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:

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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.

 

Recently Recorded Sermons: Lent To Easter and a Bit Beyond!

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In the spirit of my series this week on preaching, here are six live recordings of recent sermons.  The first one is from Job.  The next several are from the gospel of Mark and the one at the end is on the road to Emmaus.

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!

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Fight or Flight or Follow

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Well we are nearing the end of Holy Week and that means we are getting to the good stuff.  Today we commemorate the Last Supper and the new command Jesus gave to “love one another.”  Tomorrow we end up at the cross and who knows what might happen on Sunday morning? (I know, but it isn’t as much fun if you admit it.)

But no matter what the weekend holds, today we eat of the bread and drink of the cup with Jesus.  Some of us may even wash a foot or two.

All of this is to remind ourselves that Holy Week is ultimately about love.  “Maundy” means “commandment” or “mandate” and “Mandate Thursday” is about the new commandment recorded in John 3:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

Whatever else happens this weekend, we remember that as Christ followers, we are following love wherever love may go.

Most of us know that the disciples followed Jesus out of the upper room and into the garden of Gethsemane but there the following ended.  When guards showed up to arrest Jesus, they chose not to follow but to flee.

Mark focuses on two particular disciples.  The first fights.  He draws a sword and uses it to cut off the ear of a guard.  The second flees and in so doing ends up naked.

Both the zealous swordsman and the naked runner represent ways that we betray love.  The zealous swordsman, presumably clinging to his hope of a military Messiah, refuses to see Jesus for who Jesus is.  By taking up arms and lashing out for the sake of power, he rejects love, choosing might instead.  He does not deny himself but seeks to save himself or, worse, save God with his sword.

The naked runner too betrays love, by fleeing from it.  He is also seeking to save himself but his legs are his sword, the means by which he escape the consequences of love.

As we recommit ourselves today to this new mandate to love one another, I wonder about the ways we still betray love.  I think we forget that sometimes love has negative consequences.

In today’s world “love” poorly defined has become the way we try to solve all the problems.  I hear social activists, politicians, celebrities and, yes, even pastors claiming that if we just love people enough suddenly violence will end, addicts will become sober, the attendance of all Christian churches in America will double, unicorns will sprout from the ground and the federal budget will get balanced.

I wonder what will happen to those types when instead of unicorns, guards sprout up to arrest us.  Will we then betray love by drawing a sword?  Or will we flee from the scene naked?

For this reason, I am always a little bit frustrated when people suggest the best evangelism strategy is love.  They mean well and I am all about practicing compassion, but we don’t practice compassion to double our attendance.  Love is not a means to another end.  Love is the end, the telos, the goal for which we strive.

This side of eternity true love does not reward us but instead has consequences.  When we love the world, the world will hate us back.  When we show compassion to one person, someone else is going to jeer, “What worth are they?  You are sinning by loving them!”  All of our motives will be called into question and we may even be arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When we love truly, we should not expect unicorns and swords but rejection, humiliation and crosses.

Therefore, the words of Jesus in John 15, after the “new commandment” are all the more important, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

As we follow love out of the upper room and into the garden, may we not fight or flee but follow, not for any other goal but to be completely enraptured in the love of our God.  And may our tombs be emptied on Sunday morning as we embrace the new life of love.

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Dead Fig Trees

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Today is Holy Wednesday.  Wikipedia also calls it “Spy Wednesday,” having something to do with Judas agreeing to betray Jesus.  Another blog I read calls it “Holy and Great Wednesday,” reminding me that today the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the poor women who anointed Jesus with her tears.

Yet the rest of my Facebook feed and Twitter account are talking about another “holy” day, namely April Fool’s Day, a ridiculous day I try to ignore.  In it pranks are played for the sake of St. Fool’s or something like.  Maybe it is one of those national holidays where we remember those who have died defending our country, or maybe this is an ironic “Child Appreciation Day.”

But all week I have been wanting to write or talk about the one prank Jesus played in Mark.  It was on a poor, unsuspecting fig tree that was just starting to bloom.  Today seems as fitting as any to discuss it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, on Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and people got all excited.  Then Jesus looked around and went back out to Bethany.  The next day he walked into Jerusalem and the text tells us he was hungry.  He saw a fig tree in the distance and it was blooming like crazy so he ran over to see if there were some figs to eat.  There weren’t any because fruit comes in the Summer and Passover is in Spring.  So Jesus got angry and cursed it.

The next day, Tuesday morning, Jesus was again walking into Jerusalem and his disciples noticed the tree was dead.  Jesus used the opportunity to lecture them about the power of faith and prayer or something like that.

The fig tree doesn’t come up again until Mark 13:28.  Jesus is in the middle of a long discourse about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  He tells them to remember the lesson of the fig tree, that when it blooms it signals the nearness of summer.  Yet when that tree bloomed it signaled its imminent destruction.

So many scholars hold quite firmly that the fig tree is a living metaphor for the city of Jerusalem.  Its destruction is an early warning sign of Jerusalem’s fate.

The fig tree calls to mind Micah 7:1-2 where the prophet teaches that Jerusalem is like a fig tree with tons of leaves but no fruit.  One scholar even suggested the “leaves” calls to mind Palm Sunday.  The people came out and waved their branches for Jesus, but no fruitfulness came about because of it.

This is all further solidified by the fact that the temple curtain was torn in two when Jesus died, a sign that Jerusalem was no longer the center of worship but that God’s spirit was being blown to all parts of the world.

Killing fig trees and destroying cities and ripping temple curtains is very dark stuff, especially on a bright and sunny day usually devoted to harmless pranks.  Yet it is important in Holy Week to remember that the teachings of Jesus in Jerusalem were dark. Jesus spends much time talking about how horrific the imminent destruction of Jerusalem would be.  He calls it the “desolating sacrilege” and describes brother betraying brother to death.  And indeed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans only 40 years later was as horrific as Jesus described.

But the destruction of the temple in 69AD by the Romans did not hold back the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit had all ready gone out from that place into the known world.

So it came about that the death of the fig tree that would not bear fruit caused much fruitfulness the world over.

As we draw nearer to the cross, to the great destruction of Jesus’ body, which itself is a temple, as we join in the suffering, the humiliation, the complete vulnerability of our God, may we know that Easter morning is about to triumph over the darkness and destruction and blow us to all parts of the world to bear much fruit.

See you all tomorrow for Maundy Thursday.

Palm Sunday Reflection: Actually “Letting It Go”

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This is the first in what I hope to be a series of Holy Week reflections.  I hesitate to call them devotionals, as a devotional implies some sort of interaction with Scripture, which I am not guaranteeing.  However, as I enter into the sacred rhythm of this holy week, I want to also return this blog to its original concept, which is to find the grace going before us in the world.

Therefore, each post this week will reference some aspect of pop culture that I think aligns itself with my own reflections on each event of the Biblical Holy Week.

I also must apologize to my wider readership (i.e. my mom and that random person from Finland that keeps popping up) because these reflections are intended more for my local congregation and context.  With that said, I still I hope that all of you who click to these posts will find something valuable in my 2015 journey to the cross.

So I guess, here goes:

This morning I found myself preaching about stuff, namely the clothes, cars, dishes, toys and paraphernalia that litter our garages, yards and houses and talked about how our stuff, even the religious objects so popular these days, can get in the way of the true vulnerability that the cross requires of us.

This was an awkward topic for a Palm Sunday sermon and I had great trouble finding the courage to preach it.  I began my sermon prep with Mark 11.  I noticed we always talk about the palms, but there were coats there too.  So I wanted to comment that though they shed their cloaks on Sunday, only one person ended up naked on Friday.  I also wanted to fit in a mention of the young man who ended up naked on Thursday, in the Garden of Gethsamene.  I also thought it interesting that the only other naked people in a garden in the Bible are Adam and Eve who cover up their shame in the hopes of lying to themselves and God about what happened.

We all have fig leaves in our lives, things we throw over ourselves to lie about who we really are.  And this is why Jesus’ nakedness on Friday seems so relevant to us on Palm Sunday.  We seem to wave our palms and welcome a King we hope will give us more fig leaves but the invitation to deny yourself and take up your cross (an instrument of complete nudity and vulnerability) shatters our expectations.

More or less, that was my sermon this morning.  As I rest this afternoon I can’t get away from a movie I watched recently that seemed to illustrate this well.  It is a not very well known film and only has a 6.4 on IMDB.  It stars Will Ferrell but dispenses with dorky humor and truly showcases Ferrell’s acting talent.

Everything Must Go (2010) Poster

Click for IMDB page.

The movie is “Everything Must Go.”  Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic who loses his job, his house and his wife in one day.

His stuff ends up on the front lawn and he would rather drink than figure out what to do with it all (though he knows he wants to keep it).  His police officer friend helps him by taking advantage of a local ordinance that allows you to keep your possessions on your front lawn as long as it is a yard sale.

Nick Halsy makes yard sale signs but has no intention of actually selling anything.  But over the course of a few days, he suddenly starts caving and selling his fig leaves object by object.

For the majority of the run time you live with a drunk who is powerless to save himself.  Yet as the more stuff he sells, the more authority he gains over his addiction.  The movie ends with a glorious scene of NIck driving past the liquor store, instead of stopping to go inside.

It is a resurrection moment in a cruciform movie.  In the depths of despair, as strangers cart off with his alarm clock, plunger, blender and household furniture, suddenly Nick becomes more alive, more fully human.  The pain in his story is palpable but the hope at the end is all the more real.

As we enter into a week that we know will end in crucifixion and as we try to hide ourselves from the fact that the next will begin in resurrection, (as ridiculous and impossible a task that is) it is fitting to come alongside the Nick Halsey’s of the world.  They are not unlike that naked man in the garden, who ended up vulnerable despite his best wishes.

And as we journey with them throughout this week, not only coming face to face with Christ crucified, but coming to face with our own naked humanity, may we find the power that drips out of Christ’s body, a power that frees us the holy life that awaits.

Hosanna in the Highest Indeed!