Posted in Worship

Good Friday Vespers

This year our service was held around a cross in the midst of the sanctuary, with scripture, prayer, silence, and song inviting us to consider the events surrounding Jesus’ death and what they mean for us today. Here’s a piece of reflection from Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

When the followers of Jesus tried to understand who Jesus was, they naturally turned to the stories and figures in their sacred scripture and in Jewish tradition. Some people imagined Jesus to be a prophet, like Elijah. Others believed him to be a king, like David. Others believed him to be the messiah, or a messiah: someone anointed by God to bring salvation to the people. Tonight Joanna read a passage from the Hebrew scriptures that describes another figure who became important to followers of Jesus then and now: the suffering servant, from the book of Isaiah.

The suffering servant is a confusing and somewhat contradictory figure in scripture. Some aspects of the description may be hard for many of us to accept as a description of Jesus. In particular, the idea that God might require or plan for a human sacrifice to redeem the sin of others may not resonate with our beliefs.

But as we prepare to hear the story of the Passion at the close of this service, I am struck by how this passage from Isaiah captures many things that I do believe about Jesus. Like the suffering servant, Jesus was nothing special to look at; no one ever mentions that Jesus was particularly beautiful. He wasn’t rich, didn’t come from a powerful family. And like the suffering servant, Jesus becomes a scapegoat for the errors and fears of others. In the end, by Jesus is arrested, and killed: not because he has done anything wrong, but in order to appease leaders and people who are wary of the problems he might cause, or the values he represents.

It’s important to remember, as ancient Jewish followers of Jesus and modern Christian followers of Jesus draw connections between Jesus and the suffering servant, that the suffering servant in scripture is not actually one person, but a representation of a whole people: the people Israel.  So perhaps a meaningful way to bring this Hebrew text, and our gospel text, into our current day is to think not only of Jesus, but of the communities of people who, though innocent, are experiencing blame, scapegoating, suffering, and execution.  I think of black Americans; trans folks, and the whole GLBTQ+ community; those who experience domestic violence, and gun violence; people suffering with disease. I’m sure you can think of others.

Suffering, and violent or untimely death are hard for us to think about if we don’t have to. Sometimes we ignore them. Or, in Christian tradition, we have sometimes glorified them. Today we try, instead, simply to acknowledge them: to open our hearts to the sadness in the life of the Jewish people, and in the life of Jesus, and in our world today.  To bring our own heartbreaks to be joined with the tears of Jesus, and the tears of the world.

 

Love First

John 12:20-33

Everyone is talking about Jesus.  They’re talking about Jesus, because of what happened with Lazarus. It is not so long before our gospel passage for today that Jesus learns that his friend has died. He goes to the tomb and asks for the stone to be taken away.  He cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up out of the tomb.

We can imagine that a story like this would get around. A teacher named Jesus raised someone from the dead? Everyone is talking, rumors are spreading, and more and more people are coming to see the one who defied death.

Everyone is talking about Jesus, and some folks don’t like it. Roman leaders are worried that Jesus and his followers will revolt against their rule. Jewish leaders are worried that Jesus and his followers will provoke the Romans into harming other Jewish people. A few folks begin to wonder if it might be a good preventative measure to kill Jesus, or Lazarus, to prevent wider bloodshed.

Everyone is talking about Jesus, excited, worried, and Jesus knows it. For a while, he hides out, avoiding the conflict. But eventually he decides: it’s time. Jesus travels into Jerusalem for the great feast of Passover -we’ll remember this story next week. There are lots of people in Jerusalem, and when they see Jesus, they tear palm branches from the trees and wave them in the air, shouting, “Hosanna!”

Amidst this great crowd, those who saw Lazarus rise continue to testify. This story about Jesus continues to spread. So, as our text for today begins, Greeks, Jews from the greater diaspora, folks who just arrived in the region, come to see for themselves the one who defied death.  They tell Philip, with great politeness: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

The scene is set for Jesus to tell us more. Will he explain how he did it, how he lifted Lazarus from the dead? Will Jesus promise to do away with death forever?  No such luck. Jesus is always happy to challenge people’s expectations. He says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Instead of telling us how to conquer death, Jesus starts talking about what we might call the benefits of death: his death, our death, the death of our lives as we know them. Jesus talks about death, and service, and glory, and is answered from the heavens, with a voice that sounds like thunder, or angels. And then Jesus concludes, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

So much for immortality. They way of Jesus, it seems, does not set itself against death. Following Jesus, we are led closer to death. In fact, the path of Jesus moves through death.  It is only on the other side of death that the story takes a positive turn: the grain bears much fruit; we discover eternal life; Jesus is lifted up from the earth; Jesus draws all people to himself.

What does it mean that Jesus speaks in this way about death? Is he recommending martyrdom as a path for all of us? Does he believe that suffering and death are glorious or productive? Should they be something that we seek? (more…)

Love & Truth

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Maybe you’ve heard our gospel text for today before: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  If that doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you’ve heard the chapter and verse for it: John 3:16. This one of the most famous scripture passages in America. It decorates poster boards lifted up at football games. It’s plastered across billboards.  Many people feel that this one sentence is a perfect encapsulation of their faith, and the faith they want other people to have.

Unfortunately, there is also a great deal in this sentence and in this passage from the Gospel of John to make us uncomfortable. The vocabulary alone is enough to make many progressive Christians squirm. Eternal Life? Salvation? Condemnation? Judgement? What do these words really mean?

We might also object to the dichotomies in this passage. Is the world really so clearly divided between believers and unbelievers, people who love light and people who love darkness, folks who are condemned and folks who are saved?

Even if we love the text itself, the way it is used in our culture is enough to make many of us push back.  How could any one sentence of scripture measure if folks are correctly Christian? Would Jesus really want anyone to be harassed and bullied into belief?

Thankfully, this passage from the gospel of John was not written by or for American Christians in the 21st century. Considering the broader context from which it comes may help us to find something that is useful for our own lives of faith. (more…)

Love Finds Us

The Book of Jonah

Every preacher I’ve ever met can tell the same story. Here is how the story goes: Some weeks, our sermon just won’t come together. We work hard, but still — ugh. Days pass, and when Sunday comes, that sermon has got to be preached, whether we like it or not. So we get up, and give the sermon, full of dread that we are disappointing God and the congregation whom we have been called to serve. And then, it happens: someone comes up to us at the end of the service and says, “Pastor, that was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today.”

Let me be clear: this doesn’t mean it was a good sermon. It probably wasn’t a very good sermon. Half the time, the thing the person says they heard in your sermon, that thing that they really needed to hear – that is something you never even said. But God has taken the ingredients on hand: a struggling pastor, a person hungry for a message, and the Holy Spirit – and made something amazing happen. Even if every single other person in the congregation leaves that day thinking, “well, I didn’t really get much out of that one” –  one person got something they desperately needed.

This story that every pastor can tell reminds me of Jonah. Jonah is perhaps the worst prophet in all of scripture. God asks Jonah to get up and go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it. Now, many prophets are reluctant to do what God asks them to do. Jeremiah says: “I am only a boy!”  Moses says, “Who am I to go to the great Pharaoh?”  But Jonah doesn’t even bother arguing with God. He just takes off in the other direction. He literally runs away from God.

As it turns out, God doesn’t take “no” for an answer.  God uses all kinds of extraordinary methods to get Jonah back on track: waves, wind, mortal danger, and three days in the belly of a giant fish.  When the fish deposits Jonah back on dry land, God is right there, ready to try again. She tells Jonah to get up and go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it.

This time, Jonah goes. But he’s not happy about it! He composes a sermon that is only one sentence long. He preaches it for only one day. He walks only one-third of the way through the city. But that one sentence, and that one day, and that one-third of the city turns out to be enough. It is enough to set the whole city aflame with a passionate desire for spiritual reconciliation and renewal. Someone carries word to the King himself and the King issues a decree that all humans and even the animals in Ninevah must fast and turn from their evil ways.

Those of you who are familiar with our scriptures, I ask you, do people usually respond in this way to the message of a prophet, immediately obeying their call to repentance? No. Never! Generally, prophets are ignored, or even punished. Jonah is extraordinarily successful in restoring a great city’s faithfulness, with only one sentence, and one day, and one-third of the city.

You might think that Jonah would be proud of what he has accomplished. Not at all! When the people respond to his message with repentance, and God responds to the people with compassion, Jonah is so angry he wants to die.  He throws a tantrum in front of God because of the mercy God has shown. He stalks out of the city and sits down and waits  — just in case God decides to destroy the city after all. He wants to watch it burn.

The story ends with God asking Jonah a question: is it right for you to be angry? Is it right for you to be angry that I care about a city that I created and tended?  And the book ends, awkwardly, right there: with God still waiting for Jonah to come around.

Most of us who gather around the word of God are very imperfect people.  We have more in common with Jonah than some of the more admirable figures in our bible. Maybe you can think of a time when you ran away from an opportunity that God gave you.  Maybe you can think of a time when God’s grace made you angry instead of grateful.  Maybe you can think of a time when you did the right thing only by mistake, or through the amazing intervening power of God.

But our God is a persistent God, who follows us wherever we go. Our God is a creative God, who sends us messages in new ways to try to get our attention.  Our God is a loving God, who cares for us even when we are extremely unpleasant to be around.  Our God is a compassionate God, who offers us chance after chance after chance to get it right. No matter how badly we behave, God keeps trying to help us live a new kind of life, for our own sake, and for the sake of those around us. It is never too late. Thanks be to God.

Love & Discipleship

Mark 8:27-38

No disciple gets more things wrong, through a deep desire to get things right, than Simon Peter.

You remember Simon Peter: he starts out life as a fisherman. He is called with his brother Andrew to follow Jesus.  From the beginning, Peter has a prominent place among the disciples. However, his enthusiasm for the cause often leads him astray.

When Peter sees Jesus walking on water, he wants to be just like him. But Peter isn’t Jesus, and when he steps out on the waves, he sinks.  (Mt 14:30).  When Peter witnesses Jesus up on a mountain, transfigured by the glory of God and talking with Moses and Elijah, he is thrilled. But instead of taking in the miracle of the moment, he imagines that he can make it last forever, and suggests establishing mountaintop living arrangements for these three religious superstars (Mk 9:5).  When Jesus wants to wash Peter’s feet at the Last Supper, Peter tries to show respect by refusing to accept such a menial service from his savior.  But when Jesus presses the issue, Peter loses his head entirely, proclaiming that if washing is the right thing, Jesus must wash his head and his hands, too, give him a full bath before the meal begins (John 13:2-11).

Peter is all in: he gives his whole heart and his whole life to Jesus. Yet somehow, Peter’s dedication doesn’t always get him where he wants to go. In so many stories, you can almost see the rest of the disciples rolling their eyes at the teacher’s pet. You can almost hear Jesus coughing back a laugh over his most dedicated, and most ridiculous disciple.

In the text today, Jesus is walking with his disciples from one town to the next. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter is the only one who is brave enough or sure enough to say out loud, “You are the Messiah.”  Score one for Peter.

But just after this, Jesus begins to explain what his life as the Messiah will be like. Jesus says that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then rise again. Peter is outraged. How could such a holy man be destined for such a bitter end? Peter loses all control and actually begins rebuking Jesus for his teaching. Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Once again, Peter has missed the point. He loves Jesus so much that he can’t bring himself to accept what Jesus is saying about his suffering and death. Jesus gathers a whole crowd to tell them: If you want to follow me, deny yourself. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

The rebuke in today’s text are the harshest words that Jesus ever says to Peter in the gospels. This story is not, however, the end of Peter’s mistakes. In fact, Peter’s behavior goes downhill from here. Jesus tells his disciples two more times in the Gospel of Mark how his story will end (Mark 9:31 and 10:33-34), but Peter still can’t believe it.  Perhaps Peter imagines that Jesus must surely become an earthly ruler, or an honored religious leader. Maybe Peter even dreams that as Jesus’ right hand man, he also has a wonderful destiny in front of him.  Whatever the reason, Peter is unprepared when Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion finally come to pass. He is filled with grief. He is filled with fear. And in the midst of his grief and fear, Peter publicly denies following Jesus, three times, to protect himself (Lk 22:56-61). He betrays the one he loves so much. (more…)

A Covenant of Love

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

This season of Lent begins with a series of stories about Covenants: holy promises between God and God’s people.  Today we hear about the covenant that God makes with Noah, with Noah’s descendants, and with every living creature, following the great flood.

Many folks have warm and fuzzy feelings about the flood story in the book of Genesis. We remember hearing about it in Sunday School, seeing pictures in a children’s bible, playing with an ark. The story is memorable; Who can forget Noah, building a boat that no one can imagine a use for? Who can forget that amazing parade of animals of every kind, traveling up the gangplank?  Who can forget the dove, arriving as a sign of hope to those trapped on the waves?

Unfortunately, the story of the flood also includes a message that is not easy for either children or adults to come to terms with. It is a story of divine genocide: a story of God destroying nearly all of creation.  Is this really a story we want to teach our children? Is this a story we accept, as teaching us something true about God?

Thankfully, by the end of the story, there are some signs of hope; there is some evidence of good news. The waters recede. The arc returns to solid ground. And most importantly, the flood experience seems to have taught God something.  Through the course of the story, God is moved from anger at the behavior of humanity to grief, regret, and compassion. Finally, God says, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature… never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth…I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-13)

In the book of Genesis, there are several stories like this: stories in which God seems uncertain.  Stories in which God seems to make mistakes. Stories in which God seems to be learning how to be God, through painful experience: just as each of us learns how to be who we are.

This is a compelling way to view scripture, the God-growth narrative. Another possibility also springs to mind. Perhaps in these texts, the people Israel are working out what they can believe about God.  The idea that God is responsible for natural disasters, a force behind all major events, was common in the ancient world, as it is common today. It’s comforting to believe that someone is in charge, and that everything happens for a reason.

Perhaps the Israelites initially believed that God was the director of all events, including flood, famine, disaster, and tragedy. But over time, this belief was challenged. After all, this same people gave us two beautiful stories of how carefully God created all things. Could they reconcile a God who forms us in Her own image with one who would wantonly destroy us or cause us suffering?

No, the Israelites realized: the God we have come to know and worship is not like that. She not only made us in love, but continues to love us. She chooses to bind herself together with us in holy covenant, working with us to preserve creation.

Perhaps this seems like an abstract question. Why should we care about the theology of the flood story, or the beliefs of the people who recorded it? But consider: this is one of the foundational stories of our holy text. It points the way to how we can understand God’s presence and activity in tragedies that happen today.

On Wednesday, a young man named Nicholas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida with a semi-automatic weapon and killed at least 17 people.  These seventeen people are, unbelievably, part of a much greater number of victims from more than 200 school shootings that have happened in the U.S. since 2012, when the Sandy Hook Massacre took place.

The response to this spreading disease of violence, this genocide of our schoolchildren, has been mind-boggling. Elected officials continue to prioritize financial contributions from the NRA over the very lives of their constituents. Gun advocates fight for the deadliest guns to be accessible to the public with virtually no regulation. The majority of us who desire some sort of change sink into a despairing complacency. In our country, we are willing to accept the ruthlessly efficient murder of one another’s children when common sense, and the example of other countries, can show us quite simply how to put a stop to it.

Where is God in this story? I refuse to believe that any one of these deaths is the desire or action of God. I refuse to believe that the terrible grief of so many communities is the desire or action of God. I refuse to believe that the disfigurement of human souls in becoming mass murderers is the desire or action of God.

Where is God in this story? The text from the Gospel of Mark offers us a different way to consider how God operates in our world.  Jesus is baptized, and blessed, and then driven out into the wilderness. Here he meets Satan: the embodiment of evil. God did not create Satan. God also cannot shield Jesus from Satan; his power is real. So, Jesus spends some time keeping close company with evil as a way of preparing for his ministry.  And while Jesus struggles with the forces of temptation for forty days, he is not alone. He is with the wild beasts; and the angels wait on him.

This sounds like our world. Evil exists.  God is not its source, nor can God entirely protect us from it. Instead, God provides helpers to allow us to withstand evil without being subsumed by it.  In this text, Wild beasts, God’s creation, reminders of the rainbow covenant. In this text, angels, God’s messengers, with presence and wisdom and hospitality.

Lent began this past week with Ash Wednesday, when we remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return.  This is a somber statement, a reminder of our mortality; and also a reminder of our blessing. We were made out of dust by God our creator; and we are inheritors of that great rainbow covenant, in which God promises to treasure her creation. In life and in death, we belong to God: our spirit a part of God’s great Spirit; our flesh a part of God’s glorious creation.

All along the journeys of our lives, we are likely to meet sin and evil often. Personal temptation; personal error; harm from other individuals; harm from human systems that do violence to human spirits and human bodies and to this great creation.

Sin and evil are real. And so is God, and so are God’s messengers. Wild beasts, who remind us that we are part of a great body of blessed living creatures. Angels, who give us messages we need to hear, bread we are hungry for, company we long for.  Have you been on the lookout for them?  Have you caught a glimpse, or heard a voice?

I hope you will find a way in this special season of drawing close to God, who is our surest protection against the evils of despair and apathy that press close in on us. We have two resources to share from this church: An adult UCC devotional that we are running out of; more are on the way; they will be used by the Lenten bible study starting next week. Let me know if you want to get one when they come in. Also, sets of tags to record the love we witness in the world throughout the season. And downstairs, after church, you can help share some love with others, making messages for our congregation, or postcards for justice for our neighbors.

For now, please join me in prayer.

Holy God, sculptor of the mountains, womb of all creation; help us to love ourselves, and one another, and all the earth, with a love like yours: a love strong and brave enough to walk right alongside evil and persist; a love strong and brave enough to motivate compassion and a struggle for justice. With you, all things are possible. Praise be to your name. Amen.