Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter, 2013

I admit it.  I love preaching.  I especially love preaching on Easter.  It is not really the crowd.  It is the text.  Easter Sunday gives the preacher a great text.  It is only a shame that our preaching is so often mediocre when such a great text is there on the pulpit before us.  Sometimes we want to get too cute with the story of the resurrection, or we try preach something we think people want to hear.  When we make that choice, it is certain that we are blowing the greatest preaching opportunity of the year.  We look at the text and take the verses about not being afraid and preach about the fears of our life.  Or, we take the passage where Jesus calls out Mary's name and we preach about how good it is that Jesus knows our name.  Or, we say that when we hear Jesus calling our name, our life is different.
All are good ideas to preach.  But, not on Easter Sunday when there is this powerful, earth shaking, soul changing Word out there for us to proclaim.  It often seems that we preachers are afraid to preach that simple message that Jesus rose from the dead.  Are we afraid to say Jesus is alive and that because He lives, we, too, shall live?  Why would anyone have such a message and not preach it?  Who comes on Easter Sunday morning not needing to hear this Word that transforms living and dying?  If it is not preached on Easter in the church from our pulpits, where in the name of God will it be heard?  Certainly, not in the school.  Not in the workplace.  Not in the ball parks.  It is not being proclaimed anywhere else in all the world except in the place where those of us who preach the gospel are standing.
Woe is me if I do not preach this gospel that has at its center the resurrection of Jesus!  Woe is me if I do not preach the way the reality of resurrection changes our every decision!  Woe is me if I listen to what the world says should be said and preach not the Christ crucified and risen!  What a day Easter is for preaching.  May it be done with Holy Spirit power every Sunday, but, oh, most especially on the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday, 2013

Good Friday has always seemed like a hard day for the church.  What makes it hard is not that the Protestant community of faith takes it so seriously, but that it often seems unsure what to do with it.  In many places Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are seen more as Roman Catholic services and are either ignored, or handled in a rather trivial manner.  I remember an ecumenical community Good Friday service offered years ago when a local pastor gets up and says, "I know it is Good Friday, the day Jesus died on the cross, but I am going to preach on resurrection."  And, off he went reading the Easter morning lesson and preaching on the empty tomb. 
Sometimes it seems we have an unhealthily fear of anything to do with the cross.  I say "unhealthy" because it is not spiritually healthy to ignore it.  Our secular world which knows so little of the gospel story shows up in mass on Easter Sunday for the watered down version of the message about resurrection power being unleashed in our world without even knowing about the horrible reality of Jesus dying on the cross on Friday.  How we can celebrate a death we have not contemplated is a difficult matter to comprehend.   There was nothing pretty and clean and nice about what happened to Jesus in those hours before the cross and during the hours He suffered on the cross waiting on death.  It is a picture of humanity at its worst.  It is a picture which speaks of the deep need of humanity.  And, it is a picture which reveals to us the love of God and His deep desire to bring us home to His heart.
Going by the cross is not an optional moment for those who would truly understand why we are gathering on Easter.  Without standing, or kneeling, before the cross, Easter Sunday is just about eggs and new clothes.  But, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in both the horror and the divine love present on Golgotha, we finally get it, and are finally ready to celebrate the greatest Word in all of history.  Christ who died on Friday has been raised from the dead and because He lives, we, too, shall live!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday, 2013

It was almost twenty-four years ago that I went to her church as pastor.  One of the worship experiences shared in those years was Maundy Thursday.  I was learning how to lead such a service and she and others in the congregation were sharing it for the first time.  Today as we met and talked, she immediately said that it was Maundy Thursday.  From that comment she went on to witness to the value and meaning this single service had been for her through the years of her life. 
It is not hard to figure.  It is a day which has a built-in worship agenda guaranteed to bless those who participate and please Jesus when we share in it.  After all, His command was to "do this in remembrance of me."  It is also a worship experience entered into with intentionality.  On Sunday morning we may show up for a variety for reasons, but those who show us for this annual Table moment do so out of intentionality.  Going to a worship moment on Thursday evening is different than going on Sunday morning.  It is a worship service driven by desire.  Those who show up come not because of habit, but because of a desire to worship on this special day of the year.  As does no other day, it brings to our consciousness what Christ has done for us as He chose to go to the cross for our sakes.  If it is possible to enter into a moment of supreme grace, surely Maundy Thursday brings us to such a place.
There is no week like this week.  And there are  no days like these days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Those who pause at the Table and kneel at the cross are much more likely to be able to raise their hands and hearts in praise that Jesus is risen come Easter morning.  Today's moments with Jesus remind us as we go forward that what happened long ago was no sudden surprise, but a work of grace and mercy planned before the beginning of all creation.  Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wednesday of Holy Week

Sunday was filled with the hollering crowd.  Monday was filled with the sounds of a Temple being turned upside down.  Tuesday was filled with voices of anger.  Wednesday brought quietness into Jesus' world.  Some say He did not even go into the city on this day, but stayed away for a day of much needed solitude.  However, Luke tells us He spent each day in the Temple with the nights being passed at the Mount of Olives.  (21:37-38)   Matthew and Mark both talk of Jesus visiting with Simon the leper at Bethany on Wednesday and report He was anointed with costly oil by an unknown woman.   Jesus spoke of the anointing as His preparation for the burial which was only days away.  The Scripture does not always tell us all we would like to know and certainly this is one such instance. 

But, one thing is clear.  It was a different kind of day.  Away from the noise and clamor of all that was stirring around Him, Jesus had a day that was strangely quiet and uneventful when compared to all that had happened earlier in the week.  It is as if He intentionally drew aside so that all His inner resources would be tuned to the Father's will.  The final part of the journey awaited Him and surely this day in Bethany was a moment for final preparation.

Most of us would do other things when we face the pressures and stresses of life.  Most of us get our personal battle plan ready when we feel threatened by folks who mean to bring no good into our lives.  Instead of being able to listen to the voice of the Father, we can only hear the voices in our head helping us to determine our best option for overcoming.  What Jesus points us to is really the best option for overcoming.  What we see Him embracing as the best option was listening for the sound of the Father's voice and depending on it for direction.  We can do no better when our world seems to be coming apart at the seams and chaos clamors for control.  Listening to the Father.  Depending on the Father.  These are the kind of things which ready us for the whatevers of life.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday of Holy Week

Tradition teaches us that Tuesday was a tough day for Jesus.  Oh, it was nothing like later days would be, but it was a tough one, nonetheless.  After Sunday's avalanche of popularity, one might have expected things to go differently, but what happened on Sunday only seemed to fuel the fear and anger of those chief priests and scribes who saw Jesus as a threat which could not be tolerated.  If we read John's gospel, we find reason to believe that the restoration of Lazarus from the dead was the final straw for these adversaries of Jesus.  When Jesus came into Jerusalem those pillars of Hebrew power had already decided something permanent had to be done with this upstart Rabbi. 
Tuesday is known as the day of confrontation with these powerful antagonist.  If there was any doubt that the Jesus problem had to be solved immediately, the Temple cleansing on Monday solidified it.  As far as the Hebrew leaders were concerned, His attack on the Temple was not something which could be tolerated.  Too many things thought to be nailed down tightly were coming loose.  As we read the gospels we see Jesus on Tuesday dealing with one question after another.  None really sought His thoughts.  All sought to tangle Him up in some issue which could be turned against Him.  For example, if He responded one way with the coin question, He turned the people against Him.  If He responded the other way, He turned Rome against Him.  Of course, none of the questions posed to Jesus on the day of confrontation had the desired results.  He only revealed the real motives of those who questioned Him.
Still, it was a tough day.  Everywhere He turned there was pressure and the faces of those who wanted to do away with Him.  However, it was not yet Friday.  It was not yet His time.  And as One who was in control, He walked away and out of the city to come another day.  He would die as they desired, but He would be in control.  What they wanted, He was willing to give.  He gave His life not for their purposes, but for the purposes of God.  There is no greater reason to live our lives than fulfilling the purposes of God.  And, to do it as He did....willingly, out of obedience to the Father.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday of Holy Week

Tradition tells us that on the day after the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, He returned to the city and cleansed the Temple.  Actually, the word "cleansed" seems too mild to really describe what He did in that place.  All the gospel writers include this event in their narrative of the ministry of Jesus, some with more details than others.  Only John speaks of the whip of cords, but all enable us to see a side of Jesus largely unseen prior to this moment.  As we get into the story we see Jesus striding about overturning tables, slashing his whip through the air, and shouting as He goes.  Animals are making sounds of distress, coins and tables are crashing to the floor, and people are hollering at this madman who is causing such chaos in their ordered world.
Over the centuries, church folks and Bible students have wanted to tone this Jesus down a bit.  They would tell He was not really angry, He was just expressing some righteous indignation at the injustice and exploitation He witnessed in the holy place of Israel.  If we listen too long to them, there are no shouts coming from His mouth, just words like "You know you shouldn't be doing what you are doing.  Shame on you."  Some would want us to see only this mild mannered Jesus who smiles at everything and does nothing which would cause folks to think He was actually angry.
Personally, I would rather go to the other extreme.  He was angry.  He was way past being angry.  He was fed up with people cheating and exploiting others in a place set aside for prayer and the purposes of God.  Changing foreign currency for the Hebrew currency, or providing animals for sacrifice was not the issue.  The issue was the price gouging and the exploitation of folks who had come only to worship.  How difficult it was for these pilgrims to worship when cheated and exploited by Temple merchants!  What we see in the story is a picture of the wrath of God being directed against those who hinder others from offering worship and prayers.  It is good thing we live in the age we do.  Certainly, there is nothing happening in any of our churches which makes it difficult for people to come for worship and prayer.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday Reflection

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the decision to leave the safety of America during World War II in order to return to his homeland of Germany, he chose a course of action which meant giving up control of his own life.  In this country he was safe.  In Germany he would be in great danger.  He returned home, was imprisoned, and executed in the last days of the war.  When Burleigh Law, a Methodist missionary to what was then known as the Congo, flew his plane over a missionary family and saw them in the hands of bloodthirsty rebels, he chose a course of action which meant giving up control of his own life.  Instead of flying to safety, he chose to land hoping to help those in trouble. When his plane touched the ground, he was shot and died.  When Jesus made the decision to walk into Jerusalem on that day known as Palm Sunday, he chose a course of action which meant giving up control of his own life.  Instead of going where He would be safe, He walked into the stronghold of those who opposed Him and a few days later He was put on a cross to die.
The common denominator in these stories is obedience.  Obedience to God does not take us down a path where there is no risk or danger.  Instead it always takes us down a road of choosing whether or not to give up control of our life for the purposes of God.  Today is a day when pastoral appointments effective in June are being announced in our Annual Conference.  Some are happy, feeling blessed, and some are angry, feeling put down again.  Over the years of being appointed to different ministry settings, I confess to both feelings.  What I confess to often forgetting, and, perhaps, some others have as well, is the ordination moment.  In that moment there is the commitment to go where sent and to serve regardless of where put.  It is a moment of obedience talk.  It is a moment of choosing to give up control of one's own life.

Looking back I realize what I could not understand when the Bishop's hands were placed on my head.  It is easy to talk it, but hard to walk it.  It is easy to talk about giving up control, but hard to live it.  Jesus did it when He walked into Jerusalem.  After almost a lifetime I am still working on it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The House With No Windows

I suppose it must be some kind of professional malady that causes me to see church building on any taken journey.  It is not that I start out looking for them, they are in plain view, and my eyes cannot help taking me there.   While many look alike in many ways, each one is different and unique.  Today on the way to my destination, I saw this pre-fabricated building long and high with a steeple adorning its top.  It was new since I passed that way some time ago.  The older smaller sanctuary sat alongside to be used for some other purpose now that the worshipping congregation  has a new home.  The new sanctuary is still small,  only a bit larger than the first one, but certainly newer and, no doubt, the source of much congregational pride.  But, the thing I noticed immediately about it was that it had no windows.  Solid walls stretched from front to back on both sides. 
A church with no windows is something I have never served in my long years of ministry.  Certainly, there have been some where the stain glass windows made it impossible to see what was going on outside, but still sunlight and shadows filtered in and flitted across the colored glass.  I wonder about  a church with no windows.  Was it an oversight to put folks in such a closed in place?  Was it an economic decision and a way of cutting cost?  Was is to keep those inside from being distracted from what might be happening on the outside?  Or, was it a way of keeping what was happening on the outside from affecting those who sat before God on the inside?  If the folks there managed to get God on the inside, there would be little way for Him to get out.  Maybe such was part of their thinking.
Reality suggests that none of the above really apply.  Sometimes folks just do things with worship places without really thinking too much about the questions it might raise in the minds of those who pass by.  Sometimes folks just do not really give much consideration to what the design and architecture of a worship place might suggest about those who worship in the holy space.  But, the truth is that worship places speak to those who sit and listen.  As many over long generations have discovered, a place of worship is a great place to meditate and ponder the things visible as a way of getting in touch with the Invisible One who dwells, not inside our buildings, but in our hearts.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

No Marker Needed

Once upon a time there was a beautiful stretch of road surrounded on both sides by large spacious fields filled with crops growing toward harvest.  For over thirty years I have traveled that road watching it slowly change from rural to urban.  Where farmers once coaxed crops from soil, urban planners now cover the black dirt with sheets of concrete joined together by unending ribbons made of gray asphalt.  A landscape once covered with straight rows of corn and soybeans is now adorned with the banners of fast food and the sprawling undisciplined clutter of suburbia.  A part of me grieves every time I pass along that way.  Yesterday's journey was no exception.
Today, though, was like the final straw.  Maybe, the final twist of the knife.  A small wooden frame church which I have watched for years was jacked up and sitting on a huge trailer ready for night to fall so it could be slipped quietly out of its holy place to some other life.  Long years ago the congregation left, either as those who had departed to heaven, or as those dispersed by the pressures of urban squeeze.  When the people left, a sign reading "For Sale" was planted in the ground and now it, too, is gone, having served its purpose as did the church building.  Passing by, it seemed that the secular urban culture had finally squeezed the life out of it.  Next time I pass that way, it will be gone.  Someone should put a marker on that holy ground saying people once encountered God on that spot, but it is only something to think about, not a reality to expect.
I wondered as I sped on down the road if one day someone might put up a marker on the earth saying, "A Church once lived and breathed here."  And then I remembered something Jesus said,"...I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."  (Mt.16:18)  Ah, yes.  If the church can push down the gates of hell, then it will surely not fall when squeezed and pressured by a secular culture which seeks to take its place in the world.  No marker will ever be needed.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Advice to Cardinals

These days will be remembered in the Roman Catholic tradition as the time when a new Pope was elected.  Even now the Cardinals of the Church have gathered in Rome to enter into a Conclave which will provide the forum for the election of a new spiritual leader to guide the Catholic Church.  As one who has for some 40 years observed and participated in the election of many church leaders and officials, I have a few guidelines which might be helpful.
First, never.  Never elect anyone who wants, desires, or seeks a position of power in the church. They likely have something up the sleeve of their robe or dress shirt.  Let the position find the person.  Beware the person who seeks the position.
Secondly, elect someone who is a proven spiritual leader.  If he can type and answer the phone at the same time, all the better, but do not elect someone simply because he can do such things. 
Thirdly, eliminate the one you think is the chosen one from your ballot.  If he really is God's chosen, God will find a way to place him in the position of leadership.  Trust God.  Do not let personal agendas hinder divine action.
Fourthly, choose after prayer--and more prayer and not because of favors owed from past horse trades.
And finally, seek only one thing and that is that God's will be realized and affirmed by the appointed process.
Too often our choosing leaders for the church becomes nothing more than a version of the secular political process.  Perhaps, such speaks of our inability to turn loose and trust God to do what is best.  When it was necessary to replace Judas, the Apostles used a method which allowed God to work.  We may think it a bit suspect, but it can never be more suspect than some of the ways we choose those to lead the church.