Archives: Lent

Friday: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the cry of Jesus from the Cross.

He is broken, abandoned, devoid of any and all hope or strength.

He is at the farthest extreme of his ability to withstand suffering, his mind and body tormented almost beyond what he can bear.

And worst of all, he can no longer feel the loving presence of his Father that has sustained him for his thirty-three years on this earth.

But the remarkable thing is that he is not the first person to have spoken these words from the valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22.

The psalmist cried out from his own suffering, uncounted generations before Jesus arrived on earth, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This imbues Jesus’ voice from the Cross with even deeper significance.

These words are the cry of his tradition, the cry of his people, and also the cry of his barren heart.

All to whom he sought to give himself have deserted him, until finally he cannot even feel the Father.

This was no doubt the most wretched and almost involuntary cry of the human side of Jesus, truly feeling like he was alone and God had forsaken him.

But consider what Jesus in his divinity might also have been doing purposefully.

These words are verse 1 of Psalm 22. The Jews gathered around the Cross, Mary, John, and the others, would have known the verses that followed.

In fact, those verses would have leapt immediately to their minds.

And Peter and the others who had run away would no doubt hear the story later, that Jesus said these words from the Cross moments before his death.

What if these words were, along with the truthful convulsion of his spirit in pain, also a message from Jesus to his followers, and thereby to us? Continue reading

Thursday: The Cock Crows

Jesus predicts it in three different ways. It happens three times. And Jesus spends three days in the tomb because of it.

Peter’s denial of Jesus.

It’s a pivotally important moment that sometimes we lose track of in the accelerating cascade of events following the Last Supper that leads to Calvary.

But it contains such spiritual riches for us, even though it forces us to confront our own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Let’s begin by reflecting on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are almost identical but for one or two words. Here’s how Mark relates it:

“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”

John’s account is briefer, albeit with a haunting rhetorical question from Jesus:

“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And then we have Luke, one of the synoptics but oddly the outlier in how he portrays this incident:

“‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’”

They vary in their details, but the painful crux of the matter remains the same: Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.

Peter cannot fathom it.

Hasn’t he been faithful to Jesus these three long years?

Didn’t he leave his home and family and livelihood for Jesus?

Hasn’t he stuck by Jesus when they were hungry and homeless on the road? When the crowds crushed them and demanded to be healed, fed, taught, long after Jesus and the twelve were completely exhausted?

Hasn’t Peter been faithful even now, when the religious authorities are closing in?

Why would Peter abandon him now—Peter, who was the one to proclaim Jesus the Messiah and was called the Rock of the Church for it? Continue reading

Wednesday: For the Sake of the Joy

The remarkable truth about Holy Week that we find so hard to grasp is the fact that everything and everyone is redeemable.

There is no tragedy so great, no action so unjust, no person so evil that he or she cannot be redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ.

We say we believe that, but most of the time we are carrying around grudges and shame and wounds that we, in our heart of hearts, don’t think Jesus can heal.

Because why would he want to? Why would he bother with redeeming our sins when he could just sweep in on a white horse and carry us off to heaven?

Well, Jesus doesn’t work that way, and we’re never going to understand his work on the Cross if we don’t understand what redemption is.

Sometimes people think that redemption is erasure of bad things.

It’s just gone, like it never happened.

But that is not redemption.

God is not doing a retroactive censorship of our lives, blacking out the parts that we’d rather not remember.

Redemption is a threefold process. It consists of forgiveness, illumination, and healing.

Erasure, elimination, forgetting and cutting out the deeds of sin and pain does not happen at all in redemption.

They’re still there. But they are fundamentally changed.

Let me explain. 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

© 2017 Roof Crashers and Hem Grabbers