Locked Doors

lockJohn 20:19-31 NRSV

On the evening of the first Easter, we find the disciples of Jesus cowering together in a house. Windows shut, shades pulled, curtains drawn, shudders closed and the doors have been locked up tight. It is nighttime, a dangerous time in any city, but this is Jerusalem, and here, on this night, the disciples had some pretty good reasons to lock the doors.

The most obvious reason their doors were locked was the fear that the institutional, religious authorities who organized and began plotting from the very beginning to put an end to Jesus and his message were quite possibly even now plotting to put an end to them.

So the disciples locked the doors.

And then, there may be another reason, earlier in our text we read where Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what do they do?  They locked the doors.

After denying that he even knew who Jesus was, I’m sure Peter felt like locking the doors. After fleeing and deserting Jesus, leaving him to die alone between two thieves, I’m sure many of the disciples felt like locking the doors.

This image of locked doors has had me thinking all week. As I have pondered this image, I cannot get the words of my home pastor out of my mind. Every Sunday, during the Invitation, he always said the same words: “The doors of our church are now open for membership. If anyone here would like to be received into full membership into our church, you are invited to come down during the singing of this hymn.

Remembering these words this week has caused me to ask a question, a question that I believe is imperative for the church in the 21st century to ask: “Why do you suppose so many people today, especially people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, when it comes to church membership, also feel like locking the doors, locking the doors to even the thought of becoming a part of the church?”

From asking this question to countless people all over this country who have given up on the church since I was ordained in 1992, this is what I have discovered:

The reason that most young people give for locking the doors to even the very thought of being associated with the church is that they simply have no trust in organized, institutional religion. In fact, they regard the church the same way the disciples cowering behind closed doors regarded the religious system of their day—as a threat to Jesus and everything for which Jesus stood.

They hear some of their friends, the ones who do proudly profess to be a part of a church, on a tirade protesting against such things as equal rights, social justice, equitable healthcare, and any criticism about the gap between poor and the rich. They hear their church friends make scornful remarks about minorities of every persuasion, and they know just enough about Jesus and his affinity for the poor and the marginalized to know that something is terribly wrong with this picture.

Many young people today in no way want to be associated with the words of many in the church who make heinous claims on the behalf of God, such as: tornadoes are God’s way of getting our attention, the Haiti earthquake as well as Hurricane Katrina were directly linked to Voodoo or Catholicism; the Japan earthquake and tsunami and the South Asia tsunami were directly linked to Buddhism or Islam; or the events of 9-11 and the subsequent deaths in the War on Terror are God’s judgment on abortionist and homosexuals.

Young people today do not want to be associated with a religion that has preachers and congregations who picket the funerals for our soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, yelling hate-filled rants declaring that their deaths are the will of God.

They hear preachers declare from their pulpits that either the American President or the Pope is the anti-Christ. And they look at institutional, organized religion these days and think that we may be the ones who are anti-Christ. So, like the disciples distancing themselves from self-righteous and judgmental organized religion, young people are locking their doors to the church.

And secondly, as the disciples also hid behind locked doors avoiding Jesus, there are some who are not simply avoiding organized religion; they are avoiding God. When they lost their grandparents, their parents, or some, their children, the response from their Christian friends was that God took them. God needed another angel, another flower in the heavenly garden.

The response of some in the church was that all of their loved one’s pain and suffering and their subsequent death, that their child’s untimely and tragic death was all part of some purpose-driven divine plan. So they lock the doors, wanting absolutely nothing to do with a God like that.

Whatever the reason for the disciples’ fear, the irony of our gospel lesson is that the judgmental, organized religious authorities were not trying to get to the disciples to arrest them and Jesus was not trying to get to them to punish, condemn them or take their lives. As I said at the Sunrise Service last week, Jesus was trying to get to the disciples in order to give them the word that they needed more than any other word—the very first word of the Easter story.

On Easter evening, the Risen Christ returns to his disciples, the same fearful followers who denied, forsook and abandoned him and pronounced “Peace!”  It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels in the beginning of the gospel.  “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!”  And it was one of the last words from the cross when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And here, the first word of Easter to the fearful disciples cowering behind locked doors is “Peace.”

THIS is what I believe all people need to hear from the church, and it needs to be the very first word they hear from us.

The first word they hear from the church should never be judgment, condemnation or some loud, angry, hate-filled rant or protest. It should never be that God took her or snatched him, or is punishing them, or trying to get their attention because of some sin. No, the first word they need to hear from us is “peace.”  They need to hear God say, “Peace. My peace I give to you. You are my sons. You are my daughters, I have always loved you.  I still love you. I will love you forever. I am here with you and for you, always working all things together for the good.”

I believe people in our world who have locked their doors to the church are thirsting for this peace. They are thirsting for a group of people in our world that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial love and service to others. They are thirsting for a church that seeks to be, not an institution, but the living embodiment of Christ in this world, serving the poor, and those whom society has marginalized, offering grace, acceptance, love and peace.

Several Easters ago, we went to visit my parents in Elizabeth City.  We had a nice dinner, watched the Masters, and then ate some leftovers before heading home. It was late when we arrived back home, about 11:00.  And guess what?  We were locked out. In a hurry to leave after church, I had accidentally grabbed the wrong set of keys.

As Lori and Sara sat in the car, twelve year-old Carson and I checked every window on the first floor.  All locked.  “I guess I’ll break a window.”

“Wait a minute,” Carson, who has always had a lot more patience than me, said. “I think the window in the middle dormer upstairs is unlocked.” I grabbed my extension ladder that was much too short for the job.  I stood it almost straight up and asked Carson to hold it at the bottom as I climbed up.  Got myself on the roof in front of the dormer, but before I could reach it, because of the pitch of the roof, and the dew that had gathered, I began to slide off.  Came down, feet hit the ladder, almost knocking it over. I put a death grip on my shingles with my hands. Grabbed the top of the ladder with one foot and straightened it out with the other as Carson helped at the bottom.  I don’t know if he was more scared that I was going to fall and kill myself on the brick steps below or fall right on his head.

After one more idiotic try to climb on the roof, it occurred to me, “Maybe I can peel the vinyl ceiling back on my back porch just enough to climb up into the attic. Got my pry bar, and went to work.  Less than five minutes later, I was inside.

Now, was my wife happy?  Was I the hero of the night?  Was she proud of my resourcefulness and my persistence?  No, she was absolutely horrified by how quickly I broke into our securely locked house. “If a preacher can break in, anyone can!” she said.

This is the good news of this Easter Season. Our securely locked doors are not a problem for Jesus.  Here is the promise of Easter for each of us today. Just as the risen Christ was not stumped by the locked doors behind which the disciples cowered, so I promise you that the risen Christ will not be deterred by the locks that any of us or anyone else has put on our own doors.  Our God is wonderfully resourceful, imaginative, persistent, and determined to get to all of us.  Even in our lostness, even in our betrayals and denials, even with all of our past failures, Christ is ever determined to share his peace with us in this world.

I believe Christ is as alive today as he has ever been. I believe he is on the loose, even here in Farmville. He is moving and working and he is as determined as ever to get the word out…the very first word of the gospel proclaimed by angels, and the last word proclaimed on the cross and the first word of Easter: peace.  The question is: will he be able to use us? Will we allow him to breathe the Holy Spirit on us and send us into the world to help him share that word—a word of unlimited grace, unreserved forgiveness and unconditional love for all God’s people, especially to those who have locked the doors to the possibility of being a part of the church.

Will he find a group of people here that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial service to others?

From what I have learned about you over the last seven months, and from what I what I see in you every week, I believe the answer is ABSOLUTELY!

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Easter Eggs

Easter eggsEaster eggs have been used by Christians since the first century to symbolize the significance of Easter for several important reasons. Eggs have always been a symbol for new life, and the hope which that new life brings. Eggs symbolize that, with our creating, resurrecting God, new, inexplicable, indescribable, life is always cracking open. Eggs symbolize the truth that with our creating, resurrecting God, our best days of life are always ahead of us.

There is much evidence that the early Christians saw the egg as a symbol of immortality.  Archaeologists believe that Christians in the first century met on Easter at the tombs of deceased Christians, and they ate a meal called a re-frig-ria. In fact, at the supposed tomb of St. Peter in Rome, when excavations were undertaken during the last century, piles of egg shells were discovered. Throughout the centuries, Christians have gathered in cemeteries on Easter Sunday morning to eat breakfast, to eat eggs, a sign of eternal life.

This leads to a more profound way I believe eggs symbolize Easter. Read John 21:12-25 NRSV.

When does the risen Christ appear to the disciples? He appears at breakfast. Why is this significant?  I will tell you.

Few of our meals are more ritualized, more predictable, and more routine than breakfast.  Some of us eat the same thing for breakfast every morning. It is the most ordinary meal of the day.  Yet, this is the time and the place the risen Christ meets his disciples. During the most ordinary time and place, the disciples experience the risen Christ and hear his call.

The good news is the risen Christ may appear to us on a very special Easter Sunday morning in a very extraordinary worship service; however, if we pay attention, he might also appear to us on a very ordinary Monday morning at home around a mundane breakfast table.

Grace in Galilee

easter angel

Mark 16:1-8 NRSV

The messenger tells the women at the tomb, “Go, tell his disciples—and Peter—that he is going ahead of you to Galilee’ there you will see him, just as he told you.”

What a peculiar thing to say. What does he mean “the disciples and Peter?”  Is Peter no longer a disciple? That’s like someone saying, “Go tell the choir—and Harold.”  When was Harold ever not a part of the choir?

Go tell the disciples—and Peter.  It would be, of course, fair to assume, that on this first Easter Sunday morning, Peter just might be outside Jesus’ circle of trust.

When Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemene, John tells us that it was Peter who protested by drawing his sword and cutting the ear off the slave of the High Priest. Jesus chastises Peter and heals the man’s ear.  In this action, Peter proves that he has missed the whole point of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.  All throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, laying down one’s life, losing one’s self, dying to self, and loving one’s enemies, and here is Peter, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, demonstrating that he doesn’t have a clue who Jesus is or what his Kingdom is all about.

Then after Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest, Marks says that Peter followed behind at safe distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus would be tried. He sat outside with the guards, warming himself at a fire when this servant girl of the high priest stares at him.  She then approaches Peter: “I know you. You were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.”  Peter denies it saying, “Girl, I don’t know and I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.”

Then Peter, trying to save his own skin, tries to make an exit.  This one who has been taught that those who try to save their life will lose it, slips out into the forecourt. A cock crows.

The same servant girl followed him and started talking about him to all the bystanders saying, “This man is definitely, one of them.”  But again, Peter denied it.  Then, it is one of the bystanders who goes up to Peter and says, “I know you’re with that Jesus, because you’re not from the city, you are from the country, you’re a Galilean.”

Then Peter, this disciple of Jesus, this one who has been taught by Jesus to do unto others as he would have them do unto him, this one who has been taught that the greatest commandment is to love one another, curses at the innocent bystander.  And then, this one who was taught by Jesus to never swear with an oath, let your yes be yes an your no be no, always be honest and truthful, lies again, this time emphatically, by swearing an oath, “I told you that I don’t know this man that you are talking about.”

And that moment, Mark says, the cock crowed for the second time.  Then Peter remembered Jesus’ words to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  And he broke down and wept.

So of course it is very fair to assume that Peter is now way outside the circle. Simon Peter simply never got it. He never got the point of understanding who Jesus was or what his Kingdom was all about.  Peter was as dumb at Easter as he was at Christmas.  One could say that he was a complete failure at being a disciple.

And what maybe worse, he was a failure and he knew that he was a failure.  That’s why we find him at the end of Mark’s story crying like a baby.

“Go tell the disciples and Peter—this has-been, washed-up and flunked-out disciple who is far, far outside my circle.”

Now, it would be easy to believe this interpretation if it wasn’t for one important fact.  All of the disciples were flunkies.  In the Gospel of Mark, none of them get it.  After Jesus was arrested, while Peter was following the soldiers and Jesus into the courtyard of the High Priest, where are all of the others?  Read verse 50 of chapter 14.  “All of them deserted him and fled.”

They’re all losers. They all cared more about their own lives then they did Jesus.  And not only that, even the women in Mark’s gospel, the women who always appear in the gospels to be just a little more astute than the men, even the women do not seem to get it.  “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you.”  And what did they do? “Go, tell,” said the angel.  Read verse 8:  “and they said nothing to anyone.”

No, in saying, go tell the disciples and Peter, the messenger of God was not inferring that Peter was outside the circle. God was saying that Peter, despite everything that he had done, despite everything that he hadn’t done, despite his stupidity, his failings, his denials, Peter was still very much in the circle.

The angel was saying: “Go tell all the disciples that Jesus has be raised for them, and please, especially tell Peter. Tell him to dry up his tears in spite of all of his sin, his failure to follow Jesus, and his denials.”

Jesus is alive for all, maybe more so for Peter.

“Please let this one who feels like an outcast, who feels so much outside the circle of God’s love, that if Death could not separate him from Jesus love, his sin and his denials were certainly not going to do it. Jesus is alive for all of the disciples, and even, especially Peter, especially this one who realizes his failure. Jesus is alive for even Peter, and the good news is, even for you and for even me.

Go tell the disciples and Peter. It is not a peculiar thing to say. It is good news. It is not odd. It is amazing. It is good, amazing grace.  It is the good, amazing news of Easter. God offered us the very best that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus Christ. We reciprocated that gift with the worse that we had to offer—the cross.  And yet, God still raises Jesus from the dead and sends him back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

Now, let me tell you what’ really odd about this text. “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  To Galilee?  Now that’s peculiar. On the first day of his eternal life, Jesus decides not to go to the capital city, not to the places of power and prestige, not to where he could really get some attention, be some breaking news before millions, but he chooses to go to Galilee.[i]

Compared to Jerusalem, Galilee is backwoods, insignificant. Galilee is way out in the country, way out of the way.

One might have thought, that upon being raised from the dead, Jesus would stride triumphantly back into Jerusalem. Imagine what a stirring sight that would have been. Jesus could have strolled right into the palace and said, “Pontius Pilate, I am afraid you’ve made a big mistake.”  Or he might have stood on the steps of the temple, chiding the crowds for their fickleness and betrayal, showing himself to the multitudes that were present when he was crucified.

Jesus, however did none of that.  Rather, he went on ahead of his own disciples to meet them back in Galilee.

That is, Jesus will meet his disciples in a rather ordinary place, a place where their discipleship began. Jesus had come out to where they lived, out to Galilee. They had attempted to be his disciples mostly in Galilee. It was in Galilee where they left good paying jobs, their families all forms of security to follow Jesus.

In Jerusalem, they had betrayed and deserted him.  Back home, in Galilee they accepted and followed him.

And Jesus goes back home—to Galilee. The failure of the disciples, the denial of Peter, the disobedience of the women, none of this is the end of the story. A fresh start can be made, and where will this new beginning be? Where is the risen Christ? Back where it all began, back home in Galilee.

The good news of Easter is that in spite of our sins, our failures to follow him, our denials and betrayals, Jesus is alive—Jesus is on the loose—Jesus is moving.  Where?  Out in Galilee.  He’s out where the disciples live. He’s out where you live and I live. At home, out in Galilee.

The risen Christ always appears to the disciples in the most ordinary of places: at breakfast, on the beach, while they are at work.  Something about the risen Christ loves to meet people in the most ordinary places.  That’s good if you want to meet Jesus, because most of us live and most of us work in ordinary places, like Galilee.

Go tell the disciples and especially Peter that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. And, there in Galilee, there in a most ordinary place, you will find grace.

Go tell these sinful, selfish, human beings, these very ordinary fishermen, even this one named Peter who thinks I have forsaken him, that I am going ahead of them, back to the place where it all started.  Forgiveness of sins, a fresh new beginning, a brand new start is available where?  In the most ordinary of places—at home, where you live, where you work.

The good news is that no matter what we have done, no matter who we are, even if we are just as dumb at Easter as we were at Christmas, Jesus lives for us. And we don’t have to go anywhere special or do anything special to meet him. He’s gone on, ahead of you, ahead of me.  He’s gone to where we live.

The good news of this day of days is that we, even sinners like us, can go home today. We can go back to our homes here in Farmville, in Fountain, in Wilson, Tarboro, Greenville, Winterville, New Bern, we can even go down back into Greene County, and there, wherever we go, in our most ordinary place, we will find that Jesus is already there, enveloping us with grace, filling our hearts with love with love, giving us a fresh new beginning, a brand new start.

So, go!  Go home. And begin living the first day of your eternal life.

 

[i] Inspired from William Willimon, He Came Back to Us .(http://www.northalabamaumc.org/blogs/detail/177), 2008

 

What Was In That Cup?

JesusGethsemane

Mark 14:32-42 NRSV

The events of this Holy Week happened so fast, things changed so quickly, the hours were so tumultuous, it is no wonder our first three gospel writers recount the stories of this week a little differently.

For example, all three tell us the story of how Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested. However, while Matthew and Mark call the place “Gethsemane,” Luke refers to it as “the Mount of Olives.” Matthew and Mark write that when Jesus and his disciples arrived at the place, Jesus told the disciples to sit while he went and prayed, but then took Peter, James and John with him. Luke writes that he asked the disciples to pray and then withdrew from all of them.

These differences are not unusual, for most all of the events told by the gospel writers differ in some small manner or another. However, what I believe is unusual is that all three gospel writers remembered and recorded the exact words of Jesus’ prayer that night.  All three tell us that Jesus asked specifically for his cup to be removed. They all remembered that Jesus prayed: “Remove this cup.”

And maybe it should not be that surprising considering the many times an image of a cup is found in the Psalms which were certainly very familiar to the gospel writers.

One image is found in the 23rd Psalm.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (NRSV).  Here the Psalmist is using the imagery of the cup to express how, even in the presence of our enemies, God anoints us, comforts us, strengthens us, and fills our hearts full of joy.

Several weeks ago, I visited with a woman who was dying in the hospital last.  At her memorial service this weekend, I said that even as she faced life’s final enemy, even in the shadows of death, she was at peace, she was full, satisfied, hopeful, her cup was running over.

In the 116th Psalm, the Psalmist writes:  “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”  Here, like the 23rd Psalm, the cup is a “cup” of joy, a cup of salvation.

Now contrast those images with the images that we most remember from the New Testament. They appear to be strikingly different.

Just before Jesus goes into Gethsemane to pray, we read that “Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it” (Mark 14:23).  And then we hear his prayer in Gethsemane, the one that each of the gospel writers remember, “Remove this cup from me.”

During this Holy Week, I believe it is important for you and me to ask, “Exactly what was in this cup that Jesus wanted removed?”

First of all, like the cup at the first Lord’s Supper, the cup contained Jesus’ blood.  But this time it was not a symbolic sip of wine.  This cup contained Jesus’ death.  And what may be worse, it contained Jesus’ death, and Jesus knew it.  Many people have told me that although losing someone you love to death is always tragic, it may be easier to lose someone instantly than to know that death is inevitable and you must wait for it.  People, who have sat so lovingly beside their loved ones hospital beds during the last stages of cancer; people, who have sat in the ICU waiting rooms as their loved one lay in a coma from a heart attack—people, like these have told me that waiting for death, and knowing it was the right around the corner, was the hardest thing they ever had to do.  Jesus was going to die and he knew was going to die.  Death was in that cup.

Loneliness was also in that cup.  Loneliness was in that cup, for you see, soon after Jesus prayed for his cup to pass, Judas betrays him with a kiss.  Jesus also knew that Peter would deny him three times. And after Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled for their lives to leave Jesus alone.  The disciples were always there when Jesus healed the sick.  They were there when he gave sight to the blind.  The disciples were there when he fed the multitude.  They were there on Palm Sunday when he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  But after the arrest of Jesus, the disciples left Jesus alone to die between two criminals.  Loneliness was in that cup.

Humiliation was also in that cup. Crucifixion upon a cross was the most degrading and humiliating experience that a human being could ever encounter in the Roman world. It was so degrading, so dehumanizing, that Roman Citizens could not be crucified. That is why tradition has it that the apostle Peter, a Jew, was crucified, but the apostle Paul, who was a Roman citizen, was beheaded.  Crucifixion was only used for the worst kind of criminals.  Before Jesus went to the cross, he was stripped and beaten.  This was a common part of the crucifixion: a beating that was so merciless that many died from its effects. Jesus was then mocked, spat upon, and ridiculed.  After this, Jesus’ naked body was nailed to a cross right outside of Jerusalem for all to see and humiliate him more.  Humiliation was in that cup.

Abandonment was also in that cup. As Jesus hung on the cross, Jesus was not only abandoned by his disciples, but Mark tells us that he felt abandoned by God.  Mark writes that at 3:00 on that Friday afternoon, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, My God, Why Have you forsaken me?”  Like all of us feel sometimes in our own lives, Jesus felt abandoned by God.  Like you and I sometimes ask, sometimes loudly, oftentimes silently, Jesus asked “Why?” “Why did you leave me God?  Why did you leave me all alone to suffer so?  Where are you God?  O God, where are you when I need you the most?”  Abandonment was in that cup.

What was in that cup?  What was in that cup that Jesus prayed for God to remove?  Death, loneliness, humiliation, and abandonment were in that cup.  If Jesus was truly the Son of God, why didn’t God honor his request when Jesus prayed in agony for his cup to be removed?  What kind of God would not remove those things?  The answer is the paradox of Christianity.  What kind of God?  A God who loves us.

A God who loves us so much that he emptied God’s self and became like us. A God who loves us so much that God sought to fully and profoundly identify with us, to understand our sufferings, to know our fears.

What was in that cup?  For all who come face to face with the harsh reality of death;  for the family who is watching their loved one die of cancer;  for the wife who sits at the bedside of her dying husband; for the man who discovers his own death is imminent, there is understanding in that cup.  There is love and compassion in that cup.

What was in that cup?  For all who have sunk into the depths of loneliness.  For the homeless alcoholic who lives on our streets; for the widow who lives all alone without family and friends; for the elderly who have to live out their remaining of their feeble days in a nursing home, for the lonely widower who lives only with his grief.  There is understanding in that cup.  There is love and compassion in that cup.

What was in that cup?  For all who have experienced degrading humiliation; for minorities who have been the target of racism and discrimination and homophobia; for children who are bullied at school for being different; for the pregnant teenager in the church; or for others who are degraded by self-righteous people in the church for past mistakes and sins, there is understanding in that cup. There is love and compassion in that cup.

What was in that cup?  For all who have somehow felt abandoned by God, felt like God has somehow left them alone; for the family whose loved one suffers from Alzheimer’s disease; for the parents who have lost one of their children from an illness or an accident; for forsaken women who are abused daily by their husbands; for forsaken children who are abused daily by their parents; there is understanding in that cup.  There is love and compassion in that cup.

You see, that cup that Jesus wanted to pass contained much more than death, loneliness, humiliation, and abandonment. And that cup is not different at all from the cup found in the 23rd and 116th Psalms.  For in that cup there is grace and forgiveness. In that cup there is salvation.  And, in that cup there is over running joy. Salvation is in that cup for all who believe that God loves us so much that God became one of us.  Became one of us and suffered and died for us.

What was in that cup?  There is strength in that cup.  There is power in that cup.  And there is hope in that cup. The gospel writers remembered Jesus’ prayer it because there is good news in that cup.  Good news that we must share with everyone we know who has experienced death, loneliness, humiliation and abandonment.  And if we do this, we will share the good news with everyone we know, because through the death of Jesus, through that cup, God has identified with each one of us.

 

Good News in the Disappointment of Holy Week

holy week crown

It is two-thousand years later, and we are still surprised, confused, and even somewhat disappointed. Shattering our expectations of a Savior, King Jesus enters the city this week to liberate his people riding a borrowed donkey with an army of rag-tag students who have no idea what they are doing.

God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels, but a crown of thorns.

When God chose to save the world from sin and evil, Jesus exercised a peculiar kind of power. It is not the type of power that we are accustomed to or desire. It is not a power that rules but is a power that serves. It is not a power that takes but is a power that gives. It is not a power that seizes but is a power that suffers. It is not a power that dominates but is a power that dies.

And we are still surprised, confused and somewhat disappointed.

“O God, though I attend and support my church every Sunday, why do my prayers seem to go unanswered? Why do I still struggle with life?”

“Dear Lord, We have been serving you our entire lives, faithfully giving you all that we have! I do not understand why you have not brought physical healing to my wife who suffers daily with a chronic disease.”

“Heavenly Father, we try our best to respect and love all people. That is why I am somewhat dismayed that you allow others to call us names, ridicule us and cause us pain.”

“And yet, Lord, in my astonishment, bewilderment and disappointment, you come to me nonetheless. Although I have no idea I am doing, you envelop me with your grace. You come to me in all of your glory and with all of your power. You come serving, giving, suffering and dying. You come offering me the very best gift that you can possibly offer—the gift of your peculiar holy self.”

And the good news is: that is more than enough!

Holy Week

holyweekSometimes it seems odd to call this week “Holy.”

The week that begins on Sunday with our Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem ends with his death on a cross at a place called “The Skull. Shouts of “Hosanna!” on Sunday quickly turn into shouts of “Crucify Him!” by Friday.

Every imaginable evil is hurled his way. The powers that be, both religious and political, are ready to entrap and ensnarl him. He is betrayed by one of his very own followers with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver. After his arrest and a hasty trial, his disciples all abandon him. One of his closest friends on earth denies that he even knows him.

Then, deserted by his friends, Jesus is ridiculed, spat upon, utterly humiliated and beaten beyond recognition. A crown of thorns is put on his head, and he is forced to carry his own cross. His hands and feet are nailed to the cross before it is lifted into the air where he hung for six hours between two criminals before dying. The week ends with his burial.

What on earth is “holy” about any of these events?

The answer is a simple one. If Jesus is an ordinary man, then the answer is, “nothing.” If Jesus was but a man, then this week is utter tragedy. However, if Jesus is the Incarnate God, the creator of all that is who became one of us, then the answer is “everything!”

For it means that God understands every aspect of what it means to be human. Our God is a God knows something about every imaginable evil that can be hurled our way. Our God knows betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, loneliness, and immense suffering. Our God has experienced death.

This week means that our God understands.

And three days later, an empty tomb reveals that God redeemed it all! God took the evil hurled God’s way and transformed it, recreated it into something wonderful.

Thus, the good news of this week is that not only has God experienced all of the evil of this world and understands (which would be good news enough), but that God takes that evil and transforms it into something wonderful, something profoundly “Holy.”

Dance Like Fools (Reflections on King David and John the Baptist on April Fools’ Day)

old-guy-dancing

2 Sam 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Mark 6:14-29 NRSV

After King David led a great army to return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David and his army were so overcome with emotion that they engaged in festive dancing.

The scripture tells us that David danced before God“with all his might.”  He danced before God with all that he had and with all that we was, as he was utterly and completely overcome by the joy of God.

However, in this broken world there is always something or someone ready to burst our bubble of joy wide open.  So it was with David.

When David and his wife Michal arrived home from the party and began preparing to turn in for the night, David, if he was anything like most men I know, was probably expecting to hear some words of affirmation from his wife. “Honey, as I watched you dance this evening, you just don’t know how proud I was of you!  You danced your heart out!  And why shouldn’t you have, you brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem where it belongs!”

However, the words David hears instead were something like: “Baby, you really made a fool out of yourself tonight!”

Perhaps David did act like a fool. Uninhibited and unrestrained, he lost all self-control.  Seized by “a spirit of prophetic ecstasy,” that night David held absolutely nothing back. David gave in to the joy which had consumed him. He had completely surrendered himself to the joy of God.

David danced, affirming the rule of God.  David danced, consumed by the joy of God. David danced a dance of total self-surrender. David danced, holding nothing back. David danced giving all that he had and all that he was to God.  And Michal despised David for it.

This is the harsh reality of living the gospel of Jesus Christ. The dance of the gospel is a dangerous dance. The dance of the gospel is a disturbing dance. The dance of the gospel is a dance which is despised by the world. The active affirmation of the rule of God does not set well with the Michals and Herods of the world.  In fact, people are likely to lose their heads if they claim too much for the gospel.

To metaphorically call the life and ministry of John the Baptist “a dance” does not call for a stretch of the imagination.  Like David, John the Baptist had lost all restraint, inhibition and self-control.  John the Baptist held absolutely nothing back.  He had surrendered himself completely to the rule of God.  And in the eyes of many probably acted like a fool. The joy of God consumed him. One could say that John the Baptist was seized by a spirit of prophetic ecstasy.  Everything about him: his dress, his speech, even his diet was an uninhibited dance of joy.  He had given all that he had and all that he was to God. And his head was served up on a silver platter.

The dance of prosperity preachers are easier steps to follow, aren’t they? The message of false prophets distorting the gospel of Christ as nothing more than a little dose of “chicken soup for the soul” is much easier to swallow. If we just get ourselves right with the Lord, if we would just straighten up and pray right and live right, good health and great wealth will come our way.

The dance of the gospel is radically different. The dance of the gospel contains steps to the beat of a different drum. If we get right with the Lord, if we pray right and live right, if we lose all inhibitions and all restraint, if we completely surrender ourselves to the rule of God, if we love others as Christ loves thereby allowing the joy of God to consume us, to control us, then suffering is inevitable.

If we dance to the beat of this drum, in the eyes of the world we can expect to look like a fool. For the dance of the gospel is a dance of self-surrender to a very radical drum beat. It is a beat of sacrifice. It is a beat of selflessness. It is a beat of self-expenditure. It is a beat of love and of grace.  And to world, as the Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians, if we let go and dance to this beat, we are certain to look pretty foolish.

The world may call us fools when offer our friendship to a poor, lonely, childless, widow as we visit her in the nursing home on a regular basis.

The world may call us fools when we prepare and deliver a meal to someone recovering from surgery, especially when that someone has always treated us with condescending contempt.

We may look like fools to the world when we spend valuable time volunteering at the hospital, serving lunch in a soup kitchen, visiting someone in prison or working in a homeless shelter.

The world may call us fools when we offer love and forgiveness to our enemies, when we give the shirt off our backs to complete strangers in need.

The world will call us foolish when we give sacrificially and consistently to the budget of a local church.

And the world will call us foolish anytime we love anyone with the self-expending love of Christ—whenever we love someone without inhibitions, without restraints, and without reservations.

I believe this is the dance of the gospel—a dance of immense joy, but also a dance of enormous suffering.

And the Herods and Michals of the world despise this dance.  And they will do everything in their power to stop this dance.

We have all heard their voices, echoes which discourage such dancing.  “Don’t get too close to him.  Do not give your heart to her.  As human beings they will only let you down.  They may one day betray you.  They might move away.  One day they will die.”

“Don’t love that man.  He has done absolutely nothing to deserve it.  And will probably never be able to reciprocate.  Don’t love that woman.  She is poor and destitute.  She is too needy.  She will demand too much.”

The voices Michal and Herod say: “Don’t give yourself away to another.  Loving like that is too risky.  It leads to too much pain, heartache and grief.”

However, there is another voice.  A voice which was heard by David and by John the Baptist.  It is a voice which says: “Dance!  Hold nothing back.  Give yourself away. Surrender yourself to beat of the heart of the gospel.  Love.  Love honestly and deeply.  Love courageously and graciously.  Lose yourself.  Empty yourself.  Pour yourself out.”

Will this love cause pain?  It will cause enormous pain.  But the joy of God which will consume you will be so immense the suffering will be well worth it.  So, dance.

Garth Brooks once sang a song entitled “the dance.”  There’s a line in that song that goes, “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to have missed the dance.”

Loving others will inevitably bring pain.  However, never loving to avoid that pain is never really living.  There is no joy being a wallflower on the wall of life.

So, may we dance!  May we go out and dance in the streets of our world!  Let us go out and have seizures of prophetic ecstasy!  Be warned, we might look like fools, and we will suffer for it. However, the immense joy of God, the joy of abundant life, now and forevermore, is well worth it.