Thursday, April 23, 2015

Holy Spots

Recently, I found myself approaching a small town in west Georgia called Geneva.  Miles before the city limit sign, I started anticipating being in a particular place in that town.  Geneva is not a big place.  In fact, if you blink once or twice while going from one side of it to the other, you just might miss it entirely.  A few stores, a few more houses, a post office, and a lot of dreams and hopes that died are about all that is left.

So, what was there to anticipate?  Years ago there was a Methodist Church on its main road.  I used to see it often when I lived in a nearby town.  But, like other places housed in buildings in Geneva, it closed.  The last sermon was preached and the people scattered.  After a few years the building was sold and moved to another location where it serves another purpose.  In subsequent years of passing by that spot, I always looked that way.  What I usually saw was a vacant spot grown up in weeds.  Uncared for was the only way to describe the holy spot.  My recent trip revealed that it was still a empty space, but someone had cleaned it up.

I found myself wondering all sorts of things as I journeyed on past it.  Did the new owner cut the weeds, or was it done by the some act of the town council?  Why does the ground remain vacant?  Do people still look that way as I did and remember a Methodist Church?  Can space made holy ever really be un-holy even though it becomes empty or filled with activities that speak of evil instead of good?  Are the prayers of the people of that abandoned and disappeared church still being worked out in the Kingdom of God?  Is it not still present and alive in that community through the faithful living of some of those who sat in its pews and knelt at its altar?  Could it be true that churches can live long years after the church building disappears?  And, just maybe....for an eternity.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Table Talk

She sat down at a table next to ours in a local eatery.  She joined two women who were mostly finished with their soup and salad.  The volume of the next-to-our-table conversation made it impossible to ignore.  The late arrival quickly announced she was not eating.  "I'm fasting," was her first comment.  "Why?" she was asked by her two eating companions.  "I need to lose a few pounds," was the answer.  And for the next ten minutes, the one fasting basked in accolades like, "You don't look like you need to lose weight," or, "I wish I could be so disciplined.  The one not eating food was sure enjoying eating all the praise!

It is not unusual for folks to use the Biblical word, "fasting" when "dieting" would be a better choice.  The young woman who spoke was not trying to promote some theological controversy; she was simply speaking the language of today's secular culture.  Still, this preacher's ears were rebelling at what was being proclaimed.  The Bible is clear that fasting is not about weight control, but about management of the soul. It is not a physical discipline, but a spiritual one.  And since Jesus' words in Matthew's gospel instruct fasting to be done in secret with assurances that the Father in heaven who see what is done in secret will reward, those who talk about their "fasting' in such a way as to receive the accolades of their listeners have received all the rewards they are going to receive. 

At its core fasting is a spiritual discipline which results in spiritual blessings.  It is something of ourselves being offered to God.  A few pounds may well be lost as an indirect result of fasting, but the important thing which can really be lost is the unbearable weight of an ego that has claimed too great a hold on our living.  Fasting puts us into that relationship with God where such transforming inner soul work can be done, not by us, but by the Father in heaven.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Retirement Ruminating

Back in those pre-retirement days, I spent much of my time working near a sanctuary and I often used it as place of meditating on the Word.  Now, the sanctuary is no longer a door away.  Instead there is a cow pasture just out the front door so when I contemplate a passage of scripture as I did back in the sanctuary days, I call it ruminating instead of meditating.  Cows ruminate.  I have learned a lot about their ways by watching.  Cows ruminate, or chew their cud.  They swallow their food, bring it up, and chew on it while they sit down.  Interesting. 
Today I have been ruminating, or chewing on a passage of scripture from which I plan to preach tomorrow. While I usually preach on one of the gospel resurrection accounts, tomorrow I am going to focus on I Corinthians 15.  Those who are Biblical students will immediately remember the chapter as one of the great chapters on resurrection.  What has struck me today has been a little aside Word which seems to hang out in my mind.  As Paul writes about what Christ did for us through His life, death, and resurrection, he twice uses the phrase, "in accordance with the scriptures."  While my sermon is going to go in a different direction, all day I have chewing on that twice used phrase.
What Jesus did was in accordance with the sacred Word.  As I have chewed on it today, I have found myself thinking often about a life lived in accordance with the sacred Word.  First, in order to live our life in accordance with the scripture, we must read the Word.  Not casually, but seriously.  And, as we do it, we need to lay aside some of the aids to understanding for a bit so that the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to do some teaching before our mind and heart gets cluttered with something someone else thinks about a passage.  What a novel idea.  Living life in accordance with the Scripture. Ruminate.  Chew on it awhile.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Final Sojourner

In the beginning it seemed like a journey from the Mt. of Transfiguration to Jerusalem.  Along the way the destination changed.  Instead of a journey to Jerusalem, it became a journey to the cross, and then finally, a journey to death.  Early on we may not have thought of the journey ending in death, but Jesus surely did.  So many lives intersected with His on the  journey.  Some stayed for almost all of it.  Some were on that road with Him but for a fleeting moment. 
According to Luke the last one who sojourned with Jesus to death was the centurion.  While it is true he is mentioned only after Jesus has breathed His last breath, his presence afterwards pre-supposes his presence before.  The centurion was a witness to it all.  He heard the mocking.  He saw the suffering.  He heard the last words of Jesus and watched Him die.  What Luke wrote about the response of the centurion to the death of Jesus is a word of witness.  The Word says, "When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, 'Certainly this man was innocent.' "  (Luke 23:47)  Both Matthew and Mark record him saying, "Truly this man was the Son of God."  Regardless of the version, it is surprising that the last word of witness comes not from a disciple, but from one like the centurion.  Something powerful and mysterious took place on the hill that day and it was not missed by the man of Rome.

Too many times we are the ones who really miss what happened that Friday long ago.  The church hardly gives it notice as it moves from Palm Sunday to Easter.  And when something is offered on Good Friday to focus the attention of the world on the cross, it is often downplayed with a public invitation which speaks of a "brief service" or something attached to a meal to entice participation.  There is no argument with the Apostle Paul about the resurrection being the central truth of the gospel, but without crucifixion there is no resurrection.  At the cross we behold the power of God's love, the mystery of redemption, and the source of our hope for a forgiveness that enables us to live without constantly having to look behind us.  Let us pray today that we, like the centurion, have some moment of being so overcome by it all that we join him in praising God.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Remembered One

A piece of music which comes from the Community of Taize has us singing the lyrics, "Jesus, remember me, when You come into Your kingdom.  Jesus, remember me, when You come into Your kingdom."  Simple and powerful.  As it is sung over and over and over, those singing experience the words hanging in the room long after the music has subsided.  Of course, the words bring to mind the repentant thief who died alongside of Jesus outside the gates of the city on a hill of death known as Golgotha.

Two men besides Jesus died on that terrible place.  Unlike Jesus who was innocent of any crimes, or sins, those two who died on either side of Him were convicted criminals whose crimes earned them the punishment of execution on a cross.  One of them joined with the soldiers in the last moments of his life and mocked Jesus calling Him to prove Himself by saving Himself and the two dying with Him.  The other rebuked  his partner in crime and offered words of confession as he said, "...we are getting something that we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."  (Luke 23:41)  And then turning his words to Jesus he said, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into Your kingdom."

Unlike the blind man who asked to see or the lame man who wanted to walk, the thief on the cross asked for nothing except to be remembered in the Kingdom by Jesus.  He did not seek out the blessings of the Kingdom for himself because he knew himself as one who deserved neither blessings or a Kingdom.  He asked only to be remembered by Jesus in His Kingdom.  He knew he had no share in God's Kingdom and so he asked only that his name be remembered in that holy place by Jesus.  Such would be more than enough.  Such would be enough for it would be more than he deserved.  And, to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The One Not There

Three men died that Friday on the hill called Golgotha.  When Jesus was nailed to His cross and endured the painful thud as it dropped into a hole dug to hold it, He only had to look to either side to see two others on their way to death.  Like others who have shared this journey with Jesus, they have remained nameless through the centuries.  All we know is that both were criminals who by the law's decree deserved to die.  One died shaking his fist in the face of God and the other died with a hope of seeing the face of God in paradise.
One who was not there but who should have been there was Barabbas.  Guilty of both insurrection and murder, he was living on that first century's death row without any hope of appeal when the mob in Pilate's court cried out for him to be released instead of Jesus.  A custom of the day provided for the release of one prisoner on that day and the crowd incited by evil called for Barabbas to be set free.  So, Jesus goes to the cross.  He goes to a cross that had been prepared for the murderer.  The one not there on that hill who should have been there was Barabbas.  Jesus took his place.
And so now we finally behold the cross with all its horror.  It was not just any cross, but the cross of Jesus, our Savior.  According to the divine plan, Jesus in some mysterious way took Himself the consequences and punishment for the sins of all the people of the world.  The Word tells us that what we rightfully deserve for our sins is death--separation from God and all that is good and holy.  Instead of  you and me dying, it is Jesus.  On that day He literally took the place of Barabbas.  If we stop and ponder what we are seeing as we watch the agony and death of Jesus, we will surely realize that as sure as Jesus took Barabbas's place, He took my place, and your place, too.  Like Barabbas who was not there but should have been, so is it true of each one of us.