Monday: Jesus Gathers Strength

“Continue your loving kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart.”

These are words from our psalm for today, and they are words about you.

“Those who know you,” and “those who are true of heart.” Those are words about anyone who is faithfully reaching out to God, but they are particularly true of anyone who made it to church on Monday of Holy Week.

For some of you, attending church every day of Holy Week may be a long-established practice that is a cornerstone of your faith life.

For others, it may be the first year you’ve tried to do it, and don’t worry, Jesus loves you even if you don’t make it to every service!

But what is common to everyone in this room is that you have set aside this time to say, “What happens this week is important. What Jesus is doing in these days matters to me. And I am willing to be open to the intensity of sharing with him the last week of his life.”

That is a bold spiritual commitment, and I’m so glad we’re making it together.

I’m so glad we’re taking this journey as a community.

Frankly I doubt any of us could make it to Sunday if we tried to do it alone.

These are the days in which the world is changed, and we survive them by living together as a Body, supporting and upholding each other as we struggle to face the reality of what will happen on Friday.

This is what Jesus is facing as well.

He has returned to the little house in Bethany, where he can spend some time with his oldest and dearest friends.

He, too, is gathering strength from his community.

He may not know exactly how quickly his death is approaching, but he can feel the noose beginning to tighten.

Just yesterday the crowds surged around him in adulation, but it was only a cover for the forces of darkness that are gathering around him.

And so he goes to his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Did they know this was goodbye? Continue reading

Palm Sunday: Triumph, Need and Betrayal Laid on the Altar

It all begins today.

Today is the first day of Holy Week, the beginning of our journey in real time with Jesus from the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem all the way to the Cross on Calvary.

How do we get from one to the other?

What happens between now and then for everything to go so terribly wrong?

What happens to us to drive us from hailing him as our matchless king with the crowds on Palm Sunday, to crying “Crucify him!” with those same crowds on Good Friday?

Let’s start from the beginning.

We open our worship today with the Palm Gospel, Matthew 21:1-11, which tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt, with the crowds spreading their cloaks on the ground in his path, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

This is the proclamation of Jesus as the King of the Jews, his primary identity in Matthew.

This is his “election by acclamation,” so to speak, his people and his nation recognizing him as the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to prayer.

But as we know, the crowd’s love will not last. Why?

There were probably a number of reasons.

Some people were furious when Jesus failed to usher in an armed revolution against the hated oppressor, Rome.

Some took issue with his public affirmation of his identity as the Son of God, calling it blasphemous.

Others probably simply got caught up in the lust for violence that can be hair-trigger in a crowd of people, not to mention one already under the pressure of political subjugation.

I think we who comfortably go about our calm and civilized lives vastly underestimate our own capacity for violence in a large, anonymizing group of people.

And it does not take very sophisticated manipulation to turn a crowd into a mob.

What was in Jesus’ heart as he heard the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”?

Did he truly feel welcomed and loved?

Or did he already know that this outpouring of passionate devotion by so many was a vain and hollow farce?

Did those words “hosanna” and “blessed” form a bitter echo of the words the angels and his mother spoke at his birth?

I picture his face, and I do see happiness. But it cannot cover up an underlying grief.

The question of Palm Sunday is a deep and painful one, and we must reckon with it honestly if we seek to enter Easter Sunday with any integrity.

It is the reality of our own faithlessness.

Can we face the truth that we are the ones who betray Jesus? Continue reading

The Consequences of Waiting Upon the Lord

The story of Lazarus—it’s one of the most fascinating in the Bible.

I love this story for so many reasons.

I love it for its place in the unfolding of the tender and devoted friendship between Jesus and the siblings of Bethany.

Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha—we might call them the Fantastic Four!

We know there were many more encounters between them that we don’t see recorded in the gospels for the level of friendship they express for each other to be as real and deep as it appears.

After all, the message from the sisters to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

That is not a reference to a casual acquaintance.

No doubt there were occasions of Lazarus and Jesus out roaming across the hills, talking of spiritual topics for hours, while Mary and Martha prepared the feast they would enjoy together later at home.

Or perhaps vice versa—maybe Jesus and Lazarus took their turn in the kitchen as well!

Late night dinners, hours of conversation, thinking and praying together about God’s work in the world—they were intimate spiritual companions.

They might even have been friends before Jesus began his ministry, or at the very least, from very early on in it.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus grow into his ministry.

As he has ranged farther and farther afield to heal and teach, still the little house in Bethany remains a home base, where he returns for his own healing and renewal.

Drained by his work, he can always recharge with his three dear friends.

Because while they are his followers, they are always first and foremost his friends.

In fact, their friendship is so well-known among the disciples and other followers of Jesus that the whole community is aware that Jesus would want to hear of Lazarus being gravely ill.

The message from Martha and Mary reaches him quickly, and here we have the first jarring note in the story. Continue reading

The Aftermath of a Miracle (Is Harder Than You Think)

What do you do in the aftermath of a miracle?

We all think about what kind of miracle we’d like to see happen in our lives—a winning lottery ticket, our team going all the way to the Final Four in March Madness, our political discourse regaining civility and sense. (I’ll give you three guesses as to which one of those is the farthest-fetched).

Many times our longing for a miracle is far more serious—for a loved one’s cancer to go into remission, for a job to come through after months of fruitless interviews, for an estranged child to come home for the holidays.

There are times God does do miracles this big in our lives—most of us can think of an example in our own lives or someone we know.

Sometimes the miracles are as simple as escaping a close call in traffic.

But it’s also really important to think about miracles far more broadly than actual supernatural events.

Sometimes we don’t get the miracle we prayed for, but we get the miracle we need.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed was for the cancer to go into remission, but the miracle we received was entering into an incredible new depth of relationship with our loved one through the process of caregiving as his or her health declined.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed for was for that job interview to pan out, but the miracle we received was a new understanding of our family’s ability to pull together in tough economic times.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed for was a reunion with an estranged child, but the miracle we received was a new ministry of intercessory prayer, as our faithful and sometimes anguished prayers for this lost and wandering loved one expand into a vocation of praying for all those who are lonely and in pain.

The first question to ask is this: where you need a miracle in your life?

And the second question to ask is this: where in your life is God giving you the miracle you need rather than the miracle you want? Take some time to pray about that this week.

But the real question I want to tackle in this sermon is this: what do you do in the aftermath of a miracle?

I think we often picture miracles as creating happily-ever-after scenarios where everyone rides off into the sunset together holding hands and singing Kum-Bah-Yah.

But the reality is quite different, as we see vividly illustrated in our gospel story.

For the man born blind whom Jesus heals in our gospel today, his miracle brings him nothing but trouble. Continue reading

How to Drink of Living Water

I’m just going to cut right to the chase on this text: Jesus is undermining us and our priorities yet again, because he loves us too much to let us continue in our self-protective delusions.

Every time I think I’ve got him figured out, he knocks me over once again with his subversive and all-encompassing love.

The woman at the well is one of John’s most beloved stories.

We have a woman who is trapped in an unenviable social situation, the origins of which we do not clearly understand.

She has to come to well to draw water in the heat of the day rather than the cool of the early morning. This is a clue that she is ostracized from the company of the other women in town, respectable women, who would come as a group to draw water at dawn.

Why is she not respectable? We don’t know, but more than likely it is a result of gender-based shame imputed to her.

She may be penalized for exercising sexual autonomy, i.e. being a “loose woman.”

Or she may have been passed around from husband to husband to finally a man who doesn’t even bother to marry her because she is barren, unable to have children, the other major source of shame for women in her society.

Even without knowing her story and its shades of disgrace in the eyes of her culture, the gospel says the disciples are shocked to find Jesus talking with a woman, any woman.

Regardless of what she has been through, and we understand that it cannot have been pleasant, she has enough pluck in her to enter into conversation with an unaccompanied adult male whom she quickly discovers is a Jew.

This reality alone would have further diminished her already precarious position in society.

But there is a spark of curiosity in her that responds to Jesus and answers the invitation to go deeper with him.

She is thirsty for more than what she can find at the bottom of that well, and so she asks.

In fact, she more than asks, she requests, demands, even: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

How often do we share our need with Jesus so un-self-consciously?

And here is what fascinates me. The woman asks Jesus for the Living Water, and what does he give her?

One would expect him to give her comfort, understanding, affection, healing, assurance of salvation.

But he gives her none of these.

She asks Jesus for the Living Water, and he gives her truth. Continue reading

What Are You Resisting?

One of the most helpful spiritual questions I was ever asked is this: “What are you resisting?”

I can’t remember where I first read or heard that question, Pema Chodron maybe? Something Buddhist, I’m sure.

But it has remained in my life as one of the most fruitful seeds of prayer in the midst of pain or anxiety I’ve ever found.

What is it that I’m resisting?

The question has the power to stop me in my tracks in real time, in the very moment of my being angry at the world.

And asking the question also asks a second, implicit question: and why are you resisting it?

The subsequent questions ask themselves.

Is it worth resisting?

What would happen if you let this go?

Is what you’re resisting truly a threat to you, or simply an inconvenience, a discomfort, an irritant?

I’m usually awakened at that point to how easily and completely I’ve given myself over to the traditional three corrupting influences of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and by that I mean my selfish desires, my loud body and its preferences, and my cranky, needy ego.

I’m usually resentful of a phone call I need to make or a meeting I have to attend, unable to accept that I really will feel better if I eat well and exercise, or mad at my perception that someone is treating me dismissively or condescendingly.

What am I resisting? Trivial, trivial things.

And in the process I am resisting the glimpses of God that God is always ready to reveal to me in the midst of my trivial circumstances, if I would only open to them.

What are you resisting? Continue reading

Springtime in the Desert

Let’s stop for a moment and think about our stereotypes of Lent. What words come to mind for you?

“Dull, dreary, and sad,” some might say.

“Long and boring,” others might say.

“Sin and death and the day of vengeance of our God!” others might crow triumphantly.

I had one parishioner at a former church, a 3-year-old, who told me solemnly on Ash Wednesday, “I don’t like Lent because it makes me sneeze.” As good a characterization as any, I suppose.

Would it surprise you to know that the origin of the word “Lent” is the Old English word for “springtime”?

Yes, we do talk about sin and mortality in Lent, and there is an appropriate solemnity for doing that.

But if you think that’s the whole story of Lent, you’re missing out.

Lent is springtime in the desert.

And we are given an amazing opportunity each year to take part in it.

Let’s think about that strange juxtaposition of terms: springtime in the desert.

Both parts matter. It’s not just springtime—new life and blooming flowers and singing birds.

And it’s not just the desert—emptiness and challenge and wandering in search of sustenance.

It’s springtime in the desert.

What does that mean for us in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Ash Wednesday: Singing the Song of Our Enemy

The terrible war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in December 1995.

The fighting between Serbs and Croats had set itself up along ethnic and religious lines and so deepened the divisions between the warring factions that it seemed impossible to imagine them going forward in any type of peace, much less healing and reconciliation.

A Franciscan priest began a revolutionary project in early 1996.

He recruited singers from across the country, people who were gifted in music, not necessarily professionals, but just people who were known in their towns and communities for their voices.

He brought them all together, Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, some literally fresh off the battlefield, and asked them to begin singing together.

But not just any songs.

He asked them to sing the most traditional and well-known and deeply rooted religious songs of the Bosnian people, both Christian songs and Muslim songs.

He asked them to sing the songs of their enemies. Continue reading

We, The Body of Christ, Hate Our Bodies. Maybe We Could Stop?

Do you hate your body?

I know I hate mine, and my best guess is you hate yours.

And that is a tragedy.

We are members of an incarnational faith.

We celebrate and stake our very souls on God coming to Earth in a human body, and then giving that body to us, in life and in death.

We consume the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday.

We call our collective self the Body of Christ.

And yet we hate our own bodies.

We hate our very incarnation, call it ugly and feel shame at its appearance and functioning or lack thereof.

What is wrong with this picture? Continue reading

The Tyranny of Niceness

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.

I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.

Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.

And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.

Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?

And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?

I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.

We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.

And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?

Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.

Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.

At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.

We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.

And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.

What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.

But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems. Continue reading