow Jesus is reduced to kindergarten status in the teacher of the law’s eyes and a slow ball is lobbed right across the plate.

Jesus hits the home run.

I imagine Jesus rolled his eyes before blandly reciting Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5 to appease the onlookers.  But then, after quoting everybody’s favorite Bible verse, Jesus didn’t stop talking.  He answered another question that hadn’t been asked, “And the second is like it.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no greater commandment than these.”

There is convincing evidence that the second greatest commandment had all ready been agreed upon as well by the theologians of Jesus’ day.  What he said did not surprise them in the least.  There was little to no debate on the importance of loving your neighbor, even though that command is buried in more obscure parts of the Old Testament.

And yet, by including the second commandment, and by saying, “it is like it” Jesus is doing something far more subversive.  That phrase which we translate “is like it” suggests much more equality in Greek than it might in English.  Jesus is saying, “The second commandment is exactly like the first.”  There is no distinguishing mark between them.  The second is the first.  The first is the second.  We love God by loving our neighbor.

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Contrary to popular belief it is not “Monday Thursday” which I assume refers to the first day back at work after a 5 day weekend that began last Saturday.  It is “Maundy” which is Latin for “Mandate.”  We so named this Thursday because at the Last Supper before he was betrayed Jesus told his disciples, “This is my new mandate, that you love one another.” (John 13:38).

That same night Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.”  The commands are to love.  We love God by loving our neighbor.  There is no separation between love of God and love of neighbor.  The first greatest commandment is the second.

In Mark 12, I am not sure if the teacher of the law picked up on this nuance but he still seemed pleased.  He recited a common line from the Old Testament prophets that, “These are more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices.”

And Jesus replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Tonight as we gather around the table of the Lord and hear again the new mandate to love one another, may we also not be far from the kingdom of God.

Heavenly father, in love draw us nearer to your presence.  And also with love breathe us out to continue to love one another.

Holy Tuesday Reflection: The Currency of Our Kingdom

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To read: Mark 12:13-17, Romans 12:1-2

I got a new credit card this morning in the mail.  It is white with silver lettering.  The horse and chariot of Wells Fargo gallop across it above an American Express logo.  It certainly looks pretty and somewhat majestic.  It even has one of those space agey computer chips on it to remind me that the world of Star Trek is but a breath away.

But the interesting thing about this credit card, from a historical standpoint, is not what image is on it but what image is not.  For millenia the various governments of the world have proudly stamped their image on our money to remind us of their sovereign authority.  Instead mine now has a corporation’s logo on it.  There is probably a PhD thesis to be written about the fact that corporations’ images now line our currency instead of politicians’.

Be that as it may, after I went to activate my new card online, I realized my old card had a balance.  So in one or two clicks I paid it off and cleared my debts, giving to Visa that which belonged to Visa, giving to Wells Fargo that which belonged to Wells Fargo.

It was a fitting practice to perform right before returning to Mark 12 where a second group takes a stab at trying to trap Jesus in his words.  The Chief Priests, who I wrote about yesterday, were very forward, almost blunt.  The Pharisees, living up to their reputation, are much more conniving.  They try flattery first to get Jesus feeling comfortable before they blindside him with a question.  I enjoy the CEB’s interpretation of the verse:

“Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?” Mark 12:14

I have no idea what favoritism or teaching God’s way or genuineness has to do with paying taxes and Jesus doesn’t seem to either.  Jesus also seems to know what Minna Antrim would later say, “Between flattery and admiration flows a river of contempt.”

Seeing right through them, Jesus asks for a coin, refers to Caesar’s image on it and blandly says, “So then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Put more simply, “Pay your bills.  Clear you debts and then give everything else to God.”

I wrote a couple weeks ago that the image of God is written on us.  After all we were created in it.  So when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we give to God that which belongs to God.  We are the currency of God’s kingdom, a kingdom without money but nevertheless with great power.

But Jesus’ reply also looks forward to his own crucifixion, that moment where he became a dead sacrifice, completely sold out to God’s mission and God’s kingdom.  On the cross, a very Roman and very Caesar cross, Jesus gave us the ultimate example of one who gave to Caesar that which belonged to Caesar and to God that which belonged to God.  Jesus became our currency.

The Pharisees were hoping to trap Jesus in treason, a feat the Chief Priests later accomplished through the clever use of the word and metaphor of “king” before Pilate.  But the Pharisees’ clever question in the temple only succeeded in foretelling that which was coming, the moment when Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” would give back to God that which belonged to God, the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

But we, who also bear God’s image, would do well to remember that the cross doesn’t exactly let us off the hook.  Remember our call is to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, becoming living sacrifices who are no longer conformed to the patterns and images of Caesar or Wells Fargo or Visa or Master Card  and their worlds but are transformed by the renewing of our minds into people who know and do God’s pleasing and perfect will.

Dear heavenly father, we who bear your image give ourselves to you again today that we may know and follow your perfect will for us. 

Holy Monday Reflection: The Kind of Hero We Need

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For those of you closet Christians, this is a quite notable week in our faith.  It all began yesterday as we celebrated Palm Sunday, the reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  From today to Wednesday we study the teachings of Jesus in the temple.  Then on Thursday we gather together for a “Maundy” or “New Commandment” Service where we wash feet and sing about love.  Friday night we descend into darkness as we extinguish candles during a Tenebrae service.  On Saturday we wait.  And then on Sunday the party gets going!

If you are a Christian, this is our week.  It is our time to fast, to pray, to meditate and to attend the special services and to long for the salvation that only Christ can bring.  The goal of Holy Week is to give ourselves over again to the story that we believe changed the world.

But there is another story happening Friday that my news feed won’t shut up about.  It is the epic showdown between Batman and Superman.  And don’t get me wrong, I am kind of excited for Batman Vs. Superman, or BvS as us cool kids are calling it now.  And like most cool kids I am more excited for the “B” than for the “S.”  I fell in love with the Batman mythos through Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, whose stunning second act, “The Dark Knight,” is considered one of the best movies ever made.

The closing act of that movie gave us an iconic line about heroes as Commissioner Gordon tells his recently rescued son, “Batman is the hero we need but not the one we deserve right now.”  That line, right up there with the best of all movie lines, still resonates today.  Sometimes our hero doesn’t look the way we want the hero to look.  Sometimes the hero we need is not the one we want or deserve.  Sometimes the conquering king is actually a crucified criminal.  Sometimes the way, the truth and the life is a carpenter’s son from the middle of nowhere.

That can be quite unsettling.  As a pastor friend and New Testament scholar once reminded me, “The good news doesn’t sound like good news to some people.”

In Mark 11, after Jesus’ triumphal entry, those in established authority roles get nervous.  To them Jesus is not gospel.  He is threat.  He threatens to steal their followers.  He threatens to expose their arrogance and ignorance.  He threatens their long held beliefs.  He threatens their prejudices and power.  And they are not cool with that,  In fact, to them he just might be the kid in the crowd who yells, “Wait, that emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

So the chief priests go to Jesus and ask, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?” (Mark 11:28).

Jesus is rather coy.  He asks them a question about where John the Baptist’s authority came from, a very clever question because there is not a right answer.  I imagine they stuttered and stammered as they weighed their lack of options before spitting out, “Um, we don’t know.”

But then Jesus tells them a parable about the misuse of authority.  Like most parables it points out to the Chief Priests that they had asked the wrong question.  They wanted to know the source of authority.  Jesus wanted them to know about the misuse of authority.  Jesus told them about a vineyard owner who sent several messengers to collect his share of the profits.  They beat and killed all of the messengers who were sent until the owner finally sent his son, whom they also beat and killed.  Then Jesus closes the parable with, “But the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Mark 12:10-11).

This is not good news to those in authority.  Jesus is not the hero they want at this point and the gospel has become threat.  The stone we builders rejected has become the stone that holds the entire building up.  That tells the world we don’t know much about building after all.

In the same way the gospel reminds us that we are not all that great about religion.  The prophet the theologians and pastors and good church people rejected has become the savior of the world.  The vigilante the police force is trying to capture has become the symbol of justice in our city.  The ingredient the expert chefs threw out is now on the menu of every restaurant in America.

One of the reasons we take great care in telling the Easter story during Holy Week every year is because we need constant reminder that we are the foolish builders, the misguided theologians, the over zealous police force, the lousy cooks.  Yes, we don’t want the world to know it.  Like most people, I would prefer if you all believed I knew what I was talking about.

But in the end our salvation can only come by accepting the truth that the hero we rejected, the one we crucified has become and will always be the savior of the world.

We should not be like those chief priests who immediately wanted to arrest Jesus on the spot.  Instead we should accept the truth of our errors for what it is and turn towards Jesus the author of eternal life.  Only by admitting our ignorance and arrogance and repenting towards the truth can we enter into the glorious Easter morning.

Dear heavenly father, help me to accept the cornerstone and grant me newness of life this Holy Monday morning.