On Rediscovering Joy At Easter

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the first Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about heresy, the paradox of Easter, and destroying lilies in worship, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 1 – Year A

 

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Devotional – Matthew 6.28-29

Devotional:

Matthew 6.28-29

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

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In a few hours I will gather with members of the community for a Service of Death and Resurrection for one of St. John’s long-time members, Gracie Jackson. During my first two months serving at St. John’s (almost 4 years ago), I tried to visit as many people as possible from the church community, particularly those who could no longer attend worship on Sundays. I want them to know that the church still cared about them and that they were in our prayers regardless of their presence.

Throughout those first months I was welcomed into a great number of homes and learned so much about Staunton and the impact St. John’s has had throughout the decades. One of my first visits was to the Jackson home where I sat and talked with Lenard and Gracie Jackson. But we didn’t sit for long. Instead, they wanted to give me the grand tour including the basement workshop and the green house in the backyard. There were plants everywhere but one in particular was striking and unlike anything I had seen before. Lenard explained that it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, and like the name implies, it only blooms at night. At the time, I casually mentioned my interest in the plant and we continued the door.

However, a couple days later Gracie told Lenard that he HAD to invite me over to witness the Night-Blooming Cereus in all it’s glory. (Lenard recently told me that in his life there were always two ways to doing things, and both of them were Gracie’s!). So at 10pm Lindsey and I drove over to the Jackson house and the four of us sat in their living room in our pajamas patiently waiting for the plant to do its magic.

When the right time arrived, we huddled in the green house with the dark sky coming through the windows and the cactus bloomed right in front of us. It produced the most exquisite scent and filled the room with its glory. And in that moment I was struck by the holy space we were sharing and was reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

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That Night-Blooming Cereus was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen and I never would’ve experienced if it weren’t for Gracie’s insistent invitation. Similarly, our faith is something that is offered to us as an invitation. We can read all about the Lord in Scripture, we can pray privately on our own time, but when we share our faith with another person it can bloom in the most exquisite of ways.

I am so remarkably grateful for the time I got to spend with Gracie, and for the many ways she embodied God’s grace for me.

On Working The Crowd

Matthew 21.8-9

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.

We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.

And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.

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You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.

You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?

Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.

Jesus knew how to work the crowd.

And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.

We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.

And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.

The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.

Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”

Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.

Such is the reality of worldly power.

But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.

Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?

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Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.

I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.

Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

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We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.

And that brings us to Romans 8.

Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.

But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.

When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.

Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.

Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.

You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.

Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.

And in so doing, we will suffer.

But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.

We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen

Devotional – Job 19.23-25

Devotional:

Job 19.23-25

O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

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Last Thursday, while my wife, son, and I were visiting family in Alexandria, I received a phone call about one of St. John’s long-time members having died. Ruth Cassidy joined the church weeks after it formally began back in 1954 and while it was still meeting in a basement down the road. Ruth was easily one of the kindest people I ever had the chance to spend time with, and she will be greatly missed by our church community, and by her family.

A couple years ago I received a phone call about Ruth’s husband Howard, and it was clear that he was close to the end of his life. And so, I made my way over to their retirement home and when I walked into the room Ruth was sitting next to her husband, she was lovingly holding his hand in hers, and he had just taken his final breath. I, not wanting to intrude on the holiness of the moment, slowly started to back away but Ruth insisted on me sitting down with her on the couch. She immediately started asking me questions about my family and St. John’s and I was still in a state of shock; I was overwhelmed by the totality of the moment, and the fact that Howard had literally just died. Ruth continued to ask me questions, but I wanted to acknowledge what had just happened. It took a couple minutes, but I finally mustered the courage to ask: “Ruth, are you okay? I mean, Howard just died…”

She looked right into my eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, everything is fine; I know where he really is.”

Rarely have I encountered such faith, such hope, and such love as what I regularly experienced through Ruth Cassidy. Like the biblical character of Job, she had an assurance about the way things really are. In that holy and profound moment immediately after her husband died, I could almost hear the words of scripture floating in the room with us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

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Ruth’s assurance, her blessed assurance, was one worthy of our emulation.

Do you know that your Redeemer lives? What words or thoughts would you want to engrave on a rock forever? Can you feel the Holy Spirit moving and breathing into your life? Are you filled with an assurance about who you are and whose you are?

O that my words were written down and engraved forever! I know that my Redeemer lives! And that at the last he will stand upon the earth!

On Why We Need The Passion On Palm Sunday

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing the one and only Dr. Eric Hall (Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Professor of Peace and Justice at Carroll College) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for Palm Sunday during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Eric gave us a lot to think about particularly regarding Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn more about Jesus Christ Superstar, the parody of the passion, and the average lifespan of a donkey, you can check out the podcast here: Palm Sunday – Year A

 

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Long Live The Revolution!

Romans 8.12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

I love going home to visit family. There is just something special about visiting the old haunts and showing off a baby to make me really nostalgic for the past. Last week Lindsey and I spent some time up in Alexandria with my family, and it felt like nothing, and everything, had changed. For instance: When I went to the grocery store I bumped into a couple people I used to go to church with, but then when I drove out on Route 1 all the old buildings were gone and were replaced with town homes. Time, like a river, moves and though it looks the same, everything changes.

But perhaps the thing I enjoy most about going home is spending time with my grandmothers; Gran and Omi, both of whom are now great-grandmothers to Elijah. I know I’m biased, but I do have the best grandmothers in the world. One represents all the good southern hospitality that Petersburg, VA has ever had to offer and the other represents the refined qualities of old Europe with her charm and presence. They could not be more different from one another, and yet they are incredibly close.

Anyway, whenever I head home, whether it’s for a day or a week, I always plan on swinging by both of their homes unannounced. And last week was no exception.

Both visits were similar – we had the usual chit chat, we caught up on all the other family members, we shared stories about Staunton, and then we watched Elijah crawl all over the place. During our time together we learned about different health concerns, new aches and pains, and were unable to confront the reality that one day, perhaps not for some time, but nevertheless one day, they will no longer be here.

Each visit ended with both of them asking us to stay longer, while Elijah fussed for food or for a nap. And both visits ended with the exact same words from both of my grandmothers: “I just wish I had something to give you.” To which one looked around the room as if to give us something off the coffee table, and the other went upstairs and literally took a painting off the wall and put it in our hands.

I just wish I had something to give you.

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

Inheritance, being an heir, is always a complex matter. I wish it wasn’t true, but I’ve helped families prepare for funerals when more of the conversation around the table was focused on who was receiving what than what hymns or scripture would their now dead loved one want in their Service of Death and Resurrection. At the moment when a family needs to be together almost more than ever, they were already marking the territory of their hopeful inheritance.

Most of the time, we can’t choose what we inherit. Our parents or grandparents might think something has special significance for us, and therefore leave that item for us in the will, but rare are the times that we get to declare what we shall receive.

And there are others things that we have no choice about inheriting. We get the good and the bad, the responsibility and the privilege, the shame and the pride.

Frankly, three of things that determine our lives more than anything else come to us without a choice at all: We do not choose the family we are born into, we do not choose the color of our skin, and we do not choose the economic status of our families. We inherit all three without any action of our own, and those three things set us on a trajectory that we can rarely alter.

And of course there are things we inherit through the sands of time that we’d rather erase; like the celebrities who get their DNA tested for television shows about genealogy only to discover that their ancestors were part of the Nazi regime, or were slave owners, or participated in the near-eradication of the indigenous peoples in this country.

Inheritance is a complicated and confusing thing. Are we nothing more than the genes and the history we inherit? Can we break from the tyranny of expectation and what it means to be an heir? Who are we really?

St. Paul says that we are children and heirs of God!

Our inheritance, unlike that which we receive from our families, is totally different from anything that has ever existed. Moths and rust do not corrupt it; thieves cannot break in and steal it. It cannot be lost in the fall of the stock market, or burned in the night, or taken by the government in the so-called death tax.

Our inheritance is our hope while everything else appears to fail. It promises a future when we cannot imagine there being anything left for us in this life.

            It is nothing short of the glory of the Lord.

However, and this is a big however, there is more to this inheritance than smiles and rainbows and resurrection. It comforts AND it afflicts.

We receive something so remarkable and inexplicable as heirs with Christ, but it also comes with a cost. Receiving this gift puts at risk our financial security, our reputation, our social position, our friends, our family, our everything.

This is the revolution of faith.

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We are fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, we shall receive resurrection, but we also suffer with the Lord.

The time is coming, and is indeed here, when the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be raised high. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and do not put your trust in things that will fade away with the blowing of the wind. You need only faith the size of a mustard seed. Ask you shall receive. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will live.

Have you ever heard anything more revolutionary in your lives?

Everything about our existence changes with the inheritance of the Lord: Our finances change when we realize that all we receive first comes from the Lord. Our families change when we realize that all who do the will of God are our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Our worldviews change when we realize that God is contending against the powers and principalities here and now.

All that we held so near and dear before will wash away when the tide of life comes in. Moths will eat away at the fabric of our perspectives, thieves will steal the wealth that we think determines everything, but there is one thing that endures forever: Jesus Christ.

This is nothing short of revolutionary. And to be honest, it’s gotten a lot of people killed throughout the centuries, including the One in whom we lie and move.

That’s one of the things we struggle to remember, here in our comfortable Christianity; Jesus was a revolutionary. He was not killed for loving too much. He was killed for calling into question who was really in charge, for confronting the elite about not taking care of the poor and the marginalized, and for telling the truth.

Jesus was a revolutionary and calls us to join the revolution.

            But here in Staunton, we don’t feel very revolutionary.

We like what we have: good schools, perfectly manicured lawns, children that come home to visit, vacations, golf courses, solid retirement portfolios. We can’t imagine being called to leave our families, or go to prison, or even lose our lives for the sake of the gospel. Why do we need to risk anything when we already have everything we want?

We, the people who have this remarkable inheritance through the Lord, can take all kinds of risks that the rest of the world fears. We know where all of our gifts really come from and that we can give them away, we know that our time is a fleeting and precious thing that we can give away, we know that even our lives are worth giving away because they were first given to us.

We can, and should, be reckless with our lives because we can afford to be. We’ve been given the greatest inheritance in the history of the world. Why aren’t we doing anything with it?

There was an uncle who had amassed a great fortune throughout his life, he started his own business and invested wisely, but had no children to leave his wealth to. However, he did have a couple nieces and nephews who patiently waited with baited breath for him to die so they could reap the benefits of the inheritance. While they should have been committing themselves to their educations and their careers, they just daydreamed about what they would do with the money as soon as their uncle died.

And then he did.

The siblings all met with the family lawyer after the funeral, trying their best to appear mournful while hiding smiles of utmost glee. The lawyer took his time reading through the important legal jargon until he came to the inheritance: To my nieces and nephews I leave… they gripped the leather chairs with anticipation… my library.

“Library?” they all thought silently though one of them accidentally shouted it out loud. “What about our money?!?!”

They all left in a storm of rage angered beyond belief, but the youngest nephew waited behind, and he signed for the inheritance library, and gave the lawyer the address of his house.

For days he unpacked box after box of books and started stacking them wherever he could. It began feeling like the books were becoming the new wallpaper, and for years they just sat their collecting dust. And the longer they remained, the more the man resented the books.

His life continued on, he got married, had a few kids, got divorced, lost the job, and started spending all his time at home. As he aged he felt like the books were there to taunt him, mocking him from every corner. And then one day, it a fit of built-up rage, he ran to the nearest stack, grabbed the top-most book and threw it across the room.

WHAM! The hardback left a perfect rectangular indentation in the wall from the force of the throw while the aging man breathed heavily with his hands clenched tightly together. He then slowly walked over to the wall to pick up the remaining remnants of the book to throw them away when he noticed something strange on the floor: a couple $100 bills.

It only took a moment, the slightest measure of time, before he realized what he had just discovered. The missing fortune of his uncle was in the library of books, hidden in between the covers, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Revolution

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We are joint heirs with Christ, and have received an everlasting inheritance that is our present and future glory! Are we letting this inheritance gather dust on the bookshelves of our lives? Do we know what we’ve received?!

God is bold and generous with reckless abandon to the point of giving his only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life. God is concerned with the cries of the needy and plight of the marginalized. God brings down the mighty and raises the lowly.

And so should we.

            Long live the revolution! Amen.