The Politics of Easter: A Reflection

Matthew 28.3-5

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
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A few weeks ago I told the church I serve about my experience of voting during the Virginia Primary. When I arrived at my voting location I was disappointed with the limited number of participants. But by the time I left, the parking lot was starting to fill rapidly.

When I got into the building I went over to the table to receive my instructions and eventually got set up with a machine to cast my vote. While my wife finished registering and voting I stood off to the side.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into a building and starting shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

The two most well known stories of the New Testament bookend Jesus’ life. The two most well attended church services in the year similarly reflect these bookends: Christmas and Easter. As a pastor, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some of the hardest services to plan and preside over. And honestly, I feel guilty about how much they stress me out. They’re supposed to be the most joyful and incredible worship services in the year, and they leave me feeling anxious.

Part of the problem is the fact that a whole lot of people show up on Christmas and Easter who otherwise never attend church. That means that we’ve got one hour to show them how powerful regular worship can be in the hope of getting them to attend worship between the major holidays.

The other problem is the fact that most of the people who attend on Christmas and Easter already know the story. It has been told for two millennia and a 15-minute sermon from a pulpit is unlikely to shine a new light on either narrative.

But the biggest problem with Christmas and Easter is the fact that many of us read ourselves into the story as the wrong characters.

On Christmas Eve we hear about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and Joseph to share with them the Good News that they will be bring God in the flesh into the world. They, of course, are terrified by this news but the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” We like to stop the story there because it fits well with our sensibilities. We like to think about being afraid of starting something new and God showing up to reassure us.

But the story goes on to talk about Herod’s fear. Herod heard about a messiah possibly being born in Bethlehem. Out of fear that this child will one day usurp his power, he ordered all of the babies born in Bethlehem to be murdered. Obviously, this is not a popular topic for Christmas Eve. But it is important. It is important because most of us have never, nor will we ever be in a position like a Mary and Joseph. We have families and a government that support our way of life. We know we have people to count on, we know that there is money in our bank accounts. Many of us will never know the fear that Mary and Joseph experienced on that Christmas Eve.

But many of us can connect with Herod’s fear about people in a faraway place whose existence threaten our power and way of life. (Think Syrian Refugees or ISIS)

On Easter we hear about Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ dead body, and instead they experience an earthquake and an angelic presence. The angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” But he scares the Roman guards nearly to the point of death. We like the story to focus on God’s power over death and Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We like to hear about how Jesus’ victory over death opens up the gates of heaven for people like us.

But the story specifically sets up a distinction between the women at the tomb, and the guards at the tomb. And if we’re honest, most of us are like the guards in the story; we’re Caesar’s people. We might know about loss and suffering, we might’ve experienced the awful power of death in a loved one or friend, but we’ve never had to tread lightly for fear that our political system will murder us for speaking out, we’ve never known what it’s like to watch someone die on a cross and then be placed in a grave, we’ve never had to guard our political opinions because we live in the land of freedom.

But what we do know is that most of our lives are pretty good. Many of us have the right skin color, the right passport, the right education, the right sexual orientation, and the right amount of wealth to be rewarded in our society.

And Jesus, the guy Christians claim to worship on Christmas, Easter, and every Sunday in between, came to make the first last and the last first.

So maybe we should be afraid. We should be afraid because God raised his Son from the dead and calls us to sacrifice our own lives for people who betray us. Maybe we should be afraid because we’re told to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Maybe we should be afraid because Jesus tells us to love our enemies, whether they support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

When angels show up in scripture, but in particular at Christmas and Easter, they come to people who have every reason to be afraid and they bring words of comfort: Your Son will be God in the flesh; Jesus has been raised from the dead. God speaks to the outcasts, to the last, least, and lost and brings them Good News.

We, who have nothing to fear, we who are so comfortable and content in our lives… Maybe it’s time to recognize that following Jesus’ will disrupt the comfort and the contentment we feel. Maybe it’s time to start praying for and acting on behalf of people who are belittled and broken by our political system. Maybe it’s time for us to stop ignoring everyone with a different way of life, particularly if have a different skin color, a different passport, a different education, a different sexual orientation, or a different socio-economic status. Maybe it’s time to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and let it shake our lives.

 

 

(with thanks to Jason Micheli for inspiring parts of this reflection)

Earthquake! – Easter Sermon

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. And 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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It was dark but I felt invincible. I was seventeen years old, with a fresh driver’s license in my wallet, and we were driving to the church in the middle of the night on Easter Eve. My friend, Will, and I had come up with a plan on how to make this particular Easter one that no one would ever forget. We were young and dumb.

For as long as I could remember, the church always set up a tomb on the front lawn of the church during holy week. It was the size of a small shed and it stood out like an oppressive eye sore to remind everyone what Easter was really about. From Good Friday through Saturday, volunteers would stand guard by the tomb wearing Roman centurion costumes and would try to look stern while also waving at people that drove by. It was the church’s attempt to reexamine the greatest moment in the history of the world, but after years of seeing the same men stand by the same tomb, it had lost its impact.

On Easter Sunday, someone was always tasked with getting over to the church before anyone else to roll back the stone on the front of the tomb. That way, while people were scrambling to find parking spots before the service started, they could remember how the stone was rolled away when the women and first disciples discovered Jesus’ resurrection on the first Easter.

But for Will and I, it was time to up the stakes and make it an Easter worth celebrating. We were tired of the same resurrection stories, we were tired of people entering and leaving much the same on Sunday, and we were tired of the familiarity that had become Easter.

So we snuck out in the middle of the night, much to the later frustration of our parents, and we drove over to the church. Under the cover of darkness we rolled back the stone that covered the entrance to the tomb, and we carried it across the church lawn to the main sanctuary entrance. There is a slanted roof above the main doors that everyone can see, and we decided it was the perfect place for the stone. Of course, we hadn’t planned on how difficult it would be to lift the wood framed faux stone that was as tall as us on to the roof, so we had to back my car up under the gutters and toss the stone up onto the shingles.

It was perfect, and I can still remember how quickly we peeled out of the parking lot with proud looks on our faces. We were going to recapture the power of Easter for our church.

Much like Christmas Eve, I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited to see the faces of all the people in worship when they noticed the stone on the roof, I couldn’t wait to hear our pastor make a comment about God’s cosmic power to roll back stones, even onto the church roof, during his sermon, but mostly I was excited to see people excited.

I arrived with my family in our perfectly coordinated outfits with a lot of expectation. I could not keep back a permanent grin on my face the whole way to the church, and when we got to the parking lot I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Nothing.

Sure enough the stone was still on the roof of the entrance, it was in clear sight for everyone to see, but not a single person had noticed it. They were all walking in and talking like it was like every other Sunday.

Even worse, during the time before the service started, I moved around the sanctuary to eavesdrop on all the conversations and not a single person mentioned the miracle on the roof. I don’t remember a word for the sermon that year because I sat disappointed in my pew with my arms across my chest.

The joy of my expectation had been replaced with frustration at the lack of reaction from the congregation.

When the service ended, my family got in line with everyone else to shake the pastor’s hand. We slowly made our way forward until I lazily offered my hand and the pastor grabbed it and pulled me close.

He said, “I was praying in the sanctuary this morning, and I heard God speak to me.”

“Oh, really?” I said dismissively.

“Oh yes, and he told me to tell you that whoever put the stone on the roof better have it back down by tomorrow morning. Happy Easter!”

Have we become so content with Easter that it no longer shakes us? Are we so entitled that we have accepted the gift of eternal life without recognizing how transformative it is? Does Easter still shock us the way that it should?

The women got up early and made their way to the tomb. They were expecting it to contain Jesus’ dead body, they were still grieving over the death of their friend, but they knew what they had to do. And suddenly there was a great earthquake! An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was frightening and he scared the Roman guards to such a degree that they became like dead men.

But then the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid! I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he has been raised! Go tell his disciples the good news.” So the women made haste with great fear and joy to share the gospel and suddenly Jesus met them on the road and said, “Greetings!” The women ran to Jesus and knelt to worship at his feet, but he said, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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This is shocking stuff. Jesus, dead on the cross, was placed in a grave, and three days later he rose. An angel appeared with an earthquake to roll back the stone at the tomb and proclaim God’s love through the resurrection of his Son. And at the end, the women respond in fear, joy, and worship.

Easter is an earthquake the shook the entire world, and more than that, it shook time itself. No more would God’s created beings be limited to the confines of earthly life, no more would the grace of God be limited to a particular time and place, no more would death have a sting.

This great gift of resurrection, the gift of Easter, shakes the very foundations of existence.

But does it still shake us?

We like Easter to be easy on the senses and on our consciences. Many of us like to dress up in our best clothes, and wear the right colors, and have an Easter egg hunt. Some of us are like the church of my youth who experienced Easter like any other holiday. Others are like the first disciples who were ready to get back to their lives after their Lord died, but then he showed up on Sunday and shook the world.

On Friday I came to church at about noon to take up our sanctuary cross and drag it through Staunton. This has been my holy week tradition since becoming a pastor and it always yields interesting results. The first year I carried the cross I was largely ignored; no one spoke to me or even acknowledged my presence. Last year was totally the opposite, people honked at me and waved their hands; I even had a few people yell curse words toward my direction.

This year however, I was met with reverence and ignorance. During the first hour or so I lost track of how many people rolled down their windows to shout “Amen!” or “God Bless!” When I walked up and down Beverley Street many people placed their hands into the posture of prayer, or bowed their heads, and even some people made the sign of the cross across their body. It was powerful for me to experience how much the cross was interrupting their lives. I witnessed God’s power made manifest in the cross on my shoulder as it met people and reminded them how far God was willing to go to transform the world.

But as I was getting ready to turn and start heading back, I saw a young family standing on a corner and I figured that I should keep walking. The husband and wife were cautiously sipping on their to-go coffees while their 8-year-old son was jumping to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. As I got closer they all started to notice the strange man carrying a cross on his shoulder, and they remained silent as I passed by.

I was only a few feet away when I heard the son exclaim: “Mom! That guy is carrying a giant ‘X’!”

“No honey,” The mother said, “That’s a cross.”

While I continued up the hill I couldn’t help but laugh at the episode I had just experienced. But then my laughter turned to sorrow, for I realized that young boy had no idea what Christ did for him. He had no knowledge of Christ’s magnificent sacrifice on the cross to open up the gates of heaven. He had no understanding of the earth-quaking good news of Easter.

Every year Easter interrupts ous sensibilities and behaviors. On this day we feel the earth shake beneath out feet because God has conquered death. We are jostled to and fro by the empty tomb because it radically reshapes the way we live.

The resurrection is about power and grace. In it we see how God took something like the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it into the means of celebration. On Easter, God transformed the tomb in the same way that he did on Christmas in a virgin’ womb; God made a way where they was no way. On Easter, God changed the world.

So come and taste the goodness of God in the bread and the cup. Listen for salvation in our songs and prayers. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news. Hear it and let is shake your lives. He lives! Hallelujah!

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Why The Cross? – Good Friday Homily

John 19.28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

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I get asked a lot of questions. I’ll be in a bible study when the conversation moves to an area of confusion and all eyes will turn to me and someone will inevitably say, “What does this mean?” Or I’ll be in my office and someone will walk in to share about all of the trials and tribulations they’ve experienced and finish by asking, “So where is God in all of this?” Or, like after the atrocity in Brussels this week, I’ll receive an email that says, “How could God let this happen?” People are looking for answers.

On Wednesday morning I gathered all the little preschoolers into the sanctuary to talk about the cross. I wanted to show them the cross we have here in the sanctuary and eventually have them march outside in a line while I carried the cross. For most of them, Easter is about the bunny and the candy so anything I can do to make it more about Jesus is important.

They were all sitting nice and quiet in the pews as I explained Jesus’ final week, and that he died on a cross to help us get to heaven, and most of the kids nodded along. But one sat in the back pew with her eyebrows in an expression of “huh?” I tried to keep moving us forward but I could tell it wasn’t connecting with her so when I saw her shoot her hand up with a question I wasn’t surprised.

She asked, “But why did he have to die on a cross?”

In the moment I tried to answer her question in a way that only a four year old could understand, but the question has stayed with me nonetheless. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?

Well, he had to die on a cross because that’s the way the Romans executed those who they regarded as a threat. Today we have drones and missiles that we can fire from far away in order to remove ourselves from death, but during the time of Jesus, they were hung high in the air so that all could see what happened when you challenged Rome. The cross was a sign of death and fear.

But that answer is not good enough for those, few, of us who gather in a place like this on Good Friday. If you’re here right now, you get that discipleship is more than just Easter. You get that Jesus was more than just a nice guy. You get that there is something more to this cross than symbolic remembrance.

Jesus died on a cross to reveal the heart of God.

The cross is where God’s grace crosses our life to create a new way of living.

We’ve got crosses everywhere and sometimes we forget how terrifying they were and should be. It is our central icon and we have them displayed in our sanctuary, some of us have crosses around our necks, and some of us even have them tattooed on our bodies. But notice: our crosses are empty. It would disrupt our Protestant sensibilities to have a murdered and graphic Jesus hanging on the cross for everyone to see. We would rather have the clean empty cross to remind us of the resurrection. But if we lose sight of the fright and discomfort of the crucifixion, the empty grave becomes cheap grace.

So, to be here on Good Friday implies a willingness on our part to confront the cross and we also want it explained. We want to know ‘why.’

But Jesus doesn’t offer us an explanation.

Whenever the religious elite, or the crowds, or his disciples questioned him, he would respond in cryptic parables that left them more confused than in the beginning. Jesus doesn’t offer simple explanations. Instead he offers love.

Explanations will never calm our anxieties in regard to suffering and tragedy. The people who try to explain the death of a young child by saying that “God wanted another angel in heaven” transform God into a murderer for the sake of an explanation. The people who try to explain a disabled child as “God’s way of punishing the mistakes of the parents” make God in a torturer for the sake of explanation. The people who try to rationalize terrorist attacks with “God is using them to show us its time to go to war” morph God into a selfish, violent, and manipulative entity for the sake of explanation.

Love, not explanation, is required when we are faced with tragedies. Instead of telling a grieving mother that God wanted her baby, we are supposed to show up with love and not answers. Instead of blaming sinful or faithless behavior for the disabilities in a child, we are supposed to love them with every fiber of our being. Instead of dropping bombs and sending drones to wipe out the Middle East we are supposed to see them as our brothers and sisters.

To be Christian is to enter into suffering. We do not look away from tragedies, we do not abandon those who are alone, and we do not isolate ourselves from the ways of the world. Instead, because of the cross, we are tasked with showing up for others when there is literally nothing we can do to save ourselves from suffering.

So, we could take the time to outline the connections between Jesus hanging on a tree with the first sin of Adam and Eve taking fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We could go deep into rationalizing the cross through theories like God used Jesus as bait to hook the devil from hell. But the truest response to the cross, the way we are called to go forth from Good Friday, is to look at the cross and take up our own to follow Jesus. Amen.

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Why Remember? – Maundy Thursday Homily

Mark 14.22-25

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

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Why is this night different from all other nights?; A worthy question for any of us who took the time to gather in this place to remember Jesus’ final night. But the question is also asked of Jewish children who gather together for the celebration of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God brought forth all forms of life, which culminated in the creation of humankind. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, and for his descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham eventually fathered Isaac who grew to father Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was renamed Israel, which means: “you have struggled with God and prevailed.” Israel fathered Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his other brothers. But during his time in Egypt he became prosperous and eventually brought the gathering of Abraham descendants to live in the new and strange place.

At first everything was great in Egypt, the Hebrews lived comfortably, they had food to eat, homes to live in, and opportunities abounded. But over time, as it happens, the Egyptians grew jealous of the Hebrews and began to subjugate them. They were forced into labor, and eventually every male child born to a Hebrew woman was killed for fear that they would grow to rebel against the Egyptians.

Moses was born during this time and was saved by his mother by placing him in a basket to float down the Nile River. Moses grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God to lead God’s people out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.

God commanded Moses to have the people to slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors; this was to be a sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while slaughtering the firstborn males of Egypt. While waiting in the night, God implored the people to gird their loins and prepare to depart because their time of delivery had come near.

Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set aside to remember the sacred and holy moment when God delivered God’s people out of slavery.

Jesus had gathered in the upper room with his friends to celebrate Passover. They sat around the table to remember what God had done long ago and be thankful. While they were eating Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

While they were remembering God’s actions from the past, Jesus said, “I am doing a new thing. I am delivering my body and my blood for you and the world.”

He took the Passover celebration, and assigned it to the great sacrifice he was about to make. Not only would the meal be a remembrance of God’s mighty acts, but also a testimony to God’s actions in Jesus Christ. The disciples would remember God delivering the people out of bondage in Egypt, and would now remember Jesus delivering the people out of bondage to sin and death. Whereas God brought the people into the holy land through the waters, God was now about to bring the people into resurrection through Christ’s sacrifice.

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This is Good News for us, but it is also heavy news. Many of us buckle under the weight of knowing that Christ would give his life for us, but then we remember that Peter and Judas were at the table that night as well. We remember that in short time, the disciples who received the bread and cup would abandon Jesus to his cross and death. But he gave his life for them and us anyway.

So here we are, millennia later, remembering Jesus’ give of body and blood in the bread and cup. We remember God’s mighty acts of deliverance for the Hebrew people. But God’s power is not limited to the distant past. It is made available to each of us here and now.

At our tables, we are going to remember what God has done for us before we feast. With the people next to you I want you to discuss the following questions: What has God done for you? How have you seen God at work in your life recently? And what has God delivered you from?

 

I have seen God at work with our youth. Each week the youth of our church gather for an hour to share communion, fellowship, and bible study. We have examined some of the great moments from both the Old and New Testaments, we have learned about one another’s lives, and we always take time to remember Jesus’ final night with his disciples. Over the last year I have seen the youth transformed by the grace of God. Whereas they began meeting sheepishly and nervous to share about their lives, we now know each other well enough to check in on everyone without have to be prompted. Whereas they might have giggled during the first time we celebrated communion, they now respectfully and faithfully outstretch their hands to receive the bread and the cup.

Through the work of this church, God has delivered our youth from lives of selfishness to lives of appreciation. They have been delivered out of isolation into a community that genuinely cares about their well-being. They have experienced God’s love and it will stay with them forever.

Whenever we gather at God’s table, and particularly on Maundy Thursday, it is a time for us to confess where we have fallen short, recognize our forgiveness, share peace with one another, and give thanks to God for our deliverance. We remember where God has showed up in our lives, and the lives of others, because it retunes us into God’s frequency. We remember Jesus sharing the bread and the cup because he has shared it with the world. We remember in order to transform the world. Amen.

Devotional – Holy Week

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

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Prayers for Holy Week:

Maundy Thursday

O Lord, we confess that when we pray before meals, we do so out of habit rather than faith. We look out over out tables filled with food and we forget to remember those for whom such a meal is rare. We feel the presence of our friends and families in the seats next to us and we forget to remember people who are alone. We eat our fill and we are content. God of Life, afflict our comfort in our meals so that we will really remember that all of these gifts come from you. Work in our hearts to remember that whenever we eat, and whenever we drink, we are called to give thanks for the great gift of your Son so that we can be more like him between our meals. Use the bread and cups of our tables to make us appreciate the Bread and the Cup at your table. Amen.

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Good Friday

Great God, why did Jesus have to die on a cross? Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people? What will happen to us when we die? Where are you in the midst of the suffering in our lives and in the world? We ask questions like this, O God, because we want explanations. We see our churches like courtrooms and we want to hear your justification. We believe that we are entitled to know the ‘why?’ to every question we could possibly ask. So Lord, replace our selfish desires for explanation with ears to hear proclamation. That instead of looking for the meaning behind every little thing, we might be content with giving thanks for what you have done whether we can understand it or not. After all, how could we possibly comprehend, with our finite minds, the infinite wonder of your grace? Amen.

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Easter Sunday

God of Grace and God of Glory, we give thanks to you for you are good, and your steadfast love endures forever. We remember this day that you have not abandoned us to our own devices, you have not abandoned us in the midst of trials and tribulations, and you have not abandoned us in death. Through the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, we see a glimpse of our future resurrection with you in the new kingdom. So Lord, as we gather with friends and strangers alike to celebrate your victory over death in Jesus, give us glad and generous hearts to rejoice in the knowledge that your love truly knows no bounds. Shake our sensibilities like you shook the earth when the tomb was opened. And resurrect us here and now to walk in the ways of Jesus and transform the world. Amen.

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The Final Week

Mark 11.7-10

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village atop the Mount of Olives to find a donkey. The day had come for Jesus to enter the holy city of Jerusalem during Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 people entering to celebrate. On a Sunday morning, while the crowds gathered with palm branches, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Five days later he would be killed on a cross. This is what happened during the final week.

The two disciples procured a donkey and Jesus prepared to make his triumphal entry. Riding on a donkey was a richly symbolic act, one that can be traced back to the time of David. To arrive in the holy city on a donkey calls back to the prophet Zechariah who declared, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

As he rode toward Jerusalem, droves of people arrived on the streets and they began to waves palm branches while he passed. They were so enraptured by Jesus that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the road with their palms in order to create a royal pathway for their king. They shouted things like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered Jerusalem with at least 1,000 soldiers to demonstrate the power of Rome during the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It was a show of force to prevent the people from revolting against their imperial rulers while they remembered that time when God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt.

But with Jesus, there was no show of force. Instead of armor and swords, the people took off their cloaks and waved palm branches. Instead of cowering away in fear they rejoiced in the humble man on the back of a donkey.

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While the distance between the Lord and the city grew closer and closer, while the crowds were dancing and shouting, he began to cry. He looked out over the holy city and he wept for Jerusalem. He wept knowing that he was entering as the prince of peace, and within the next few days the very people who were begging for his salvation with their palm branches would reject him and call for his crucifixion.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday, Jesus made his way to them Temple with countless other Jews. With the episode that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the humble man with expectation of deliverance. As his feet walked over hallowed ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who were taking advantage of all the Jews in Jerusalem. The prices for clean animals necessary for sacrificial rituals were vastly inflated to the benefit of the merchants and the religious elite.

Jesus, who had spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and outcasts, Jesus, who had told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He walked straight over to the tables and he lifted them off the ground and disrupted everything in the temple. He threw the merchants out of the Temple and declared that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers.

The elite and powerful, who had heard about this mysterious man claiming to be the Son of Man, now had their attention on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming him into the city, but to disrupt the economic scheme they had established was going too far. From this point forward, the tides began to turn against Jesus. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or to remove him completely. For as long as Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, their power would be in question, and they would no longer make the money they had planned on.

  And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him after his entry in Jerusalem, they were now even more eager to listen to the one who had throne the merchants out of the sacred space. The Pharisees and religious leaders began to interrupt his teaching and demanded to know whom he thought he was to speak with such authority. Jesus, the one who shared parables with his disciples and followers, used parables to respond to their accusations. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful and lost sight of their responsibility to take care of God’s creation and he labeled them “hypocrites.

He accused them of neglecting to practice what they preached, he called them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and he told them they had failed to do the one thing required of them which was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus had a following, he had entered with a display of peace, but he had removed the leaders’ economic disparity, and now he had called them hypocrites. They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the love of God in all times and in all places.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples made comments about the beauty and the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus responded by foretelling the destruction of the temple and his own body. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in Jerusalem and called for his disciples to stay vigilant no matter what.

He used parables to describe the call of his disciples and ended by saying that his followers would be blessed in the end if they had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner.

Word about Jesus continued to spread fast throughout Jerusalem and the leaders learned that he was now prophesying the end of their rule and the destruction of the temple. Gone was the joy the people felt on Palm Sunday. Fear was present with the leaders and the elite.

  And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued to teach and gathered with his twelve disciples in the upper room for the Passover celebration. Around the table they remembered God’s great work in the delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the Holy Land; they remembered God’s actions in the lives of God’s people including themselves. But before the supper was over, Jesus did something radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body, and I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, passed it to his friends and said, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and for the world.” Even though he knew that in short time his disciple Judas would betray him he still shared this incredible meal and gift with his friend.

Later that evening, they arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to keep awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and he communed with his Father and prayed about what was about to happen. But he ended the prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In essence he prayed, “Let thy will be done.

When Jesus finished praying, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus. The disciples fled into the distance. Jesus was dragged back into the city to be tried for blasphemy.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The leaders demanded that he be crucified and executed, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. He then brought Jesus before the Jewish people and they chanted with loud and bellowing voices, “Crucify him!” The same people who had gathered on the road with palm branches yelling “Save us!” were now demanding Jesus’ death. In order to appease the crowds and the Jewish leaders, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed an opulent robe on his soldiers, and they made a crown of thorns for his head. They forced Jesus to carry his torture device, a cross, on his shoulders all the way to the place called The Skull. The crowds berated him on either side while he marched forward to his death. “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now?!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

He arrived at the top of the hill and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and hung him in the sky. For six hours Jesus’ life slowly slipped away while the crowds continued to mock him from the ground. With some of his final breaths he offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With two thieves on either side hanging on crosses, while some of his disciples watched from the distance, he died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey proclaiming and inaugurating a time of humility and peace. Jesus rebuked the elite for preying on the poor and weak. Jesus confronted the hypocrites in leadership. Jesus called his followers to love God and neighbor. Jesus shared his final meal with the one who would betray him. Jesus was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross in the sky. Jesus forgave his murders from the moment of his death. And Jesus died so that we might participate in his kingdom and salvation. Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 118.24

Devotional:

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
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The topic of “blessings” occurs regularly in our Bible studies at St. John’s. We can be reading from the Old or the New Testament, we can be reading a Psalm or an Epistle, we can be reading a genealogy or one of the miracles of Jesus, and the conversation almost always turns to how we take out blessings for granted. There is something inherent in scripture that works like a mirror, forcing us to confront ourselves in the text.

Yesterday morning, while we were reading about the episode of Jesus with the woman at the well, we started off by praying over the text, and before long one of our group members started to reflect on her blessings: “I am so blessed. I’ve got a great family and home. I have a church that cares about me. But I am even more blessed than that. I wish I could realize that every single day, every single breath, is a gift. And I wish I could stop taking these gifts for granted.”

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For many of us, life feels like a train that keeps moving in one direction and we barely have time to admire the scenery passing out windows. Time rolls like a blur and we neglect to be thankful for the present because we are always looking toward the future. The psalmist’s words then confront us in our fast-paced lifestyles: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I use these words to mark the beginning of worship at St. John’s because gathering in our sanctuary is a gift that God has given. It is not something we should take for granted. But can you imagine how differently we would live if we started every morning with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of your life every morning rather than just once in a while?

This week, let us use the words of Psalm 118 to mark our mornings. Instead of waking up and rushing to catch up with the train of life, let us take a slow breath and say: “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” If we do this, we will begin to stop taking our lives for granted, and we can give God thanks for all of our many blessings.