Alive In Death – A Baptism Homily

Ephesians 5.1

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Dear Carson,

I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was. 

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When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.

And I meant it.

Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.

And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.

Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.

Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.

In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.

Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?

Apparently we do.

The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.

While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise. 

Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.

You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.

Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.

But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.

Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.

Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.

And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything. 

In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.

Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross. 

My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.

Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.

That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.

The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven. 

Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.

We do not deserve what has been done for us. 

This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper. 

But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.

In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.

And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us. 

In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.

We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.

However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough. 

You are enough.

And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.

It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.

Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.

I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.

Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.

So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.

But I was honestly just being selfish.

I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.

But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.

Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.

You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.

Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

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Nothing New

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 

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On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.

As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus. 

But that’s not actually new.

All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter. 

Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.

It’s about what has been done for us.

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In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!

To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible. 

And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.

And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not. 

#ChurchToo 2

2 Samuel 11.26-27

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.

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David saw something he wanted, a naked bathing woman, and he used his power and privilege to bring her to his bedchamber. Knowing full and well that she was a married woman, he nonetheless raped her and she became pregnant.

When David found out the result of his sexual assault, he worked to have the woman’s husband murdered in order to cover his tracks. And after the husband’s death, David sent for the woman and she was brought back to his house, and she bore him a son.

Names are important in the bible, and we must not forget that all of this happened to Bathsheba. But when the biblical writers stop using a name, or never use it in the first place, we know what the role of the individual is really like. Bathsheba went from the comfort of her home and her marriage to being nothing more than an object of the king. Her agency disappears in the story as David has his way with her and covers up his tracks.

But God was displeased.

The Lord then decided to send the prophet Nathan to hold up the mirror of shame to David by way of a parable. And when David heard the deep and frightening truth of the parable, by reacting harshly to his own fictional character in the narrative, he realized that he sinned against the Lord.

BUT WHAT ABOUT BATHSHEBA?

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I am thankful for Nathan’s willingness to call truth to power, to put David in his place. I am even thankful that David realized his sins against the Lord. But what about his sins against Bathsheba and her husband? What about his sexual assault and murderous plotting?

Sometimes when we hear about forgiveness in the church it is whittled down to, “If you ask God to forgive you, all will be forgiven.” And in a sense this is theologically true, but it does not account for reconciling with the people we have sinned. It does not make up for the horrible things that have been done to individuals in the church, or under the auspices of the church.

The cross of Christ indeed reconciles ALL things, not just our relationships with God. But the cross of Christ also compels us to repent for how we have wronged God AND neighbor AND creation.

When Christians gather at the table to feast on the bread and the cup, it is not enough to just walk away feeling right with the world when we have let the sins against our brothers and sisters continue without reconciliation.

The story of David’s trespasses is a prescient reminder of what happens when we let our sins percolate. We might not be guilty of the same sins as the beloved king of Israel, but God still uses Nathans to speak truth into our denials such that we can know how we have sinned against God AND one another. And, God willing, the truth of our prophets will also compel us to seek out those we have wronged, and begin the difficult and challenging process of reconciliation.

An Inconvenient Truth

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordained him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payments to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same salve, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have mad mercy on your fellow slave, and I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I don’t know what it is about weddings, but people really let themselves go when they gather to celebrate two individuals joining together. Maybe it’s the beauty of a ceremony focused on love, or perhaps it’s the atmosphere of family members and friends rejoicing together, or maybe its just the abundance of free alcohol, but weddings are a rare moment where people appear to be the truest selves.

If you were here last week you’ll know that I wasn’t. While Michael was bringing the Word I was flying back from Maine where I had just presided over a wedding ceremony for one of my best friends. And I want you all to know that I missed you. I missed being here in this place worshiping together, I missed the choir, I missed seeing all of your beautiful faces.

That’s not to say that I had a bad time at the wedding. On the contrary, I had a great time. People were so over-the-top with their compliments about the wedding sermon and ceremony, perhaps because of the libations, or maybe because many of the people in attendance had bad experiences of weddings in the past and I offered something different. I don’t know what it was, but people seemed to like it.

Now, I want to share with you all that I made a few mistakes at the wedding. During the prayer before the dinner at the reception I made an offhand comment about how people needn’t hide their wine glasses behind their backs when they talk to me because, after all, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. I even prayed about how we should celebrate together and learn to party like Jesus.

If only I hadn’t used those last three words. Because, throughout the rest of the evening, a slew of people who were really enjoying themselves would wander over, slap me with a high five and scream, “Party like Jesus!”

Another mistake: I never quite know what to do when the bride and groom kiss for the first time. I mean, I’m right up there next to them and that moment is a favorite for photographers. So, right before I said, “You may kiss the bride” I took a step back and bowed my head so as not to appear too creepy in any photographs. However, what I didn’t anticipate was how my baldhead would appear like a shining beacon in the photos that are now all over Facebook.

But all in all, it was a remarkable celebration and I count myself blessed to have been part of it.

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During the reception, while I was milling about and striking up conversations with people, there was a youngish man who approached me and outstretched his hand. He made a few kind comments about the ceremony and as if he felt guilty due to my presence he said, “You know, I haven’t been to church in a long time.” I hear that kind of thing all the time and I never know how to respond so I just don’t.

And then he continued, “But,” he said, “If church was like that ceremony I’d be there every Sunday.”

I should’ve said “Thanks” and politely walked away. But instead I opened my big mouth: “Church shouldn’t be like that every week.”

“Why not?” he asked.

            “Because, if church was like that every week, we wouldn’t need it.”

I’m not sure what has happened over the last few decades in the church, at least in the United Methodist Church, but there was a time when one could expect to hear just about the same sort of message every Sunday: we are sinners.

But no more. Instead of confronting that rather inconvenient truth, we want to make believe that the church is full of saints. We’d rather hear about grace than sin, we want to talk about mercy and not sacrifice, we want to be built up and not broken down.

We want our Sunday services to look more like celebratory wedding ceremonies than the confrontational and convicting services of the past.

It’s as if, because we want to appear so perfect on the outside, we have forgotten who we really are on the inside.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone in the church who has sinned against me? Seven times?” And Jesus said, “You’ve got to forgive seventy-seven times.”

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Notice the context of Peter’s question, because it’s important. Forgiveness is often used in this overwhelming sense of totality. If someone gossips about me at work, should I forgive them? If someone cuts me off on the highway should I forgive them? But Peter doesn’t ask about anyone sinning against him, he asks about people who sin against him in the church.

Forgiving someone from the church is very different than just forgiving an individual from the community or even someone on the other side of the world. Frankly, its easier to forgive someone you’ll never see again than it is to forgive someone you’re going to see every Sunday for the rest of your life.

And notice the fact that Peter assumes he will be the one in a position to forgive. Which is to say, Peter assumes he will be the one who has the power to forgive.

Peter was a sinner, just like the rest of us. And, just like the rest of us, his chief sin was being blind to the fact that he was a sinner.

The inconvenient truth of our sinful and broken identities is that we expect the world, and others, to be perfect. Peter listens to Jesus and wants to know how many times he should forgive another person. A man goes to a wedding and wishes that church services could be filled with joy and happiness every single week. We want to know how many times we have to forgive someone because we are so convinced that others will sin against us and we forget that we sin against others as well.

Jesus’ response to Peter probes and prods us to ask ourselves, “How can we be at peace with one another?” But more than that, even more than forgiving one another seventy-seven times, Jesus’ words are all about how God has first forgiven us.

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The man at the wedding just stared at me while people were gyrating on the dance floor. He thought about my comment for what seemed like a mini-eternity and then finally said, “Well, I think more people would go to church if it were like that every week.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but the church isn’t in the business of growing for the sake of growing. The church is about telling the truth. And sometimes, offering and receiving the truth hurts.

I don’t like preaching about forgiveness because I’m so bad at it. I don’t like having to stand it this place and talk to people like you about it, because in doing so it’s like I’m holding up a mirror and realizing, all over again, that I’m a sinner.

Maybe you’re like me and you hold grudges, or you get frustrated with people, or sometimes you just can’t imagine forgiving someone for what they’ve done.

Maybe you’re like me and you want to put conditions on forgiveness.

Maybe you’re like me and sometimes the golden rule of, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” turns into “do unto others as they have done unto you.”

Offering forgiveness isn’t easy.

            Receiving it might be even worse.

Jesus doesn’t leave Peter and the disciples with the seventy-seven times of forgiveness. He goes on to tell them a story.

A king forgives the debt of one of his slaves, who then berates a fellow slave for a much smaller debt. When the king receives word of what happened, he confronts the first slave about his inability to be merciful and orders him to be tortured. And then Jesus ends with this: “so it will be with you if you do not forgive your brother and your sister.

Jesus’ story, this parable meant to shed light on the virtues of forgiveness, is purposely intense. It is meant to be shocking. There is no way a slave could ever owe a king so much money, there’s no way the slave would ever be able to pay it back, nor would a king ever forgive such an outrageous debt.

But that’s what forgiveness is really like. It feels impossible and out of touch with reality.

Someone can do something that seems so small to others, but to us it can feel like a debt that is unachievable. We can be so fueled with anger over what people have done to us that we might want them to be tortured for what they’ve done.

Jesus’ response to Peter, to be honest, is pretty irresponsible. I mean, how logical is it to grant unlimited forgiveness? What kind of community can be sustained where individuals will be forgiven over and over and over and over?

But Jesus’ parable isn’t about us! It’s about God.

God is the one who first forgives our debt that we can never repay. Our sin, who we really are on the inside, our prejudices and our judgments and our mistakes, the things that are only known to us are such that we should never be forgiven. If we took the time to lay out all of our sins on the altar, if we listened to one another confess who we really are, we might not be able to look at one another ever again.

My friends, hear this inconvenient truth: You and I, we’re sinners. We’re broken. Some of us more than others, but all of us are sinners.

            That’s not something that’s easy to hear: I know it. I don’t like holding the mirror up to who I really am either.

Jesus knew that those who chose to follow him would wrong one another, that the disciples then and now would sin against each other, that there would be conflict. Therefore Jesus doesn’t offer a way to eliminate or avoid conflict, instead Jesus tells Peter and us what to do with it: We must remember who we really are.

If we are to be peacemakers capable of forgiving one another, we have to remember that God first forgave us.

If we are to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive over and over again, we can only do so when we remember how God first forgave us.

If we are to be the church, then we have to know and believe that church is going to be messy sometimes. We’re going to hear and receive things in this place that will be hard to hear and receive.

The church cannot be a never-ending wedding feast.

Earlier in the service each of you were given an index card and you were asked to write down the name of someone from whom you need forgiveness.

I think it would’ve been all to easy to write down someone’s name you need to forgive and say, “when you leave church today, call them or text them and let them know they are forgiven.” But that would be too easy.

What’s harder is to look at the name of the person you wrote down and think about how, today, you can get in touch with them and ask them to forgive you. I promise it’s going to be hard to do, and it might actually make the situation worse than it is right now. When you have to ask someone for forgiveness you’re forced to recognize that you’re not as perfect as you think you appear to be.

This isn’t going to fix everything; it’s not going to make all the problems in your life disappear. And for that I am sorry. But we have no business, at all, talking about forgiving someone else unless we are willing to ask someone to forgive us for what we’ve done. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 32.5

Devotional:

Psalm 32.5

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

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I want you to take both hands and squeeze them into fists as tightly as possible (seriously). They need to be tight enough that you actually feel strained as you do so. Keep them squeezed and think about something you’ve done recently that could be qualified as a sin. It could be as simple as getting really frustrated when that person cut you off at the grocery store for the line marked “Ten Items Or Less” and it was clear that they had at least 40 items in their cart; or the anger you experienced when your child brought home that less-than-stellar report card; or the shame you felt when you caught yourself flirting with someone while you were currently in a relationship with someone else. Just think of a recent sin.

Now: Quickly release the tension in your left hand. But don’t let go with your right; keep that one tight. You’ll notice that your left hand might have a little tingling sensation from being held tightly for a few moments, but otherwise it should feel relatively normal.

Yet, the longer you continue to hold your right hand clenched in a fist, the more it will start to hurt. At first it was fine, maybe even comfortable, but now you can feel the little aches in all the tiny muscles, you can even feel the blood struggling to flow where it needs to go.

But don’t let go.

Clenched Fist

Think about that same sin again. What did you do with it? Did you let it percolate and grow into something much bigger? Did you confess your sin to the Lord? Did you share your struggle with anyone else and ask for help?

Keep that right hand tight for just a little bit longer.

And now release the tension slowly.

It’s going to hurt. As your fingers gradually stretch back out you will feel stabs of pain in the muscles as your hand regains it’s feeling. And, once you finally flex them all the way out, they’ll probably start curling back into a fist without you trying to do so.

Sin is like our clenched fists. We all sin, every single one of us. From the four-year-old preschool student, to the life-long Sunday school teacher, to the Mom or Dad just trying to make sure the kids have their lunches ready before they leave for school. We all sin.

We can, like our left hand, release the tension of our sins quickly. In the moment we can recognize where we have fallen short of God’s glory and, as the psalmist puts it, we can confess and repent of our transgressions to the Lord and be forgiven. However, most of us are more likely to treat our sins the way we treated our right hand; we let them simmer and boil for far too long so that by the time we actually confess it hurts all the more, and the more likely we are to descend back into that kind of behavior.

The Lord will forgive our sins, but we have to confess them first.

 

Devotional – Genesis 32.28

Devotional:

Genesis 32.28

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

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I gather in the choir loft of the sanctuary with the entirety of St. John’s Preschool every Wednesday morning at about 9:30am. By that time the children have all had an opportunity to get out most of their “wiggles” before sitting down in the stiff church pews and learning a story about God from the Bible. I generally try to start the academic year off with stories from Genesis and make my way through up to the stories of Jesus leading toward Easter Sunday.

When we learn about God making light from Creation, we turn the sanctuary lights off and on and talk about what a great gift it is to have light. When we talk about Adam and Eve hiding from God after eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, we play hide and seek in the sanctuary and talk about how God never stops looking for us even when we’re lost. And this year, when I was foolish enough to teach them about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we played red light green lights in attempts to reflect on how God offers us the wisdom of when to go and when to stop.

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Last week we met in the sanctuary to talk about one of my favorite stories from Genesis: Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to reencounter his brother. But before he can meet his fate in Esau, a strange man arrives in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lesson. And from this struggle he receives a new name: Israel.

In order to bring the story to life, I had the preschoolers line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wresting match. They all came forward and gave it their best shot (some were oddly more prepared for this than others) and I would pick them up and spin them around in circles. When one of our last two year olds came forward, I let him knock me to the ground, but instead of pounding on me like some of the older kids, he wrapped his arms around my neck and hugged me.

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I was then able to stand up with the boy in my arms and tell the kids the most important part of the lesson: God loves us so much that even when we’re angry, God will never let us go.

To be a Christian today almost implies a degree of struggling with God. We want to know why a hurricane, like Matthew, can wage destruction in places like Haiti, the Bahamas, and the East Coast of the US. We want to know why our presidential political system is filled with such vitriolic and hateful language. We want to know why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. Yet, even amidst all the struggle and questions, what a blessing it is to know that God’s love is so strong that God will never let us go.

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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