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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Dead but Not Defeated - Good Friday 2020

Good Friday 2020
            There is really not much more to say after this reading we’ve just heard, (the Passion of Christ According to John, chapters 18 & 19), save this:
            Today we are separated, kept apart by a virus pandemic. Many of our life experiences and rituals have been affected, especially those experiences and rituals surrounding death.
            We are no longer able to visit our aged or infirm loved ones as they near death if they are in a hospital or nursing home. Although some arrangements may be made for the next of kin in some of these places, it is only in the very final stages of dying, often too late to communicate our presence and our love with certainty that our loved one is aware that they are not alone in that moment.
            Today we are denied what are normal mourning rituals as well. Funeral are verboten, and even graveside services are limited in size and scope. We are not able to give or receive the comfort and support that is so important at times like these.
            As Jesus hung on the cross, most of his loved ones were hidden away in the upper room, his followers scattered for fear of their lives. Jesus died alone, forsaken on the cross. He shares our experience of isolation in that moment. And yet, he gives us hope.
            That hope first comes in the awareness that we are not alone in our grief or in our dying. As Jesus took on flesh to join us in our humanity, Jesus dies alone and forsaken so that we might know we never will be; we are accompanied through every moment of our lives and our death by a God who loves us so fiercely, that he is there with us, suffering alongside us, comforting us with the promise that this is not all there is.
            While our story today is one of death and sorrow, we cannot forget that the resurrection looms just around the corner. We can’t go there yet, it’s important for us to linger in the shadows of the reality of the cross for a time, but for those living on this side of the cross, Jesus’ own death brings promise.
            Jesus dies on the cross but is not defeated, and neither are we. Jesus will go on to glory showing us the way to everlasting life. Jesus demonstrates that this suffering and loss will not be the end of us, and it will not go on forever, but instead will give way to the new life that is ours through the love and steadfast mercy of a God who will welcome us all home.
            While living through loss without the blessing of final goodbyes and without the essential and comforting rituals we have come to expect, we are reminded that these losses will not have the last word; one day we will come together in our mourning and in our celebrations, in our sorrow and in our joy.
            The good news is that in wherever we are along that journey, we are never alone.

Shock and Awe - Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31-35
If we were to discover some never-before seen manuscripts from the ancient world, entitled something like, “Jesus – the Missing Years,” I wonder if we might see Jesus doing ordinary, everyday things in ordinary, everyday ways.
During those missing years, I wonder if Jesus enjoyed a mundane existence while he grew up. Did he do what was expected of him as a kid, did he blend in with the crowd at Nazareth Senior High as a teen?
Unless such a tome were found we never will know, but I doubt it.
After all, the gospel accounts we do have acquaint us with a Jesus who is unexpected; counter-cultural and even revolutionary.  Throughout the gospels, we find a Jesus who repeatedly does the surprising thing; the shocking thing. 
Instead of the ordinary, we have in our gospel accounts extraordinary stories about Jesus, like the time, as a 12 year old boy, he went missing, causing his parents to search high and low for him - and finally discover him in the temple, teaching his elders about the scriptures.
Then we have the other stories, the ones that took place after the missing years, stories that surprise us and confound us in so many ways. Stories like Jesus turning water into wine, cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, and raising Lazarus from the dead. This Jesus taught in parables and was transfigured on the top of a mountain.
It occurs to me that rarely, in any of the gospels, do we see Jesus doing what might be expected.
On one hand, you might think that if Jesus wanted to serve as an example for us, he might have, sometimes at least, behaved in ways that we could understand. If he wanted to model what discipleship looked like, he might have done it in ways that we could recognize and through such recognition, hang on to. On the other hand, Jesus certainly does get and keep our attention as he turns expectations upside down teaching what it means to live a life of discipleship, with him at the center of our being.
So, instead of the ordinary, sensible, comfortable things we might like him to do and demand from us, Jesus consistently does the challenging; the counter cultural – and in so doing reveals more to us about how the love of God changes our world than could ever be taught through the laying down of books of laws.
On the night he was handed over to die, Jesus shared what he knows will be his last meal with his disciples. In the middle of a meal, he gets up. He takes off his outer robe and he ties a towel around himself. Then he gets a basin of water and he goes from person to person around the table, washing the feet of his disciples. Then he takes that towel, the one he had tied around his waist – and he dries their feet for them.
This action is thoroughly shocking. Jesus is their rabbi. They have called him Master, Teacher, and Lord. He sits in the place of honor at this table.
And yet, he lays aside his divine dignity as he easily as he lays aside his robe. He takes on the role of a slave to wash their feet, just as later, he will slavishly bear our burdens to the cross. With the water in the basin he carries, he cleanses the dirt off the feet of his disciples just as the next day, he will cleanse us all from our sins, with his very own blood shed upon the cross.
We can hardly blame poor Peter for becoming practically apoplectic with such a shocking sight as the Lord kneeling at his feet like a servant, preparing to wash his feet.
With this act of servitude, and the words that follow, the disciples are reoriented to a new and different reality through the light of Jesus, the Word of God, now kneeling and pouring water over their feet. This light of Jesus reflects the deeply moving waters of rebirth; a rebirth that is brought about by Jesus himself.
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. John points to the final words that Jesus utters from the cross in his gospel – “it is finished.” The very next sentence defines what this night is all about. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loved them utterly, profoundly, deeply, unhesitatingly, devotedly.
Jesus demonstrates this love by taking on the role of the slave and performing this deeply humble, profound, intimate, uncompromising loving action. This night, my friends, is all about the incomprehensible love of God.
God knows more than anything else in heaven or on earth, what we need most is this pure, most extravagant love.
We, who arrive at this day with our brokenness a banner around our being, who frequently lose our way, who have suffered defeat, who know just how much grime has gathered in the creases and nailbeds of our misshapen, abused, calloused feet struggle to reveal the innermost parts of our being.
Like Peter, we struggle to accept this profound washing of Jesus. God knows just how hard it is for us to not only understand – but to accept love as God bestows it. God knows that the only way to break through the barrier of our stubborn resistance to God’s pursuit of our hearts is to completely empty himself in slavish service, service that takes our breath away.
And so, in startling servitude, Jesus demonstrates revolutionary love. The disciples will remember this startling act of love. And as Jesus is all too aware, it is only the beginning of what God in Jesus will endure for the name of love that will play itself out over the next three days. Jesus knows that very soon he will be given over to his passion – God’s action of supreme love. Jesus’ passion is, in fact, God’s compassion, poured out for the whole world.
 The very name we give this night, Maundy, comes from the Latin, mandatum – to love, and comes from the command that Jesus himself gives before that departure.
In this final meeting of Jesus and his disciples before he is taken away to be crucified, Jesus gives them this final teaching – these final instructions – this final demonstration of his own humble, perfect love.
Knowing that it is nearly the end of his walk with them, Jesus gives the disciples this commandment that is passed down to us tonight: love one another.
It is framed by Jesus’ words but even more strongly through his action –love one another – like this. Serve one another; open your hearts broadly to both accept this generous love Christ is offering and to love others in return.
In this humble, profound act, Jesus embraces us all. In his love, we are made new. In his love, we serve each other and we serve our neighbor. In his love, we remember his words, his prayers, his acts of compassion, his selflessness and obedience to God the Father. In his love, our fears, our hesitance, our doubt, and our exhaustion are overcome.  
For Jesus, to wash each of us clean from sin is more important than life itself. And soon, the disciples will confront the reality of that unbelievable, counter-cultural, revolutionary truth. Because it invites and commands us to act in ways that run counter to the prevailing norms.
God sent Jesus to be love for us, that invites us to love others in ways that do not entirely make sense. But the good news of  this gospel is that the water that Jesus offers, whether poured on our head, over our feet, or into our being, is given freely of God for the sake of the world. It is meant to be shared, splashed, and poured out for others. It remains as a reminder that on the night he shared his last meal with his disciples what was of paramount importance to our Lord, was to issue this commandment to love as we have been loved by him.
It is not always an easy commandment to perfectly obey. But the cross ensures forgiveness when we fall short and calls us to try again, by forgiving, showing mercy, carrying out justice, healing, and serving one another in compassionate love. This is what Jesus calls us to on the night before he died. It is what we strive for every day, that we may live. Let it be so.

Two Palm Sundays

Matthew 21:1-11
            On Palm Sunday one hundred fifty-five (155) years ago, the beginning of the end of the American Civil War occurred when General Robert E. Lee, Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, general of the United States Armies.
Lee Surrenders to Grant, American Battlefield Trust
For the American people who had long prayed for salvation from the carnage of war and the fracturing of families and country, this beginning of the end of the bloody conflict was a sign to many that God had finally answered the prayers of the nation. For the war now coming to an end was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil.    
            It had torn this country apart, killed 620,000 Americans, still more than any other war in American history. By comparison, the number killed in all other conflicts on this or any other soil combined stands at about 640,000 according to With the ending of the Civil War, the North prevailed – though no one really won in this conflict.
            Still, the events of Palm Sunday 1865 brought cause for celebration, even jubilation, and hope for the future.          
            We began our worship this morning with the traditional Palm Sunday processional gospel – though of course, due to the trials the day there was no procession or parade here today. Yet, we remember the triumph, the celebration and the hope of that first Palm Sunday – the day of Jesus’ triumphant procession into Jerusalem. 
            Chaos and confusion filled the air as people waving palms shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” which means, “Save us! Save us!” and other people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Presumably, those making up the crowd along the road that entered the city were among those who had followed Jesus during his journey to Jerusalem.
They make up some of the crowds that the we read about in the Gospels, to whom Jesus has addressed his teaching and preaching all along his journey to Jerusalem.
Others may be among those for whom Jesus has performed miracles and healing. They have heard him say that God is enacting God’s saving grace for them, and that God will set them free from the power of evil.
They believe Jesus’ message that God, full of mercy and abiding in steadfast love is sending a liberating ruler for them. Some believe Jesus to be a great healer and messenger sent from God. Finally, God has answered their prayers and pleading for liberation.
Others claim that he is a prophet from Galilee, sent by God. More are simply caught up in energy of the mob and join the procession.
            As they enter the city, they are joined by throngs who have gathered there for the festivities of the Passover. Many of these have not heard of Jesus and have had no former contact with him. Others have likely heard of him but don’t really know who he is or why the crowds follow him so.
The Pharisees have decided that he is a danger to the peace between them and the Romans. Caiaphas, high priest charged with controlling the Jews and keeping the peace of Jerusalem is one of those who fear that Jesus will stir up the Jews and threaten the peace.
And so, while some are shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” others are questioning, “Who is this?” and yet others are plotting to destroy him.
            Just who was this Jesus, who comes into Jerusalem riding on the back of an ass draped with cloaks, with more cloaks spread upon the road before him as if he were royalty, riding into the city upon a champion steed?
He looks royal and yet his accoutrements are humble – for what kind of king would ride a donkey? He is receiving a royal welcome with the waving of branches of palm and myrtle, and shouts of acclamation, even as the question, “who is this man?” echoes along the road.
As news of Lee’s surrender on Palm Sunday 1865 spread, and one by one other confederate brigades and armies also surrendered, there was a sense of relief and jubilation, yet by the end of the week, whatever joy had been found or felt was shattered – by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln five days later. The country as a whole was cast into mourning and the future was once again uncertain. How quickly things change.
Following the first Palm Sunday, somewhere around the year 33 AD (CE), came a week that was utterly confusing. No sooner had Jesus entered the city in triumph, than he began agitating the religious authorities, overturning tables, criticizing their behavior, cursing fig trees, casting judgment on the nations, and predicting the destruction of the temple. Finally, at the end of the week he is arrested and tried and five days after the triumphal entry, he dies upon the cross.
Followers of Jesus fall silent and go into hiding. Even those who have been closest to him, who have declared their unending love for him, and belief in him, deny and abandon him in the end. Indeed, how quickly things change.”
The shouts of “hosanna” – “save us” are muted in the horror of the crucifixion as the taunting call, “save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” echoes down the hill.
“Hosanna” is not a word that we normally use in the course of our day, or ever really, but today as a church around the world, we sing out our hosannas. But when we consider the meaning of the word – “save us” – what it is that we are asking God to save us from today?
At this point in history, April 2020, the answer that rises to the top probably seems pretty obvious: coronavirus. As we live into yet another week of ever-stricter guidelines and stay-at-home orders that now affect the entirety of our state and many other states and countries around the world, we are praying for the healing of the afflicted, the eradication of the virus, and comfort of those who mourn: “Save us, Lord, from COVID 19”.
We pray that God would save our lives, save our families, our jobs, our businesses, our communities, our church and the economy: “save us from destruction”.
We pray that the world might return to “normal” sooner rather than later.
We pray for the most vulnerable among us, made even more vulnerable by the reality of an unprepared for, non-curable, invisible menace.
These are just the latest in a long list of things from which we could cry out to be saved, just as the people who have gone before us have asked God to save them from the trials and tribulations of their time,.
In every age we have a pretty good idea from what we need to be saved and we think we know how we should be saved. We expect Jesus to come and make it better. With hope and trust, we cry, “save us” and wait, watching for signs that God has heard our prayer and the answer is coming.
Yet still we find ourselves afflicted by greed, beset by illness, vulnerable to death. Still, we find ourselves in endless conflict – in our relationships, our politics, our sense of justice, our economics, and with the environment.
Into this reality, Jesus comes, not as the conquering king expected both then and, in a sense, even now. He is not the military leader they thought they needed, but a humble servant king, riding on a donkey.
He came as one who would bear our pain and brokenness up the cross. He came as one who was born, lived, suffered and died in solidarity with the whole hurting and beloved world. He came to save, but not in the way they imagined or the way we expect to see.
            On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus accepted their hosannas and praises, knowing his friends would betray him and the crowds would turn on him. Jesus accepts the way they honor him as king, even knowing that the only crown he will wear will be made of thorns. Jesus “rides on, rides on, in majesty” as the old hymn goes, not counting himself as equal to God but emptying himself, so that he may be filled to overflowing with God’s love, and then shed that love on us.
            I recently read this Palm Sunday scene being referred to as the “glittering sadness.” Isn’t that a perfect description? For even as we imagine the jubilation of the crowds, we cannot help visualizing the reality of the cross: The cross upon which Jesus dies, for us; the cross from which his body is taken for entombment; the death from which he rises again, in glorious victory over evil, sin, and yes, even death.
            The people in the crowd didn’t get it. They didn’t understand who Jesus truly was or what he would do for us.
The Pharisees and Caiaphas feared his influence and misunderstood him. The merchants and moneychangers at the temple, and those who came to worship there didn’t get what his beef was. Even his disciples didn’t fully understand who Jesus was and how his death fit into the promises of God until after his death and resurrection.
            Jesus is the emissary and embodiment of God’s love for the world: the understanding and the misunderstanding, the faithful and the unfaithful, the repentant and the unrepentant. Jesus is mercy for the believer and the unbeliever, the ones who greet him as “Son of David” and “Messiah” and the ones who taunt him as he hangs upon the cross.
            The glittering irony is that Jesus came to be love and in love, he died for the sake of all of us. In Jesus, God comes to us to be with us and for us through whatever we suffer or experience – illness, brokenness, pandemic, fear, loneliness – all of it.
            He comes to us and bears with us in mercy and love beyond our imagining or understanding, shattering our expectations and assuring us of life and love everlasting. May this reality be our comfort and the force that accompanies us through this Holy Week and all the way to Easter. Amen.