Monday, April 28, 2014

Easter 2A -- April 27, 2014

The Benefit of the Doubt 

Guest Preacher: Mark Shannon

Audio can be heard by clicking this link:

John 20:19-31
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

           The Bible tells us what we need to know, but it doesn’t always record what we want to know.  Down through the ages theologians and laypeople alike have reflected in universities and gathered in places like our mini-meeting room to pore over the conversation Jesus has with his disciple Thomas.  All of us want to know the answers to a few basic questions about this passage.  Namely, what tone of voice did Jesus use in his comments to Thomas and do his doubts make Thomas somewhat less than devout in his love for his Lord and his God?
            It’s safe to say that most of us at one time or another have wished for amplification when it came to our study of Scripture.  What was it like to live in the time that’s depicted in the Bible?  What did people eat?  How did they dress?  In the past several years our Sunday School classes have been blessed with teaching by Ken Bailey and Ray Van der Laan and other Biblical scholars who have steeped themselves in the culture of Biblical times.  These experts have given us glimpses of the things we want to know about.
            But we still have questions.  In today’s Scripture how are we to understand Jesus’s remarks to Thomas?  I invite you to put your finger on John 20:19-31 as we look at this passage together.  There are a few insights I gleaned from this passage that I’ll present to you today and you may want to read the passage for yourself as we pore over the text.
            To set the scene:  the disciples are gathered together in a locked room.  The risen Lord has appeared to a couple of women but the disciples have not seen Him yet.  It was as though the Lord’s resurrection wasn’t officially recognized unless a man had witnessed it.  They were huddled together behind a locked door because they were fearful of the Jews that had pushed for the crucifixion of Jesus.  Maybe they themselves were next on the hit list.  Perhaps they were also angry at the Jewish officials.  Remember in the garden when Peter responded to the arrest of Jesus by taking up a sword and attacking one of the guards?  Maybe some of them wanted to mete out their own kind of justice. 
            Suddenly into this potent emotional mix there appears Jesus before them.  How did He get in?  Remember, this is the first time they have seen Jesus in his resurrection body.  Up til now, they’ve only heard a rumor that He was back from the dead.  And now, there He is in the room with them.  Surprise seems too mild a word to describe their response.  They must have been amazed and astonished at His arrival.
            Our church needs to expect to be surprised by the Lord’s presence today.  The New Beginnings project kicked off last week and many of us answered a series of questions about our experience in this church.  When we were finished the results were surprising to me, and not all of them were good surprises, either.  Some of the answers to the questions indicate that some changes need to be made.  Some people may draw some dire conclusions about the answers given in that survey.  But before we assume the worst about our church, we need to acknowledge that Jesus is capable of surprising us.  We’ve been in this position before.  Remember when the roof needed fixed, and the boiler shut down, and the organ conked out—all at the same time?  Many people thought the worst.  It didn’t look promising.  We didn’t know what to fix first, or where we were going to get the money to fix anything.  The great thing about Jesus is that He is in the midst of our dillemnas  and He is on the other side of them.  He knew the outcome of that particular series of events.  And so it came to pass that a sizeable bequest from the estate of a deceased member came into the church’s possession.  And the roof was mended.  And the boiler was fixed.  And we bought and installed a new organ.  Do you remember?  Jesus is in the middle of all that is going on now and He is fully capable of bringing us through these days.
            I’ve told this story before.  Many years ago when I was a teller at a bank, I was balancing my drawer at the end of the day.  I found out I was $20 short.  I followed the step-by-step procedures for finding outages and I couldn’t locate the problem.  So I went back to where we hung up our coats and I prayed for help.  After that I came back to my station and began the whole process again.  And I found the $20!  Was it there all the time?  Maybe.  But I’m willing to believe that God answered my prayer and provided the solution to the problem.
            I invite you this year to make a commitment in your lives to pray for our church—not just the building and how to pay the bills, although those prayers are needed too—but for the members of the congregation.  Pray for their spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.  Pray that we as a congregation will be open to hearing and understanding God when He answers our prayers for this church and its members.  Don’t pray with some foregone conclusion in mind.  Be open to the idea of being amazed at the way Jesus will answer our prayers.
Getting back to the text the Lord’s first words to His followers are:  “Peace be with you.”  Even if they couldn’t believe their eyes at first when they saw Him, His words should have reassured them.  Didn’t He bring peace to a raging storm when they were all in a boat together?  Didn’t He say in their presence:  “Peace I give to you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you”?  Perhaps His words did much to calm them down on this occasion, too.
            At that first meeting after His resurrection, Jesus showed His disciples the wounds on his hands and in his side.  And they were all overjoyed and astonished.  Maybe until then they didn’t realize it was Him.  Maybe they thought it was someone who resembled the Lord—never mind how He got through a locked door.   But when He showed them His wounds, then they were overjoyed.  They knew it was the risen Savior come among them.
            Before that first encounter ended Jesus said again “Peace be with you”.  Now any English major worth his salt can tell you that when a character in a story says the same thing twice, the author is trying  to emphasize those words.  Jesus is saying again:  “Calm down, relax, don’t be afraid.”  Those are good things to remember today.
            Now Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples.  The Bible doesn’t tell us where he was.  Maybe he was out doing good works.  Maybe he was trying to gain some intelligence about what the Jewish authorities had in mind for the disciples.  We don’t know where he was.  But at some point he comes back to be with them and hears their story.
            But their testimony doesn’t impress him.  Even though he’s traveled with them for three years and gone through many trials and triumphs with all of them, he is not persuaded by their experience.  And to the disciples credit they allow him to remain unconvinced.  They don’t bully him into believing them.  They tell what happened to them and let him decide for himself. 
            When we talk to skeptics about our faith, we would do well to behave the same way.  All we have when it comes down to it, is the truth of our own experience.  People can choose to believe us or disregard us, but whatever their reaction may be, they can’t take away the fact of our own experience.  And we don’t need to be overly concerned about their response to our testimony.  Our job is to tell what we know, allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, and recognize that others may need to hear more than just our own stories to be persuaded.  We’re all just links in the chain of faith and we only need to do what we are able.
            Remember too that the disciples and Thomas really don’t have any assurance that they will see the risen Lord again.  When He was in the flesh, they counted Him as a member of their group and could probably say with reasonable certainty that they would see Him throughout the day and at meals together.  But in His resurrected state, everything’s up for grabs.  Anything could happen and there was no telling when or where Jesus would show up again.  There must have been a new excitement among those first disciples when they reflected that they had seen Him appear instantly among them—just like that thief in the night He talked about—and He might be back with them at any moment.
            Once again it behooves us to expect to see Jesus doing unexpected things in the coming year.  We don’t know how He will bring about what He intends for us.  And so we have a choice:  We can walk around with our heads hung down waiting for some dire pronouncement of doom to come upon us.  Or we can look ahead with expectation knowing that Jesus cares for us and has a plan for each of us that will be the best for us when the time comes. Remember in your prayers to be in agreement with one another and not to harbor a pre-determined outcome that may not be true.
            Now when Thomas heard their news he issued his requirements in order for him to believe the Savior was risen.  He itemized what he wanted to see and do that would allow him to relinquish his disbelief and worship Jesus.  Thomas must be the ancestor of the United Nations inspectors who go into a country looking for nuclear weapons with the motto:  “Trust—but verify!”
            Now a word about doubt in the life of a Christian.  Years ago several of us were sitting in a Sunday school class just off this sanctuary and the subject of doubt came up.  A dear saint named Ruth Higgins who has since gone to her reward said that everybody has doubts about his or her own faith.  We all agreed with this statement.  Yet as we talked we came to the conclusion that doubt can serve to strengthen our faith.  When we go to the pages of Scripture and to good friends who are believers we can put our doubts to the test and see if they are really worthy of our concern.  Often our own experiences and those of our friends, as well as the truth of the Bible, can serve to conquer the doubts that loom large in our minds.
            So, in that light, Thomas does not appear to be the shady character that some have suggested.  His doubts and how he resolved them can serve as an example to us when we encounter dubious speculation.  Open the pages of your Bible, consult Christian friends, and see if your doubts continue to pose a problem.
            The second time the Lord appears to His disciples occurs when Thomas is gathered with them.  There is no record that Jesus appears among them again before Thomas returns.  We don’t read anything resembling one of the disciples saying:  “Aw, Thomas, you just missed Him!” 
            An interesting fact I discovered in the text caused me to be surprised at this familiar story.  When Thomas meets with the disciples in the room, before Jesus appears to all of them, the door to the room is locked again!  See for yourself.  Every disciple except Thomas has met Jesus and been convinced that He is back from the dead.  You might think that they would be excited about this and that they had no reason to be afraid of a Jewish mob bent on persecution.  Since Jesus came back from the dead, He must be powerful enough to deal with any physical threat they might face.  But they lock the door again.
            Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can drain us of hope and strength as well as confidence.  The disciples must have still been afraid of what might happen.  This fear caused them to bar the door even though they knew about a stone rolled away in front of an empty tomb.
            We have seen the Lord do wonderful things in this congregation, on a corporate level and in the lives of individual members.  But instead of relying on our experience of God’s saving presence in our midst, we fall back on fearful speculation about what might happen next.  Take heart, believers!  God is still in the business of surprising us when we least expect Him.  He has seen us through tough times before and He is fully capable of doing so again.
            We can infer from Jesus’s encounter with Thomas that the Lord heard each of his wayward disciples’ conditions.  Jesus specifically points to His hands and His side and invites Thomas to give Him a hands-on examination. 
            The Bible warns us not to put God to the test.  We have no business daring God to act on our behalf.  But in the book of Malachi God encourages His people to examine His faithfulness to them by tithing their income to His service.  So Jesus meets Thomas’s conditions in order to bolster the disciple’s faith.
            Thomas finishes his examination and declares his allegiance to the Lord.  It is then that we read the Lord’s words:  “Don’t doubt and believe.”
            There is no indication about how Jesus delivered these words.  Did He raise His voice and proclaim those words in a thunderous command?  Or did he speak in softer tones that stirred in Thomas’s heart?  We don’t know.
            I once had a teacher in college who said that he formed an opinion of a person based on what that person would not do.  He befriended an individual based on the things that individual refused to participate in.  Using that as our point of reference, what do we know about the character of Jesus when He came in His resurrection body?
            We know He didn’t appear in front of legions of Roman soldiers and dare them to take their best shot. 
            We know He didn’t materialize in the middle of the temple grounds and shout to the Jewish authorities:  “It’s payback time!”
            We do know He first appeared to two women, counted among the lowest members of first century society, and proclaim His victory over death.
            We do know He met His followers on the shore and prepared breakfast for all of them.
            We know from our text today that the Lord graciously waited for Thomas to come back so that He could be included when Jesus shared His good news again.  He didn’t exclude Thomas and tell the others to shun him.  He waited and welcomed Thomas with open and outstretched arms—just as He did to the whole world from the cross.
            So in what tone of voice did Jesus tell Thomas to stop doubting and believe?
            What effect did those words have on Thomas?  Was he mortified and did he flee from the room and seclude himself from the new-found group of believers?
            The Lord’s words assured Thomas and galvanized him for further service.  No matter the tone of voice Jesus took with Thomas, remember that the Lord chastises those whom He loves.  Scripture also tells us that a wise man accepts discipline and benefits from instruction.
            And so it must have been with Thomas.
            I knew a man named Tim in college at Slippery Rock.  Tim was in his mid-twenties and came to the Lord during his college years when the girl he proposed to shared her faith with him and caused him to believe and be saved.  Tim told me that in the early days of his new-found faith he wanted to share his good news with other people.  One day Tim met a person from India.  During their conversation Tim learned that this person was a Christian.  With excitement Tim told of his recent conversion and asked when the person from India had accepted Christ.
            That person told Tim that he was raised in a Christian home in India and that his family contained a long line of ancestral believers. In fact the first person in that family came to salvation a couple thousand years ago when the man we know as Doubting Thomas came to preach in that family’s village.  Tim reeled back in wonder, then he told me that the last name of the person he talked to was in fact, Thomas.

            So rejoice everybody!   Even though we may find ourselves in a valley of doubt and apprehension, Jesus is right here with us and he has a plan for all of us and for our congregation.  May we have the grace to listen to Him and to obey Him as He reveals it to us in His good time.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Resurrection Sunday/Easter Year A -- April 20, 2014

“What Difference Does It Make?”

Matthew 28:1-10 
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”     

Of course there were angels to greet the women that morning.  Angels always show up in scripture at each decisive moment of God’s entrance into the world.  In the gospel of Matthew, angels appear at the incarnation and at the resurrection.  At the beginning of Matthew, Joseph had a dream in which an angel told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife despite the messy situation of her pregnancy.  Joseph follows the angel’s instructions, and the story of Jesus is set into motion.

And in today’s text, the two women approach the tomb of Jesus and suddenly, all heaven breaks loose when an angel rolls back the stone blocking the tomb, setting off a holy earthquake.  The guards at the tomb faint dead straight away at the scene, but the women hold it together long enough to hear the angel’s reassurance which is the same words at those used to reassure Joseph in his dream – “Do not be afraid.”  The women then receive the good news about Jesus’ resurrection from a heavenly voice, which tells them, “I know you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.” 

It is Easter morning and God has interrupted the natural, familiar and mostly brutal ordering of the world in the same way the incarnation interrupted the world.  In the incarnation, God entered the world clothed in human flesh born to an ordinary human woman.  In resurrection, God overcomes the natural order again by raising Jesus from the dead.   At the angel’s invitation, the women peer into the tomb and see for themselves that what the angel says is true.  Jesus is long gone. 

Every year we hear this story, in different versions from the different gospels.  But it is essentially the same story despite the difference in details.  The Resurrection is THE Christian story, a story compelling enough to bring people out to church that never go to church.  I think Easter is a family favorite because it is a story about victory with a capital V and that rhymes with T and that stands for triumph! 

In the version we heard from Matthew, the story is filled with powerful light and earth-shattering special effects. The angel rolls back the gigantic stone that had seemed to be the final official judgment on the life and death Jesus of Nazareth.  And then, the angel wipes the sweat off his angel brow and plops himself down upon the stone with an air of deep satisfaction and grins at the guards as if to say – “Take that all you earthly powers. You have been defeated.  Big time.  In the grand battle between the forces of death and the forces of life, you LOSE, death.  Game over. Hooah!”

It’s quite a scene.  It’s no wonder that people show up to church in droves on Christmas and Easter.  These are two emotionally satisfying holidays.  Who among us can resist that chubby newborn baby in the manger at Christmas?  And everybody is a sucker for the happy ending we get at Easter.  Christmas and Easter have the loveliest flowers, the perfect scripts, the most majestic music, and the performances always end with a standing ovation. And the angels get all the best lines.  Do not be afraid.  He is risen.  Go tell everybody then meet us back here for the ham dinner.  Bravo!

I do not mean to sound dismissive of our high holy observances.  I love flowers and music and ham as much as the next Presbyterian.  But the question still tugs at my heart.  What difference does it make? What difference does Easter Sunday make?  For me?  For you?  For the 2.2 billion Christians around the world who today are emerging from the darkness of Lent and blinking in the bright light of resurrection?

This time tomorrow, it will all be over.  The lilies will have already begun to droop a bit.  The leftover blue Easter peeps will be 50% off at the Target.  And despite the pronouncements of that smug, triumphant angel sitting on that big rock, resurrection really didn’t fix anything.  Did it?  Evil still exists and fear still floats thickly in the air like the spring pollen that makes us sneeze. There are still plenty of Pilate’s and Herod’s wandering around, imposing their will and exploiting the poor.  Innocent victims are still executed.  Injustice still saturates our culture and our courts.  Bad guys seem to win more often than not.  Relationships fall apart.  People fall apart physically and emotionally.  As Ernest Hemingway put it, “life breaks everyone,” at some point or another or, at the very least, wears us down considerably.  And it does seem these days that angels are in short supply, especially the kind of reassuring angels that give you a reason not to be scared out of your wits.  If there are angels out there, they are certainly drowned out by other, louder, more persuasive voices.

So what difference does it make?  What difference does resurrection make?  I am honestly asking this question because there are days in which I wonder if going down to the AMC movie theater and watching a really good action movie has about the same effect on us as hearing Matthew’s Easter story again. 

It seems to me that if resurrection doesn’t make a real and visible difference in our lives in the right here and the right now, then the people who look at Christianity with a rather cynical eye are absolutely right in wondering exactly what it is we’re up to here.  If the resurrection we sing about today doesn’t make a difference in the way we live tomorrow, then maybe the cynics are right.  If resurrection is just about what happens at the end, then maybe resurrection really is what many people say -- a fairy tale to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re going to die.  After all, what we are dealing with in the Easter isn’t verifiable fact, but gospel-truth, and the only way to prove gospel truth is to attach it to some sort of reality -- like the way we live.  If people cannot see the truth of resurrection not just in our words, but in our lives, why should they believe it?

We hear the resurrection story so often that it has become an abstraction cloaked in daffodils and Easter eggs and spring time.  We forget the power that shook the world and shook the political and religious establishment to its core.  We forget this collusion of military and religious authorities who tried their best to make Friday’s crucifixion the end of the story.  But despite everyone’s best efforts to control history, God’s purpose was not snuffed out.  Not by the longest shot.  The angel rolls away the stone.  Not so Jesus can break out…he is already long gone.  But so that we can look inside and see for ourselves. 

When we peer into the empty tomb, we can see that part of the story IS over.  The part about the body.  That unique gift of God made flesh in a man named Jesus is complete.  And a new story is beginning.  About other bodies. 

What does Jesus say to the women when he appears to them?  He tells them to go back to the disciples.  No wait.  What he tells them is to go back to his brothers – all those guys who betrayed and denied and ditched him at the end – he tells the women to go tell those goofballs to get their tails in gear and head to Galilee.  That’s where he promises to meet them. 

And that’s how resurrection begins.  The mission of Christ will be renewed in Galilee -- that place Jesus had promised to gather his scattered sheep again.  The disciples are not chastised for their fear and betrayal.  They are forgiven.  There is no time for bitterness and blame.  After all, there’s work to be done. It’s time for this band of brothers – and sisters -- to get back to work in those places where Jesus healed the sick, showed compassion for the suffering, offered rest to the weary, spoke in parables, fed the multitudes, blessed the children, challenged a rich man, and welcomed children. When the angel tells the women to meet Jesus in Galilee, he is saying that the resurrected Christ will be always found in places of grace-filled work, where healing, feeding, teaching, and even suffering are experienced with him.

The difference resurrection makes for me is that it teaches me the art of losing everything. Resurrection is not an escape from the losing, but a better way of losing.  Because, as it turns out, the resurrection isn’t really about victory or triumph or bravado, but about believing that we do not have to be afraid anymore.  We can wade in to the deep waters of love, even at the risk of heartbreak. We can trust that loss will not destroy us, but open up space for something that will surprise and delight us.  We can live into the new possibilities that Jesus told us about all along.  Remember? Jesus said, Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-26).  That it is only in losing our lives that we find God’s newness.  Jesus shows us not how to fear loss, but to master it.
I love this poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
of lost car keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
even though it looks like disaster.[1]

So many of you have told me about what it’s like to lose your life yet somehow find your life.  For some of you, resurrection has blown up your world with loss that felt like death, and yet new life flourished in ways you did not expect.  Some of you have sensed resurrection come over you more gradually, like light dawning in the darkness.  No earthquakes, just the slow and steady work of God bringing you back to life.  All of our resurrection stories are unique to how we experience the risen Christ with us, and I suspect that is why there are so many different versions of the story in scripture.  Yet, resurrection continues to break in.  The saving, creative work of God occurs minute by minute in spite of all efforts to seal it, control it, contain it, snuff it out.  Sometimes it takes much longer than three days.  But the promise is still true.
Resurrection is not an occasion to gloat.  It’s not a day to raise our fist in triumph, but to open our hands and reach out to others, even to those for whom resurrection still seems like a cruel and idle tale. We follow a Savior who did not condemn his executioners, but forgave them.  And on the last night of his life, Jesus revealed who he truly was:  The servant of servants.  We cannot forget this.  As a friend of mine wrote in a Maundy Thursday devotional this week, that before he began the foot washing, I wish that Jesus had said “I know y’all are going to forget all about this part, but pay attention.” [2] After the Alleluias of this morning fade, what is left is the way he lived his life and submitted to death, and the promise of resurrection.  

Go love one another.  Fiercely.  Fearlessly.  Like a grain of wheat falling to earth all the way from heaven.  Willing to fall hard and deep into the loamy soil of Spring so that God’s love might be born again and again.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- Saturday of Holy Week

Matthew 27:57-66

57When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. 62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

It is hard not to feel powerfully alone today, or even utterly abandoned. We so often feel alone many days.Yet, we trust in the truth of resurrection and know that the loneliness we experience today is not the end of the story of God's covenant with God's people.  So we hold on through this day and through every day when we feel small and frightened.  

What needs resurrecting in your life? What makes it hard to turn this over to God and trust that God will bring you, too, through death to new life?

Let us pray: Lord God, remind us of your presence with us when we stumble, suffer, or are afraid in any way. Give us strength, courage, and peace, and help us to be an encouragement and sign of life to others. Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- Good Friday

Matthew 27:32-56

32As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.
33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. 45From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”

50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 55Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

At the end, only the women would hang around to watch Jesus die. The male disciples are nowhere to be found.

I don't know why the gospel writer so significantly chronicles the women's continuing presence with Jesus all the way to his gruesome end.  Perhaps it is because at least two of the women watching were mothers and therefore are intimately involved with the beginning of life.  We intuitively understand that these creatures we carry in our bodies and birth from our bodies are mortal and will die someday.   And we give birth anyway.

I do not know why the women stayed.  It is so hard for me to look at Jesus on this day and keep my eyes open.  Even knowing how the story ends in a couple of days, I find that Good Friday retains it power to knock me flat.  I know how hard I try to avoid every kind of pain.  And there goes Jesus, embracing it.  It seems to me that he is never more "Emmanuel" or "with us" than on this day.

How does Jesus' death tell the truth about our lives and world? How does it give us hope? Where do you see God still at work to redeem and preserve creation? Where do you long to see God?

Let us pray: Lord God, on the cross you suffered the very depths of our human life, even to the point of death. When we see the cross, let us remember that you become one of us and endured all elements of life to show us your great love and to give us hope. Amen.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday

Matthew 27:1-31

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’

 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’ Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’

 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

Where do you see the struggle for power and the easy resort to defamation and violence in our world today?  In what ways does fear poison our relationships?  What one thing would you ask God to change about your life or the world?  How can you contribute to making that happen?

Let us pray:  Use me, Lord God, as an instrument of peace in a world too often broken by violence and a thirst for power.  Amen.

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