We’re on Day 22 of our Great 50 Days of Easter, and our lessons turn from Resurrection Appearances to how we are to follow Jesus.  We got the great lesson from Acts 2 where we hear that tons of people began to follow the Way of Jesus and devoted themselves to this endeavor.

It’s enough to make any clergy person giddy.

So that’s what I talk about in my sermon.  Here you go.

Easter 4A—Acts 2:42-47 

            If you talk to clergy about the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, you will probably encounter some good old- fashioned envy.  What we clergy know as well is that in the previous verse we hear the results of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  It’s a pastor’s utopia, with the people spending much time at the temple, with their generous hearts sharing their possessions with one another and the Lord adding to their number each day.  A priest could sit and daydream about such a place for hours.

But then something in our heads pops up and says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.  Such a place doesn’t exist, at least not today.”  It’s easy to give in to this “nostalgia for those biblical days,” as one pastor put it.[1]  But, he warns, “from there it is a short step to nostalgia for our own church’s better days, when pews were full, programs were exciting and we had an impact on the large community.”  We don’t live in those times anymore, for better or for worse.  We live in the here and now, and longing for the past will leave us blind to the present.  It will so shade our understanding of things that we will lose our focus and mission in the present day.

So I want to assure you that this is not a sermon in which I ask why you all can’t be more like those first converts a couple of millennia ago, which would lead to me pointing a stern finger and having you all feel guilty and also questioning your desire to ever come back here again.  I want to live in the present day, and see it for the blessing and challenge that it is.  “Holding all things in common,” and pooling all of our money won’t work today, and in fact, it wasn’t even something that happened in other churches throughout Acts.

Yet I don’t want to go on as if there is nothing to learn from this text either.  This is a challenging piece of scripture if we allow ourselves to hear it.  Rather than imagining clergy nirvana, what might these verses be saying to us in 2011—this post-modern, fragmented, overly-busy world that we live in?

Personally I am not really struck by the sharing of money here, but by the deep building of community that happened.  We’re told that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Those words may sound familiar, since it is the first of five questions asked of us when we renew our baptismal covenant or baptize someone for the first time.  “Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?” we are asked.  “I will with God’s help,” we respond whole heartedly.

They did this, these first followers of Christ.  They devoted themselves to this.  They spent much time, day by day, together.  In worship, in sharing meals.  In living their lives in community.

If I had to speculate about what keeps many of us from this kind of life—that is a life centered on our faith, building community, saying the prayers—I would say quite certainly that for many it is one thing.  Time.  We are so mind-numbingly busy in our day and age that we hardly have time to rest, let alone fully putting our faith into practice.  We are overly scheduled.  Both us and our kids.  Even those who are retired will often say that they have never been busier in their lives.  Often in social settings this topic comes up, and we talk about our over-loaded schedules almost with a sense of pride, each trying to outdo the other.  We think it makes us important.  Or we don’t know how to say no.  Or we are scared to face the demons of our inner life so we keep ourselves busy so that we never have to.

I promised not to head down the road of nostalgia to a time when 24 hours was magically longer than it is today, nor would I stand up here and point a finger saying that you must add more things to your overly-extended calendars.  So how do we do this?  How do we devote ourselves to the life Jesus wants for us as his followers?

If there were easy answers, I could write the book and make a bundle.  Many have tried, of course, and the results are all somewhat unsatisfying.  There aren’t magic bullets in the spiritual life, no pill we can take that will somehow make everything better.  It is, I think, as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction.  I think it takes intentionality and perseverance.  Without either of those two, our faith life will take a back seat to the other distractions in our lives.  And for many of us—a great deal in fact—it’s because we don’t know how to live into this life.  We haven’t been taught how, or given a reason to see its importance.  And that, if I am honest, is because we who are clergy have failed you.  We have for too long felt as if we needed to hold the information to ourselves and give it out in palatable doses, or we think that you aren’t mature enough or intelligent enough to handle such a life, or we think that you won’t listen to us anyway so why should we bother.  Or, if I am even more honest, it’s because many of us haven’t been really taught how to live this type of life ourselves.  And for that, on behalf of all the clergy you have known and let you down, I am truly sorry.

You see, I think Jesus invites us into a better life.  The way life is meant to be.  Peace in our homes, deep and lasting friendships, time set aside for prayer, caring for one another, enjoyment of God’s many blessings, compassion for those who face injustice, having generous hearts, finding fulfillment in the work we do in this world.  But this life often gets lost in the busyness of our days.

I’ve recently discovered a blog written by Michael Hyatt, the chairman of the board for Thomas Nelson Publishing.  He writes a great deal about productivity and the things that steal our time, and about intentionality.  He says that many of us spend more time planning our vacations than we spend on planning our lives.  We live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, experience to experience.  And so we may, like I have been doing this weekend, give hours of our time to watching the Red Sox and Yankees, while also feeling as if we have no time to devote to the life we desire.  If you desire a certain type of life—and I hope you’re like me and desire the life that Jesus wants for us—you have to make a plan.

That sounds so much like a First World problem, but in my understanding of things, I cannot think of any other way to put it.  If we start with the reality of our overly-busy lives (also a First World problem), then most of us cannot address our desire for a new life without intentionality.  If we desire authenticity in faith and devotion to Jesus, we must begin somewhere.  And we begin best of all by making a covenant to look at our lives honestly to see where we spend our time, and then finding a way—even if it’s small—to begin living the life Christ calls us to.

Imagine if each person at St. Mark’s covenanted to spend 10 minutes each morning and each evening in prayer and reading of scripture.  20 minutes a day.  The average adult watches somewhere between 3.5 to 5 hours of television a day.[2]  You may not be the average adult, but I suspect you could find that pocket of time for prayer if you wanted to.

And I want to covenant with you that I will be a priest that provides you with the tools you need to live this life.  I will spend my days by giving you ideas and tips for living this way, in deepening relationships with you, in providing opportunities for you to devote yourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And I will invite you to walk alongside me, and share in this leadership.  I cannot do this work alone–that is a damaging fallacy that has run its course much too long in our churches.  All of the disciples, and apostles were lay people.  They were folks like you who had families and day jobs and had to pay their taxes and all the rest.  The Way Jesus invites us into is not only for those who are seminary trained.  We are all called to walk in this way, to grow and deepen in our faith and to share that faith with others.

If as a community St. Mark’s lived in this fashion, I bet we would see the same sorts of things happening here that they saw in the Early Church.  That we would worship together, sharing meals with one another with a spirit of generous hospitality, praising God for our many blessings and caring deeply about the goodwill of all people.  This is the life Jesus holds out before us.  I pray that we intentionally desire this life for us and for others in this community, and that we devote ourselves to authentically following Christ.  Amen.


[1] Gary Neal Hansen, “Acts 2:42-47 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year A Vol. 2, eds David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Pg 424.

[2] http://www.emarketer.com/blog/index.php/time-spent-watching-tv-tops-internet/ Accessed 5/12/11

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Book CoverI’m behind a bit in posting my sermons.  This was the one from last week.  And this week I preached without a net, as a friend puts it, more extemporaneously and not using a written text.  I thought about recording it, but left my iPhone at home.

So, here’s a sermon to reflect on about Thomas.  Check out the passage here: John 20:19-31.

Easter 2A—John 20:19-31

            I think Thomas gets a bad rap.  I mean our reading starts out with Jesus showing up, saying “Shalom” and the other disciples not knowing it was Jesus until he showed them his hands and his side.  Once he does this, John tells us, then the rejoiced.  It took the whole “hands and side” business to get them to believe it was really Jesus.

But Thomas wasn’t there, for whatever reason, so he missed out.  When the others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he declares that he won’t believe unless he sees Jesus’ hands and side, too.  In other words, if he sees what they have already seen, then he’ll believe.  Thomas does have a flair for the dramatic with his desire to place his finger in the actual wounds, but in the end, he wants what they already got.

Rather than focusing on the doubting aspect of this, I can’t help but notice once again John using the words “see” and “seeing” in this context.   “Seeing” is all over John’s narrative; he made a point of it right from his prologue about the incarnation “We have seen his glory” he writes at the beginning of the gospel.  When he meets some of the disciples, he tells them to “Come and see.”  And of course, we had the story about the man born blind and how the Pharisees couldn’t really see even though they thought they could.

Now, at the tail end of this gospel, we get Thomas.  When Jesus does show up again on the next Sunday evening, Thomas is in the room.  Jesus greets them all the same way, “Shalom” and then immediately addresses Thomas.  “Put your fingers here in my hand.  Reach out your hand and place it in my side.  Don’t doubt but believe.”  Thomas replies with the most direct statement of faith in John’s gospel, “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus replies, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

If we are honest, we can admit that there are many times in our lives when we are like Thomas.  There are times when our faith in Jesus wanes because we do not see him as one who lives and works in our lives.  Instead we hear the accounts of others, how Jesus has appeared in their lives, and we stand off in the distance alone.  We have seen the cross, we know that Jesus died, and we think that resurrection and transformation might be a cruel joke.  We don’t see.  And unless we experience Jesus ourselves, unless we see real proof and not just hear the words of others, we won’t ever believe.

The children’s book The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who is lying awake on Christmas night hoping to hear the sound of bells from Santa’s sleigh.  As he lies awake waiting, he finally hears something, but it isn’t the ringing of bells, it is the hissing of steam and the squeaking of metal.  He jumps out of bed to see a train waiting in front of his house.  He sees a conductor get off the train, look at his pocket watch and wait.  The boy tiptoes downstairs and runs to the train, as the conductor shouts, “All aboard.”  “Where are you going?” the boy asks.  “The North Pole,” he replies, “This is the Polar Express, are you coming?”  Excitedly, the boy gets on the train.

It is filled with other children all still in their pajamas and robes, and they are served the best hot chocolate the boy has ever tasted.  They join together singing Christmas carols as the train continues to travel.  They look outside to see the trees of forests, and the lights of towns in the distance.  After coming over high mountains, they began to travel across the Polar ice cap, and the boy can see the North Pole in the distance, the lights glimmering in the night.  The children learn that the elves are gathering in the center of the city to see Santa give the first gift of Christmas.  “Who gets the first gift?” the boy asks.  “Santa will choose one of you,” the conductor replies.

Upon arriving at the stop, all the children climb out to see the most wonderful spectacle before them.  Hundreds and hundreds of elves are gathered together, with Santa’s sleigh in the middle of a circle.  The reindeer are impatiently moving around and their bells make a magical sound.  Santa walks over to the group of children, and says, “Let’s have this one here,” pointing to the boy.  The boy comes to Santa, they walk to his sleigh, and then Santa asks him, “What would you like for Christmas?”  The boy knew he could ask for anything in the world, but what he really wanted was one of the bells from the sleigh.  Santa smiled at him and asked one of the elves to cut off a bell.  He then held it up, and exclaimed, “The first gift of Christmas!” and gave the silver bell to the boy, who put it into his pocket.

Almost immediately, the boy was helped down from the sleigh and Santa took off, as the children were led back to the train.  When they had gotten back on, the other children clamored around the boy, asking to see the bell, and when he reached into his pocket he felt nothing but a hole.  The bell had slipped out.  Just as they were going to go out and look for it, the train lurched, and began to move.  They were going home.

The boy was devastated.  When he the train finally reached his house, he said good-bye, and walked sadly to his house.  “Merry Christmas!” the conductor shouted, and the Polar Express let out a whistle blast, and the boy waved from his open door.

The next morning, the boy and his sister, Sarah, opened their gifts.  When they had opened all that were there, Sarah found a small package by the back of the tree.  It was addressed to the boy.  “Found this on the seat of my sleigh.  Get that hole fixed!  Mr. C.” Inside was the silver bell.  The boy was ecstatic, and he rang that bell so he could hear the magical sound again.  “That’s a pity,” said his mother.  “It seems to be broken.  It’s not ringing at all.”  The boy learned that when he shook the bell he could hear it, and so could Sarah, but his parents didn’t hear a thing.

He writes at the end of the book, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all those who truly believe.”

And in the end that is what it comes down to for us.  Jesus can offer us wholeness and peace, but only if we believe.  Jesus can transform us into being Easter people, into people who live in and help bring about resurrection in our lives and in the lives of others through his power, but only if we believe.  Jesus is here each week, and when we come we are given the chance to see him, we are given the chance to reach our hands out and touch him.  We have the opportunity to see him standing here before us for what he is, our Lord and our God.  But to see him, we must truly believe.

As we come to this table to receive his body and blood, we are able to hold him in our hands, and to receive him again.  “Peace be unto you,” he says to us.  “Shalom, completeness, wholeness be yours.”  If we believe he can do his work in our lives, we can become the people he has called us to be.  People of the resurrection.  People who live transformed lives.  And in this way, he can send us out to continue to do his work in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are told at the very end of our Gospel lesson that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which aren’t written down.  And in the next chapter, John says the same sort of thing, claiming that if they were written down that the world itself wouldn’t be able to contain the books that could be written.  I think one of those reasons is because Jesus is still working signs in the presence of his disciples.  Jesus is still working in us and there continue to be signs of his work.  We see it in our lives and in the lives of others. With Easter comes true peace and wholeness for those who believe and declare Jesus to be both Lord and God.  May we always be blessed as those who truly believe because we have seen the very presence of Christ working among us, and may we always go from this place sharing the message of Christ’s peace with others.  Amen.

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I love movies.  Given the phase of life we’re in right now with younger kids, however, we don’t make it to the theater as often as I’d like.  So we use Netflix.

We recently watched “Henry Poole is Here.”  It’s a comedy drama that got recommended to us along the way.  I think it sat in our queue for some time, if I’m honest.

What makes this unforgettable is the question of how do we find resurrection or miracles in real life?  Henry moves back to his old neighborhood because of the circumstances of his life (don’t want to spoil this), and even though he wants to be left alone, people keep interrupting his life.

And he doesn’t like it much.

But they’re persistant, and they see things Henry doesn’t. And they keep at it.

I won’t say anything else, but this: I wonder why it’s so easy to get into a funk and find that it’s easy to overlook all of life around us.  Will Henry wake up?  Will we?

Great film for the Easter season.

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Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

We celebrate the resurrection of Christ anew this day, and it was wonderful to share this first Easter with the good people of St. Mark’s.  Great day with wonderful weather this morning, an amazing egg hunt outside, and great joy!  He is risen, indeed!

Easter Day 2011 — John 20:1-18

It’s early on Sunday when Mary goes to the tomb where they buried Jesus only a couple of days before.  They had already wrapped his body with linen cloths and spices, so there was no reason for her to come to the site, except of course because she was mourning the loss of this one she loved so much.  She did what many of us have done after a death, she went to the grave, to touch the place where his body lies, thinking about all the things that had filled her life before, wishing she could have it all back.

When she gets there, things aren’t as they were.  The large stone has been pushed back, and immediately she thinks the worst, that grave robbers have done their evil work.  In a rush of fear and uncertainty, she turns around and runs to the place where the disciples are staying, and tells them that someone has taken Jesus’ body.

Immediately, Peter and John—that disciple whom Jesus loved—spring up and run to the garden where Jesus was buried.  They sprint, probably hoping to catch the perpetrators of this crime, or because they don’t believe Mary’s words.  Maybe she got it wrong, went to the wrong place, or just imagined this due to her grief.  They get to the garden, and find the stone rolled back.  John hesitates a moment or two outside the cave, but Peter runs right into the tomb.  He sees the linen cloths lying there, but nothing else.  John then comes in to, and sees the head cloth rolled up, the wrappings just lying there, empty.  Our gospel writer says he believed, but we don’t know what he believes.  Is it Mary’s story?  Is it something else?  We don’t know.  We just know that after they saw this, the two disciples turn around and leave the tomb and go home.

But Mary stays behind, standing near the tomb, weeping.  The rush of emotion she is feeling would have been incomprehensible. She watched as this teacher she followed was put to an excruciating death, and she probably took part in preparing his body for burial.  There is denial and anguish in just losing him, but then to come and find that his body has been stolen, that was just too much to bear.  She is overcome by it all and breaks down.

In the midst of all this, she bends down to see for herself.  She looks into the empty tomb, and surprisingly sees these two men in white.  “Why are you weeping?” they ask.  “They’ve taken away my Lord,” she stammers, “and I don’t know where they have taken him.”  Then turning around she notices this man, probably the gardener coming to do his morning work.  He asks her the same question, “Why are you weeping?”  She thinks he may be the one who did something, and says, “Sir, if you’ve carried him off, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

He looks down with compassion on her and utters a single word: her name.  Immediately the recognition of this word washes over her.  He knows her name; she can’t believe but it’s true, the one she’s been looking for is standing before her.  He is very much alive.  He is risen.  “Teacher!” she exclaims, and she rushes to give him a huge hug, so glad to have him back.

But Jesus won’t let her touch him, “Do not hold on to me,” he tells her.  He has yet to ascend to his Father. Surely she’s confused about this since she just wants to grab his hand and run back with him to the disciples to show them that he is alive.

Instead, Jesus instructs Mary to deliver a message to the disciples, and say that he is on his way to the Father.  We aren’t told if anything else is said, or if Jesus just disappears or walks away.  We only know that Mary makes her way back to disciples and ecstatically proclaims that she has seen the Lord.

It is at that moment that Jesus’ resurrection truly happens.  The mysterious event that took place in the tomb happened without any earthly witnesses.  Peter and John and Mary all came to the tomb after the fact.  If all they had seen was the emptiness, they cloths just lying there and nothing else, they would have assumed that Mary was right, that someone had come and stolen the body.  The shell of what was left behind didn’t explain anything.  It only left unanswered questions.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, ‘Mary!’ and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening — not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.”[1]  If we came here this morning looking for the resurrection by peering into an empty tomb, we will miss it all together.

The resurrection plays out in ten thousand places, when we encounter the risen Lord.[2]  It’s in the daily living, in sharing a cup of coffee with a friend, or biking a trail, or reading a book that impacts your life, or writing a letter to a child you sponsor in Africa.  It’s in the time of quiet reflection and prayer, in helping out at the homeless shelter, or putting an extra box of Cheerios in your cart for the food bank.  The resurrection happens when you help an elderly neighbor with her yard work, or you seek to be reconciled with someone you love.  Resurrection takes place in all the big and small ways we share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken and hurting world.  It happens when we come to this place and listen to God’s word, and break the bread and drink from the cup.  It happens when we live as his disciples and are about the work of his kingdom, living lives of repentance and joy.

Some come to Easter morning expecting just the opposite of Mary.  Some come expecting the empty tomb and the stone rolled back and the body gone. But that isn’t where the resurrection is.   Sometimes we hold on to the notions in our minds about the way things are to be with Jesus and us, the way our interactions with Christ have been before, primarily on our terms, and think that that is the resurrection in our lives.  We may like the way things have been and want to keep everything the same.  But when we encounter the risen Christ—when we encounter the resurrection—things change.  “Don’t hold on to me,” he says to Mary and to us.  “You can’t keep me the way I was before.  Things are changed, and you are changed as well.”

You see when one story ends, another story always begins.  We cannot hold onto the earthly Jesus anymore than Mary could.  Nor can we hold on to the earthly memories about the way things were before in our lives, whatever we use to mark that time before.  Before my wedding, or the start of my new job.  Before the accident or the day I graduated, or before my world fell apart, or before my children were born.  No matter what happened before, we cannot hold on to it, nor onto the way we encountered Christ at that time.  Rather we must look ahead.   We need to see that the resurrection is not a return to the past, but a movement to the future.

What will resurrection look like in your life now?  Will this season of Easter be the time when you recognize the risen Lord in a new way?  He comes to us today offering us life—forgiveness and joy and hope and love.

The miracle of Easter that began in the garden continues on.  It happens to us when we hear the gardener say our name—Mark! Laura! Rebecca!  Tom!   We experience the mystery of this day when we turn to Jesus, recognizing him as our Lord, and joyfully exclaim, “Teacher!”  We experience the resurrection when we let go of the way things should be and run to those who share our lives with us, and ecstatically proclaim that we have seen the Lord.  That is the beauty of this day.  That is why we gather on this morning to celebrate.  That is why we are here at this table, so that we too might experience the risen Christ.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape from the Tomb” Christian Century. April 1, 1998, Pg 339.  Online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=640

[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

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My take on the perennial question via my sermon for Good Friday.

Good Friday— John 18:1-19:42 

            It’s a question that gets asked every year, I suspect.  Usually the younger ones are able to verbalize it, but I know that many of the adults are thinking the same thing.  It was my 7 year-old niece Lily who asked it this year to my sister.  “Mom,” she said, “why do we call it ‘Good Friday’?  It doesn’t really seem ‘good’ at all.”

Quick answers won’t do.  They leave too much unsaid.  A story is better.

A long time ago the Hebrew people came to live in Egypt because there was a drought in the land where they had been staying.  The man in charge of preparing for this famine was named Joseph, a Hebrew himself, brought to Egypt ahead of his family through very difficult circumstances yet by the will of God.  Many, many years later a Pharaoh came into power who didn’t remember Joseph.  That Pharaoh hated the Hebrew people, and he put them in bondage.  He made them his slaves, and he wanted all the baby boys that were born to the Hebrew women to be killed.

Except one of those boys wasn’t murdered.  His name was Moses, and when he grew up, God asked him to come before Pharaoh and ask that Pharaoh release the captive Hebrew people.  But Pharaoh refused.  God showed God’s power by sending plagues upon the people of Egypt, and each time, Pharaoh refused to release the Hebrews.

Until one night when God told Moses to get the people ready.  They were to take a lamb and after killing it, they would take some of the blood from that lamb, put it on a branch of hyssop and mark the doorposts of their homes with that blood.  Then they were to roast and eat that lamb along with unleavened bread that night, being sure to stay indoors.  During the night, an angel of death passed through killing the firstborn of every family in the area that didn’t have the blood of the lamb on the doorposts.  Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews who had done what Moses said.

And on that night—the night of the Passover—God delivered the Hebrews.  They were never again under the bondage of Pharaoh.  And they left Egypt forever.

Many, many years later, Jesus came into the world.  And when John the Baptizer first saw him, he said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  And when John said this, those gathered around him couldn’t help but think about the Passover lamb, and the deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  And they got excited, these descendants of the Hebrews, because while they weren’t in bondage to Egypt anymore, they were under the oppression of the Romans.  Some of them thought that Jesus would be the one to free them from the tyranny of the Romans; some began to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus taught about a new kingdom and he did miracles, and he showed people God’s love.  He forgave people their sins and healed them, and this made people in authority—both the Hebrew leaders and the Roman leaders—get anxious.  And they decided that Jesus was better off dead than alive.  So they conspired together to kill him.

They waited for a time to do this, and they worked with one of his disciples, Judas, who had become disillusioned because he thought Jesus would overthrow the government, but Jesus didn’t do that.  So Judas betrayed Jesus.

And it was at the time of the Passover.

The Gospel writer named John wanted to show the connection between the Passover lamb and Jesus as closely as he could.  He reminded his readers about the Baptizer calling Jesus the lamb of God when Jesus was first introduced.  He writes that the day Jesus was crucified was the day of Preparation for the Passover, the very day the lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the festival.  And he told them as well that when Jesus was offered a drink of water from a sponge while he hung on the cross, bleeding and so very thirsty, the stick used by the guards to give him that drink was hyssop, just like the stick used at the first Passover.

And as soon as he had taken a drink from that sponge—when his bloodied lips had touched the sponge on the hyssop—he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and died.

“It is finished,” Jesus said.  His last words before he died.  And I think what he meant was that his work on this earth was finished, that he had done what he was supposed to do.  More so, I think he also meant that in his becoming the Passover lamb he would free his people forever from bondage.  Not in the sense that some thought about freedom from earthly powers—like the Romans—but freedom from those things that bind us and put in slavery.  Evil, and death, Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, and those sinful desires that draw us away from the love of God.  Jesus finished that work through his death.  In giving himself on our behalf, he was victorious.  And he gave to us freedom forever.

We gather on this holy night to remember the things Jesus did for us through his life and death.  He came, as another Gospeler penned it, “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  The ransom of his life opened up for us a way of freedom from slavery, oppression and bondage.  While we are indeed sorrowful to see our Lord, broken, beaten, despised, alone, we cannot also overlook the freedom and release offered to us.  He gave his life a ransom that we might live.  We gather on this holy night, this good night, to remember, and to seek God’s love and God’s desire for our lives.  So that we may no longer live as those in slavery, but as those who have been freed forever.  May we remember, and may we seek repentance and life, and always see how deep God’s love is for us.  Amen.

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I often get asked where the “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday comes from.  It’s taken from the Latin “Mandatum novum” or New Commandment.  We get our word mandate from that origin.  It’s the night Jesus instituted Holy Communion and on that day he got down and washed his disciples feet.

Foot washing is a really important part of this service, and so last night I (re-)introduced it to the St. Mark’s community with great success.  It was a wonderful and solemn service that led to the stripping of the altar.

My homily on John 13.

Nine months after the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I traveled with a group of adults from the church I was then serving to the Gulf Coast in Mississippi that had been ravaged by the storm.  Before we left, we received a list of things we would absolutely need.  Heavy gloves, bug spray, sleeping bags and pillows, ear plugs since we would be sleeping in a large gym area and, most important of all, sturdy work boots.  The good people at Camp Coast Care—the organization we’d be working with—reinforced this last one.  “Tennis shoes and flip flops will not work.”  Too many hazards were lying on the ground.  Too many things that could cut your feet.

So I went out and bought a new pair of work boots.  And I was glad that I did.  On the second or third day I was there working among the wreckage at a house, I stepped on a nail.  Thankfully, because of the boots, I could barely feel the prick of it.  So I took a moment, grabbed a pair of pliers and pulled out that nail, thankful I hadn’t worn sneakers and had avoided a trip to the doctors.

One of the houses we worked on that week was owned by a man named Gerard.  He and his wife had spent the past nine months living in a motor home in their backyard.  They lived a few miles in from the Gulf, yet much of their home had been filled with over 3 feet of water.  Gerard was in limbo; he hadn’t done much to his house as he waited for insurance monies to come in.  A group of us came that day to begin the demolition of much of the interior in order to get it down to the base structure.  But before we began, we needed to clean out their belongings.

So we did that, our group of volunteers from Camp Coast Care.  We carried out photo albums, and towels.  We took out books, and clothes.  We dug through everything in their house, exposing Gerard and his wife’s entire life and placed it on the front lawn.  Their life’s belongings were there for anyone to take a peek at.  Their lives were completely exposed.

Tonight we’re asked to do the same; we are asked to show our vulnerability.

I know that foot washing hasn’t been done much here in the past.  But Jesus gives us an example and then asks us as his disciples to do likewise.  We like walking around in our heavy boots, keeping our feet well covered and insolated from the world.  But Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Unless we become vulnerable, and take off our heavy shoes, we cannot be his disciples.

Jesus shows what he means in his giving of himself.  What he does is take the role of the servant; he makes himself vulnerable, and lays down his life.  When we take off our shoes, we lay down the notion of our perfected image.  We look somewhat foolish.  We show our weaknesses.

And we acknowledge our imperfections and need of grace.  God’s grace comes to us in the way Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, in the way we wash each other’s feet.  He shows his love in giving of himself.  Trust is needed.  He shows how we are to serve one another, to let down our own guard and be the people he calls us to be.

The question is will we do this?  Will we acknowledge our own vulnerabilities or will we keep our heavy boots on?  Will we open ourselves up to the example that Christ gives us to show our love to one another?  “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  Amen.

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Palm Sunday is a hard one liturgically.  You get 7 minutes or so on the triumphal entry and then get whisked all the way to Good Friday with the reading of the Passion.  The general consensus is that most people who show up on Palm Sunday won’t make the return trip for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, so if you want to preach about the crucifixion, you’d better do it on Palm Sunday.

In spite of this collective wisdom, I did more with the triumphal entry this year.  I’ve always been struck by Matthew’s rendering of it, so it caught my fancy.

And I hope you’ll be attending church this week for Holy Week.  This is an amazing journey for us, and one that is not to be missed.

Palm Sunday—Matthew 21:1-11

I’ve always been fascinated by Matthew’s retelling of the Triumphal Entry, simply because of the great detail he goes into regarding the donkey and the colt those two disciples are to find.  Matthew, unlike the other  Gospel writers, informs his readers that there is both a donkey and a colt that the disciples are to find for Jesus.  Mark, Luke and John all say that it is a solitary animal.  And I can’t help but be amused at the seemingly odd description when Matthew tells us that once the donkey and the colt arrived, some of the bystanders threw their cloaks on those animals, and Jesus sat on both of them.  It’s almost comical, and I’ve always chalked it up to the way Matthew plays with numbers and numerology throughout his gospel when compared to the other writers; he seems to say, if one is good, two is better.

I clung to the amusement, that is, until I read a comment about that verse this past week.  John Dominic Crossan writes that Matthew “wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”[1]  Military leaders would often ride into their cities in a display of power—which is hinted at in the reference to the prophet Zechariah that Matthew records.  The entire context from the prophet is this: “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, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech 9:9-10)  Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, would come not in a display of power, but in humility.  He would come to bring peace to the nations while the Romans would continue to ride in on their chariots with their military might blazing, bringing anything but peace.

And we know what happens when people come in humbly promoting non-violent peace.  We have a tendency to kill those people.  We heard it this morning in the Passion, and we’ve seen it in stories we know like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Archbishop Romero.  But it’s also in the lesser known stories, like Brother Roger of the Taize community killed during a service at that ecumenical community in France, or Rachel Corrie who was killed by a bulldozer while simply standing in front of a home trying to stop the bulldozer from destroying that house in a refugee camp in Ramalah.  Jesus came exemplifying peace, he rode in on a mother donkey that had yet to wean her foal with that little one trailing alongside, and he was ultimately crucified.

He was crucified because when he came preaching about love, about transformation, about peace, about new life and the forgiveness of sins, people got anxious and did away with him.  We joined with the crowd this morning on both ends: we yelled out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” and we also cried out “Crucify him!”  What they didn’t notice then, and which we often don’t see even today, is that the two shouts are inescapably linked.  Jesus saves us through his crucifixion and the resurrection that is to come.  He brings about salvation and peace and offers it to us and to any who are willing to accept it.

But we, along with the rest of the world, often do away with those who bring peace.  You might be hesitant to accept this as true for yourself, but I certainly know it in my own life.  I see the struggle that sometimes takes place when, although I am drowning in the circumstances of my life—be they the chances and challenges of the world or sins of my own devices—I often refuse to grab hold of the life preserver offered to me either by those who love me or in the life offered by Christ.  I’ve seen it in others who are dealing with addictions and can’t take it upon themselves to follow through and get support.  I’ve watched it unfold in married couples who are heading down the road toward divorce and can’t bring themselves to seek out help.  I’ve seen teens get further and further disconnected from those they love rather than take the hand that is held out to them.  I’ve noticed it in those who are widowed and cannot imagine a new life so they shrink away into lives of quiet disappointment.

And I want to say to us all that Jesus comes wanting to bring peace to the tumult and chaos of our lives.  He entered into Jerusalem that day in humility, and a few days later was ultimately killed, so that he could bring us life.  While we are inclined to reject him, to push him away, to even kill his presence in our lives, he is triumphant and victorious, as the prophet, Zechariah declares it.  He was betrayed, and beaten and killed for us, so that when he completed his work in the world and on the cross, he might bring us peace and hope.

As we wait this week for that work to be completed, as we walk these last days with Christ and place him gently in that tomb, I hope that we will ultimately see that he is the Prince of Peace and he so desperately wants to share that peace with each one of us in order that we may experience transformation.  Hosanna, dear Christ.  Save us.


[1] Qtd in http://www.patheos.com/community/carlgregg/2011/04/08/lectionary-commentary-%E2%80%9Cjesus-a-donkey-and-jon-stewart%E2%80%99s-rally-for-sanity%E2%80%9D-for-palm-sunday-april-17-2011/  Accessed 4/12/11

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We had another long lesson from John’s Gospel this Sunday (Chapter 11 this time on Lazarus).  Here’s my sermon….

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Lent 5A — John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These words of greeting from Martha to Jesus always sound somewhat judgmental and accusatory to my ears. “Lord, if you hadn’t taken too long, if you had come when we asked you to, if you had made us your priority, my brother would still be here among us, still be eating meals with us. If you had acted, Jesus, things would have turned out differently.”

It’s a lament. A feeling that those of us who have experienced great loss or trauma know only too well. “Jesus, if you had acted, things would have been so different for me in my life.” But you didn’t act, Jesus. You didn’t come. You didn’t answer my call, my prayer. And now look what has happened.

Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, and she’s thinking at the end of the age.

And then Mary comes out to meet Jesus, and says the same exact thing. Jesus is so overcome with grief for his friend, he begins to weep. Others also join in on questioning Jesus. “If he could open the eyes of the blind man, surely he could have healed Lazarus and avoided this turmoil.

As he comes to the tomb, Jesus sees that there is a stone covering the cave. “Take away the stone,” he tells them. And Martha says, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, since he’s been dead four days already.” Lord, he’s dead and gone, why do you want to roll back the stone?

He simply responds, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory?” and they roll away the stone, and Jesus prays and then says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

And then the formerly dead man comes out, still bound up in the cloths they had covered his body with a few days before. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells them. They do. And Lazarus is rejoined with his sisters and his friends and I can’t even begin to imagine the celebration they have that night with all the casseroles and comfort food that people had brought over to Mary and Martha’s house.

What I cannot help but wonder is how many times we say this to Jesus ourselves. “Lord, if you had been present, this wouldn’t have happened.” If you had acted the way I wanted you to, I wouldn’t have experienced the pain, Lord. Jesus, when I called for you, you lingered and stayed away, but I needed you. If you had come, my daughter might not have suffered like she did, my father might not have died, I might not have been traumatized by that abuse. Jesus, if you had acted, I wouldn’t have lost my job, or watched my marriage crumble, or born the hardship of that miscarriage. Jesus, if you had come when I asked I might not have become addicted, or had that affair. Jesus, you just didn’t come.

And Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and we go the same route as Martha, thinking Jesus is talking about the great hereafter and not about the here and now. And Jesus makes his way to the place where that pain is buried, where the hurt lies deep inside us, still covered, still walled off by that stone we put there long ago. “Take away the stone,” he says.

“Lord, you don’t understand; it’s been years since this happened, and the stench is overwhelming. That part of my life has been long since buried and hidden, it has long since died. It’s too far gone. There’s no use. The stink is putrid. Don’t, Lord, don’t open up that place.”

“If you believe,” he says, “you will see the glory of God.”

And there it is. I’ve only been here a few months, and I’ve heard a few stories about the places deep within a few of you that are causing immense pain. I know without a doubt there are more stories out there. Those of you in this place who were abused as a child. Those who have faced or are facing immense pain in your marriages. Those who have had a loved one taken much too soon. Those who have suffered unimaginable harm in ways known to you alone. And those experiences, that hurt, that piece of you that died on that day, has been carefully wrapped up and placed in that tomb. The rock has been rolled in front of it, and you figured it was gone forever.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus says to us this morning.

He says this because he wants to bring healing. Jesus wants to bring life. Resurrection. Restoration. Renewal. Jesus wants to take the hurt away.

You see, for whatever reason, Jesus didn’t seem present on that day when we thought we needed him. But he’s here now. He’s present. And he wants us to move the stone so he can act.

Moving that stone means becoming vulnerable. It means opening ourselves up to the power of Christ. It means talking about something that was buried long ago so that we can experience the transformative power of Jesus.

Lazuarus, come out!

“Come out!” he says to us. Come experience the healing and life I have for you. Come and be healed. Come out, and live.

Will we remove the stone and open ourselves up to his healing? Will we trust that while the stench may be overpowering, that he can bring about new life? Will we hear his call when he tells us to come out of the grave that we’ve been in for so long? Will we allow ourselves to struggle out of the tomb, making our way as best we can with the cloths so tightly wound around us?

He desires this for us. And he longs to say, “Unbind them, and let them go.” Amen.

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Rather than using the Bible as a tool or a place to go to get answers, one of the best things to do with this holy Word of God is to pray with it.  The most common way of doing this is called Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading.”  If you give yourself a good 20 minutes to half hour or more, this can be a very rewarding practice.  I’ll give some details below.

Lectio allows us to really have God’s word get deep within us.  It opens us up to the Holy Spirit leading us to new understandings about Scripture and to move within us.

And what it does most of all is open us to hear God’s words to us fresh without bringing our own agendas and understanding to a text.  By slowing down and listening, we begin to see things that we might not have noticed before in a passage.

There are four stages to Lectio.  To that end, I’ve copied the following from another site (the United Church of Christ website), but I thought it was a great reference to describe the four stages.

In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk named Guigo described four stages in the practice of Lectio Divina.

Lectio (reading)
Read the Word of God slowly and reflectively. Any text from the Bible can be used for this purpose, but the reading should not be too long.

Meditatio (reflection)
Think quietly about the text you read it. You can read the text many times to let the words sink into your mind and heart.

Oratio (response)
Leave your thinking aside and simply let your heart speak to God.

Contemplatio (rest)
Let go of your own ideas and plans. And you can go deeper: let go of your holy words and thoughts. Simply rest in the Word of God. Listen at the deepest level to God who speaks within you with a still, small voice.

So if you read the story of Jesus calming the sea, see Mark 4:35-41, you may after reading begin to reflect on the phrase “Peace! Be still!”  Soon your reflection on that phrase (which may last for a number of minutes with you simply saying every so often that phrase again and again) may lead you to speak to God about the storms in your own life and the longing you have for Jesus to speak those words to your storms (This would be Oratio).  Then, after some time, try to release your desires to God and open yourself up to what God may be saying to you in the midst of this.

This takes practice, and you may get frustrated that you “can’t do it right.”  You’ll be relieved to hear there is no rights way.  And, more importantly, that we are all beginners.  Sometimes this will go very well and feel very fruitful in our lives.  And other times, not so much, and we might feel discouraged because we aren’t connecting with God.

This isn’t a simple formula, but rather an invitation to spend time with God.  As you mull Scripture over in your head, it gets inside of you, shaping you into more and more the person Christ is calling you to be.  In this way, you’re able then to draw closer to God and to recognize that God desires relationship with us, and desires us to be in relationship both with others and God.

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I love baseball, and will be making sure I see the Sox play tomorrow in Texas (as the snow/wintry mix come down here in Mass.)  A friend recently shared this, and I got a kick out of it.  There’s a lot of history and truth buried in these quick witty sayings.  I hope you enjoy them as the Boys of Summer start their year!

And Go Sox!

 

Religion as Baseball

Calvinists believe the game is fixed.

Lutherans believe they can’t win, but trust the Scorekeeper.

Quakers won’t swing.

Unitarians can catch anything.

Amish walk a lot.

Pagans sacrifice.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are thrown out often.

Televangelists get caught stealing.

Episcopalians pass the plate.

Fundamentalists balk.

Adventists have a seventh-inning stretch.

Atheists refuse to have an Umpire.

Baptists want to play hardball.

Premillenialists expect the game to be called soon on account of darkness.

The Pope claims he never made an error.

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