Our God Rides a Donkey

donkeyjesusJohn 12:12-15 NRSV

A few moments ago we prayed for a variety of people who all have one thing in common.  They are suffering.  Some are suffering with cancer.  Others heart disease.  Some are trying their best to recover from strokes. Others are recovering from injuries from an accident or a fall.  Others are experiencing the grief over losing a loved one to death.

And of course the question that people of faith ask is why?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

As a Christian pastor, I have often said that the question that one should ask is not “why me?”   But “why not me.”  We are human beings, and the reality is, that human beings suffer.  Human beings get cancer, have heart disease and strokes and get into accidents.

“Why me?”  No, the better question is, since I am a human being, “Why not me?’

Hear me clearly say this: When bad things happen, God is not punishing us, God is not trying to get anyone’s attention, wake anyone up, and God is not trying to teach us something.  In this fragmented world, bad things simply happen.

I hate it when people misquote the Bible by saying that “the Good Lord doesn’t put any more on us that we can bear.”  As if the Lord looks at people like Joyce Letchworth and says: She has buried two sons, had heart bypass and a valve replacement surgery, still, I think she could bear breaking a hip.

God does not put anything on us.  We suffer because we are fragile, immortal human beings and that’s it. And God does not “take,” “pluck,” or “call home” anyone from this life.  We die because we are human.

However, I believe the question that most of us really want answered is not so much, “Why me?”, but “Why isn’t God doing something about it?”  Why doesn’t God do something to prevent or relieve the suffering? We understand that God doesn’t cause suffering, but, why on earth, doesn’t God do something about it?  That’s what I don’t understand.

Well, one easy answer is that suffering is for our own good. A long time ago, Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century bishop, wrote on the educational value of suffering.

Why doesn’t God end our suffering?  Well, through our encounters with pain, we grow and develop. The infant who touches a hot stove learns a valuable lesson.  What if human beings never experienced want, deprivation, terrible heat or unbearable cold? Would human culture have developed among other creatures? No, said Irenaeus. Suffering is thus a great teacher, a wonderful prod for advancement in human development.

Even the book of Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering.

Now, I realize that this is somewhat true. The keyword here is “somewhat.” My aching bones tell me that a person in my shape should not try to run a marathon. But what about those whose bones lie in the mass graves in Iraq or Syria? What about the bones of the five year old boy found in a septic tank in Virginia? What lesson is there for that grieving community?

Some pain is helpful, but not all pain. The truth is that there is far too much useless, pointless pain in this broken and fallen world to speak to positively of the educational potential of suffering. What on earth is a child who falls victim to an internet child molester to learn?

Which brings us back to our main question: Why doesn’t God do something about the pain of this world?  Why doesn’t God intervene and do something?

One philosopher once said, “Either God is good, but ineffective and unconcerned, in which case he is not good for us, or, considering the unrelieved, unjustified pain in this world, God is evil.”  There is just too much unrelieved, unaddressed pain in this world to have God any other way.

Another response is that God is very good, but God is simply inactive. This seems to be the conventional modern resolution of the matter. Rabbi Harold Kushner has said that God only had six days to complete the world, and unfortunately, some things were left unfinished. God is not a personal errand boy. Stuff happens. And God? Well, God is simply uninvolved.

This is the modern, deist God of our founding fathers. Deism is the belief that God set up the world then went on a permanent vacation. Deism rescues us from the dilemma of having to make excuses for God’s lack of engagement with us and our suffering. God doesn’t heal, save, rescue or reach in, not because God is unconcerned and unloving, but rather because God is simply uninvolved.

Deism tended to be the faith of most of the modern world because, in order to get the modern world going, the first thing we needed to do was to remove God from the world so that we could be free to run things as we want. Belief in this God who is empathetic but not meddlesome, having gotten God safely filed away as some vague spiritual feeling, we were free to give ourselves more fully to a more effective god—the nation, the economy, or whatever. The bloody 20th century, the perhaps even bloodier beginning of the 21st century, is the result.

But then, despite ourselves—God, all of a sudden, surprises us. God comes. And God acts. A life gets uplifted. Someone comes away healed, whole. A life is changed, a future rearranged.  On her death bed, after suffering more than I have seen anyone suffer, Alawoise Flanagan miraculously smiles, her eyes ablaze with hope. And members of the Flanagan family miraculously experience a peace and strength that surpasses all understanding. Just when we thought God had taken some cosmic vacation, God shows up and we experience life, abundant and eternal.

This is Palm Sunday. It is the Sunday that God showed up on the streets of Jerusalem riding a donkey. It isn’t that God is unconcerned, uninvolved, and uninterested in us, it is that the way God comes to us is not the way we want or expect God to come.

William Willimon writes: We wanted Jesus to come in to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to go up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, and set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine.  We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday, from noon until three, with hardly a word.

It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t do anything; it was that Jesus didn’t do the thing that we wanted. It wasn’t that Jesus did not come and intervene; it was that Jesus came riding a donkey.

God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, became one of us, bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in a way that we wanted—but in a way that is all we truly need for life—abundant and eternal.

When my friend, Tony Cartledge’s, eleven year-old little girl died in his arms after their car was struck by a drunk driver, Tony said that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was there. No, God didn’t go after the drunk driver with a vengeance and reverse the evil that had happened, but there God was nonetheless: Holding that little girl with him; feeling Tony’s pain; shedding divine tears; promising hope and peace. God was undeniably present. And “miraculously,” said Tony, “that presence was enough.”  “That presence was all that I needed.”

There are people on our prayer list, and others for whom we prayed today who I pray will somehow, some way, be able to say: “It may not have been what I wanted—but God’s humble, loving, suffering, self-giving, life-changing, healing, hopeful presence, is all that I will ever need—for now and forevermore.  Amen.”

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Our King Wears a Crown of Thorns

6187141-crown-of-thorns-hung-around-the-easter-crossMany people will not worship in a church this Holy Week because someone in the church, without thinking, offered them an easy answer in the face of evil. “God does not make mistakes,” they said. “God is in control. God knows what God is doing,” they said.

The reason I believe people are tempted to give up on God in the face of evil is because, contrary to what their good-intended church friends say, they are unaware that God does not reign from some heavenly throne in some blissful castle, but from an old rugged cross, on a hill outside of Jerusalem, between sinners like you and me. I believe people become despairing and cynical about God, because they fail to understand that our God does not rule like the rulers of this world.

The rulers of this world rule with violence and coercion and force. Earthly rulers rule with an iron fist: militarily and legislatively and with executive orders. The kings of the world rule with raw power: controlling, dominating, taking, and imposing.

But Christ is a King who rules through suffering, self-giving, self-expending, sacrificial love. Christ the King rules, not from a distance at the capital city, not from the halls of power and prestige, but in little, insignificant, out-of-the-way places like Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Enid and Waukomis..

Christ the King doesn’t rule with an iron fist, but with outstretched arms. Christ the King doesn’t cause human suffering from a far, but is right here beside us sharing in our suffering.

God’s power is not a power that takes, but is a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules, but is a power that serves.

God’s power is not a power that imposes, but is a power that loves.

God’s power is not a power that dominates, but a power that dies.

This, says the late theologian Arthur McGill, is the reason that it is “no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life. For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, [a] power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”

Christ the King did not take our first child. The day our baby died, God cried with us in that hospital room.

God did not cause the tumor. The day the doctor said the word “cancer” was a day of anguish for God as it was for us.

God did not create the layoff.

The day you were told that your job was ending, God stayed up with you and worried with you all night long.

And God did not take your loved one.  When they died, something inside of God died too.

What we all need to learn are very different definitions of “king,” “rule,” “reign” and “power”—very different because they define the ways of the only true and living God rather than defining our false gods and their ways.

So when life gets us down, we need to remember the great truth of Holy Week—Christ is the King. And this King is reigning, suffering, sacrificing and giving all that God has to give from the cross.

God does not make mistakes. God knows what God is doing. God is in control. But 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.

The Realness of Christmas

wounded children

Instead of decorating my tree this year with Christmas music playing in the background, I decorated it while watching the nightly news. As I hung ornaments, I listened to the tragic story of a high school student killed in an automobile accident. As I turned on the lights on the tree, I glanced up to see pictures of mothers with their children escaping from Syria into refugee camps in Lebanon. I saw images of many children: some starving, others injured, some dying, others sick, all very afraid. I thought to myself, “I need to turn this depressing mess off and put on something Christmasy.”

Then it occurred to me. This is probably as close to Christmasy as it gets, for this is Christmas undecorated. This is real Christmas, and it is a shame that we try to cover it up with colorful paper and tie a bow around it. We string it with lights and decorate it. We romanticize and sentimentalize the whole Christmas scene with gleeful music and cheerful food.

Perhaps it is because in our shallow minds, the scene is majestic. It is glorious: angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus; a brilliant star rising in the east; a baby worshipped by shepherds and kings and even animals. In our nativity scene, there is no crying, no hunger, no disease, no anxiety, no fear, no mourning. Our nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene.

However, this was not the reality of the first Noel. Christmas reality was not beautiful and was far from perfect. And no matter how hard we try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend; we cannot conceal the real harshness of it, the harsh realness of it. Christmas reality, says the prophet Isaiah is “like, a root out of dry ground.” Jesus was born among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.

Yes, Kings, Magi or Wise Men came to worship the baby, but we like to forget that King Herod was using those eastern visitors to locate the baby so he could run a sword through him. And we forget the holocaust in Ramah, the innocent babies slaughtered, the desperate cries of anguish and despair from parents because there children were “no more.” We forget the escape to Egypt like homeless refugees. This is Christmas reality.

This is the reality of it, and this is the good news of it! The good news of Christmas is that there is nothing glamorous, glitzy sentimental, or romantic about it. The good news of Christmas is that God came into our depressing mess. God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and pain and died a very real death.

Someone who was suffering with terminal cancer once told me: “Although I cannot explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become. In the moments of my most immense suffering, God is the most real to me.”

Through the coming of God in Christ into a very real and broken world, we know that God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery. God knows what it feels like to feel forsaken by God. God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments when life is the most real and the most broken.

Thank God something as depressing as the nightly news can actually be Christmasy.

The Rainbow and the Cross

rainbow crossThe Ebola virus is spreading throughout the world, recently killing a top doctor. Financial turmoil has seized Argentina. A Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, and fierce fighting has broken out around the wreckage. The death toll rises in Gaza as deadly violence occurs every day. Israel attacks a UN school killing 20 evacuees. Mobs of Islamic militants kill dozens in China. An unprecedented crisis at our own border continues. Immigrant families are being torn apart. Kidnapped Nigerian girls for whom churches all over the world prayed are still missing. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up the state of the world last week in one simple sentence: “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

I am not the only preacher to point out that the state of the world today is reminiscent of a story found in the early chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 6 we read: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” In other words, the state of the world caused God great suffering. Other translations read that the state of the world “broke God’s heart.”

We know the rest of the story. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” and in Genesis 7, we read that for forty days and nights the rains fell as God intended to start the whole thing over with Noah and his family. However, just one chapter later, the futility of God’s intentions became obvious, as the state of the world had not changed. After the flood “…the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” In the following chapter, we read where the rainbow is forever a beautiful reminder of this great promise.

Sadly, I believe we tend to forget what this promise truly means. Perhaps it is due to a selfish inclination that we have had since our youth that we only remember God will never again try to “blot us out.” However, this promise means so much more. This promise means that our God has chosen a path of suffering. The rainbow means that the state of our world continually breaks the very heart of our God.

There is a reason the prophet Isaiah moves us when we read about “a man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53). There is a reason Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things…”(Mark 8)  There is a reason at the death of Lazarus we read, “Jesus wept” (John 11). There is a reason Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt 27). There is a reason the soldier who was standing at the foot of the cross of our crucified Lord exclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27).

Furthermore, there is a good reason that, living in a world which, “putting it mildly, is a great mess,” we sing: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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!