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.

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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.

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.

Easter Follow-Up: Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants

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Well Holy Week is over and Easter has begun!

Although I find myself with a lot of energy today, I am completely unable to focus on even menial tasks.  I went to my phone several times to call people in my church and every time forgot who I needed to call right as the contacts loaded (which takes .07 seconds).

I sat in front of my computer for an hour thinking about my sermon before I got to my very first sentence, which read, “I want you to close your eyes and think back to the last time.  .  .” Yes, I know that is not even a complete sentence.

But things have got better since then, so good in fact, that I am able to post this blog.  Normally I would wax poetic but Holy Week is the time for poetry.  The Monday after Easter is the time for as little work as possible, which means today I am giving you a fun list.

But this list has a point.  You see, last week I led my congregation through the movements of Holy Week using the traditional Maundy Thursday, Tenebrae Friday, Easter Sunrise schedule.

As I was thinking, praying and planning these amazing times, Facebook pictures reminded me that other churches (considerably larger churches) don’t do the special services.  They do pageants.

You probably know what I am talking about:  live donkeys, live palms, live disciples, automated live thunder and live lightning, real life crosses and an ironically not “live” but paper mached tombstone, and a tall, bearded white guy pretending to be Jesus getting crucified.  They usually charge money to see them, but don’t worry they discount the matinees.

Haha, I love live donkeys!

I am not against these at all.  In fact, I acted in one when I was a kid.  My dad was a palm seller and I was a kid that got driven out of the temple with a whip.  Yes, I understand the irony now.

Still, I like the Holy Week services better than the pageants.  So here is my list: Reasons Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants!

1) The Holy Week Services Are Shorter

I like long worship services.  I do.  There is something to say for that.  I even like long movies and long pageants.  There is probably even something to say about acting out the same story six times in 4 days.

However, I love more that the Holy Week services are short and different from each other.  The short, sweet and powerful moments of Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae Friday remind me that drawing people into the Easter story doesn’t have to be complex.

2) They Are Ancient

A painting of the first Maundy Thursday

This year I added something new to my traditional greeting.  I reminded the congregation that what we were doing on Thursday and Friday night has been done for at least 1600 years.  More than 400 generations have commemorated the last week of Jesus through these services.  That is powerful!  Pageants, on the other hand, are only 50 or so years old.

A polaroid of an “early” Easter pageant.

3) They Happen In Real Time

The pageants don’t take people through all of Holy Week in real time.  They just do Good Friday and Easter over and over and over and over.  The Holy Week services do Holy Week in real time.  Jesus ate the Last Supper on Thursday, so we eat the Last Supper on Thursday.  Jesus was crucified on Friday so we do Tenebrae on Friday.  The women waited on Saturday so we wait on Saturday.  I love the time between the services because it reminds me that the disciples didn’t just experience a 2-3 hour ordeal (with intermission to buy candy) but they had time in that week to process, to despair, to mourn, to be confused, to wonder and to be filled with hope.

Holy Saturday always hits me the hardest.  I live in the tension of Tenebrae and Sunrise for a whole day, struggling with the things the disciples struggled with before the new day dawns.  In an Easter pageant, all that would happen between Tenebrae and Resurrection is that I would buy more popcorn during intermission.

4) They Are Easy and Cheap

There are more people in this picture than go to my church! And the set probably cost double our annual budget!

Okay, the Holy Week services are not easy.  I spent hours and hours planning them last week and my worship team was exhausted by the end of the week.  With that said, most pageants take thousands of dollars and at least fifty people to pull off.  They take months of planning and loads of prep work.  Last week, I did Holy Week with 4 music leaders and 2 pastors.  And we spent less than $50 dollars.

Plus you have to have a gigantic sanctuary or stadium to pull them off, which brings me to my next point.  .  .

5) Small Churches Can Do Holy Week Services

Man, live donkeys are so much fun! Look at all those body parts!

Let’s face it, pageants are new events that happened alongside the phenomena of the Mega Church.  Small churches don’t have the people or the energy or the time or the money to pour into a pageant.  But the Holy Week services are just as powerful (if not more so) and can help breathe esteem into your small, struggling church.  Even though the pageants are fun (I mean, who doesn’t like watching a live donkey walk down your church’s center aisle? with its hock knees and hoofed feet and fetlock ankles?) you can draw people into the presence of the crucified Lord using only bread, grape juice and a few candles.  This brings me to the next.  .  .

6) People Don’t Have to Pretend To Be Jesus

How Jesus Asked Us to Tell The Easter Story

When my church did an Easter pageant growing up, there was always this awkward thing that happened when you couldn’t find someone to play Jesus.  For all of our faults, we really love Jesus and respect Jesus and don’t want to pretend to be Jesus.  So it is really hard to find someone willing to fall on the, “I Want To Be Jesus For Easter” sword.  In strong contrast, during the Holy Week services, Jesus is remembered in the bread and the cup, which is how Jesus asked us to remember him.

During Tenebrae we represent Jesus using candles instead of a live person.  It is just less awkward.  All it takes to draw people into the Easter story are some bread, some juice (or wine), some candles, some songs, a great worship planner and the faithful congregation.

And that seems to have something to do with what Easter is all about!  The cross and resurrection mean we don’t have to bribe God with live donkeys.  We just need to break some bread, drink some juice, read some Scripture and sing some songs.

Well now I am suddenly preaching!  So let me go work on the sermon while I am still in the preaching mode!

May God Bless Your Post Easter Monday!

Resurrection Sunday Reflection: Somebody Like Jesus

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He is Risen!

That is the part where you are supposed to say “He is risen indeed” but I can completely understand if you didn’t say it.  After all, yelling random liturgies at your computer when you are sitting in your living room may not be the most sane way to celebrate your Easter.

But He is risen indeed and boy that fills me with all kinds of silliness and bouyancy and energy and hope.

I don’t know about you, but I longed for Easter this year.  Lent was a particularly poignant time of fasting and reflection and prayer.  It was also a time of transition and the heartbreaking sadness of loss along with scores of mundane details that threaten to overwhelm me.  Needless to say, by Friday night I truly felt like I had died with Christ.

But this morning as I walked to church under a very large, gray cloud, holding coffee in one hand and my tablet in the other, I felt the death fade away and a burst of giddy energy overtake it, the giddy energy of Spring.

Now I know Spring officially began a couple weeks ago, but for me Spring begins today.  For six weeks we have been mourning and fasting and longing for life.  And today life poured out of the tombs and into our world.  The sad songs fade away.  The fasting ends.  The joy abounds.  The light shines forth.

As a dear pastor friend of mine once preached, “After Easter, life has no limit, love has no limit!”

It actually brought to mind a Keith Urban song, probably his best, called “Somebody Like You.”  Of course it is a secular romance song but its lyrics, its melodies and its structure serenades us with the reality of Resurrection!

There’s a new wind blowin’ like I’ve never known.
I’m breathin’ deeper than I’ve ever done.
And it sure feels good, to finally feel the way I do.
I wanna love somebody,
Love somebody like you.

An’ I’m lettin’ go of all my lonely yesterdays.
I’ve forgiven myself for the mistakes I’ve made.
Now there’s just one thing, the only thing I wanna do,
I wanna love somebody,
Love somebody like you.

Yeah, I wanna feel the sunshine,
Shinin’ down on me and you.
When you put your arms around me,
You let me know there’s nothing in this world I can’t do.

I used to run in circles goin’ no-where fast.
I’d take, uh, one step forward end up two steps back.
Couldn’t walk a straight line even if I wanted to,
I wanna love somebody,
Love somebody like you.

Holy Saturday Reflection: Watching and Waiting

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It is partly cloudy and bit cold outside, with sporadic sunshine dancing across the street on which I live.

This morning my son woke me up around 7am.  His sister awoke about an hour later.  I made my family pancakes, fixed a flat tire, cleaned up fallen branches and pushed my children on their swings in the backyard.  My wife is currently at a book study that would have happened on any other Saturday.

This could be any other Saturday in April, and for many outside Christianity, and regrettably many Christians, this is.

Yet on this Saturday we wait and we watch.  After all, Holy Saturday is unique in the list of Holy days.  The gospel narratives barely include it.  Mark, the lectionary gospel for this year, gives us no narrative account of the Saturday between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  It simply skips over it with the words in 16:1, “When the Sabbath was over.”

We have no idea where the disciples were on Saturday or what they did.  We know that the women waited, but there is no reason to believe it was a passive waiting.  They probably went about the business of a regular Sabbath, while trying to reconcile their memories of Jesus with his bitter end.  If they were around today, they would probably be playing with my children in my backyard, or at the book study with my wife.  They might be smiling and laughing but their smiles would quickly turn to grief as the sunshine outside my window quickly turns back to clouds.

So today we are left alongside these women.  We do not fully understand the cross, even after 2,000 years and we do not fully grasp why God had to die.  We are struggling to stay happy after the terrible revelation that God lived among us and we killed God.

Yet as we wait, we hope for Sunday morning.  We may not know exactly what we are hoping for.  For many of us, it will just be the paltry end to our Lenten fast.  Others of us look forward to signing all five verses of “In Christ Alone” again.  .  .and again.  Others of us look forward to the Easter ham.

But whatever we hope for this morning, while we wait with the women, we gather our burial spices together and prepare to go honor our fallen Messiah, wondering who might pull back the stone for us.  .  .

Good Friday Reflection: What Kind of God?

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When my wife and I were still dating, I was visiting her parents for Thanksgiving.  There I found a book called “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.  It looked interesting enough, so I read it and was blown away by it.  It is still one of my favorite books.

Towards the beginning, Yann writes about a young Hindu boy named Pi wandering into a Catholic Cathedral and searching the paintings for a depiction of the Catholic God.

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He sees a painting of women crying and angels hovering overhead and a dove.  He studies it awhile, trying to figure out which one of these creatures is “The God.”  Then his eyes rest on the crucifix and slowly it dawns on him, “This is their God.”

Little Pi finds that idea both horrific and magnetic.  Pi tells us, “If the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real.  And Father Martin assured me it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even when resurrected.  The Son must always have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God our Father.” (Life of Pi, 68)

This poetic paragraph captures the harrowing irony at the heart of our faith, that our God died.  Whatever it means to die (whether going to hell, Hades, nonexistence, becoming a ghost, separation, etc) our God experienced.  And by going all the way to death and descending all the way to where dead souls go, God redeemed all death and all life.

That experience of death is now integral to the Trinity.  God dying was not a tangent theology in our faith.  It was not a fun little story to tell our kids every Spring.  Nor was it a silly business transaction that was soon forgotten amidst all the other heavenly business.  Instead, it was a world altering, earth shattering event.  It forever changed the way we relate to God and the way we relate to each other and even the rest of Creation.

But the irony goes deeper than that.  Our God didn’t just die.  We killed him.  One of the great ironies of the Christian proclamation is that the Creator of the entire universe lived among us.  He walked where we walk and talked like we talk.  But He did it all in the right way.  He lived a perfect, sinless, authentic life.  .  .and we killed him.

If you read the gospels you find we mostly killed him out of envy and fear.  We were scared he might take over and depose us.  We were envious because he had more followers and could do cool magic tricks.  And so we killed him before He could do any real harm to our fragile egos.

And yet, in the killing, in the death, we accidentally crowned him King!  After all, the crown (albeit of thorns), the purple robe and the sign above his head on the cross are all typical markers of a coronation.  The trial and crucifixion, read another way, are the movements of a coronation ceremony.  So, scared that Jesus just might become King, we killed Him and in so doing, made Him King.  It is quite the irony.

And it is this irony we celebrate today.  Our God has come.  Our God has died.  We killed our God.  But in so doing we unleashed the very power of love to all creation.

Today as we join little Pi in our churches and stare up at the cross wondering, “Could this really be God?” and as we wonder at the love that held Him there, while certainly calling to mind our own sinfulness, may that almighty grace flow forth from the King who forgives, who reconciles, who redeems and who gives out eternal and abundant life!