Friday, March 30, 2012

Passion Sunday Year B - Conclusion

On Sunday we will enter the story of the passion by waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor” while making our way to pews we occupy most Sundays with less fanfare. We’ll hear the horrible, beautiful story read and sing the familiar hymns; Go to Dark Gethsemane, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Ah Holy Jesus. At the end of the service (at least at Calvary) Michaelann Berry will bless us by singing Via Dolorosa and the beauty of her voice and the images invoked by the lyrics will make the ancient story of sorrow and suffering more real for us. But even if the end of the service is the beginning of Holy Week the Texas Rangers opening day will still happen on Good Friday. We might lament such a thing, especially those of us in the clergy class who will be working a different “home plate” on Friday but truth is most folks will treat the week we call holy as any other; although for Sunday they might buy a basket for the kids and pop a marshmallow peep as a guilty pleasure. Does it matter? I might have thought so in the past but more and more I’m thinking Jesus would want every week to be a holy week where the sacred abandons the position of power (Hosanna in the Highest) to be crucified for the sake of the secular so that in surprising ways we “Father forgive” those in our everyday while engaging them in a “Jesus remember me” relationship. It is a mistake for the pious faithful to act like Scribes and Pharisees when the Christ we follow ate and drank with people who would choose Opening Day over Stations of the Cross.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Passion Sunday Year B - Mark 14:1-15:47

The Passion of the Christ according to Mark begins with a woman (name forgotten) who is remembered for her costly act of devotion and ends with two women (names remembered) who see where “he was laid”. It is a story with the usual cast of characters in a human drama; betrayers, deniers, accusers, abusers, the clueless crowd crying crucify and the faithful few fear scattered and hiding. In the center of it all is the One to whom the “beautiful thing is done” by the name forgotten as a sign of the burial that the names remembered see. From the table with the twelve to the garden of “take this cup from me” the confident One who predicts his death and resurrection moves inextricably to the moment when “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” means the Holy One bears the full weight of the world gone horribly wrong. Not that God the (perfect) Father turns his back on the (sin carrying sacrifice) Son but that God enters so fully into the human rebellion against Divine desire that the power and majesty of the “in the beginning” creating Word is abandoned to the inevitable reality of “he emptied himself and humbled himself unto death.” (Philippians 2:7-8) A God divested of power is a God quickly stripped of life. So the beginning is as important as the end. The woman (name forgotten) is remembered because the one she anointed for burial while alive came back to life after he was dead and the women (names remembered) could point to the empty place where “swear to God” they saw him buried.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Passion Sunday Year B - Philppians 2:5-11

I cannot say equality with God is something I would let go of and I’m guessing you wouldn’t either. And if I found myself on other side of the divine I would not choose the cross as my exit strategy. So God is not like me although God hopes in not being like me I might be more like God – “Let this mind be in you.” If God were a gambler we would clearly be the long shot but then again God is “all in” and has nothing to lose except his life – which in the end turns out to be the winning hand. So I guess “let this mind be in you” means be like God and risk everything on a losing hand.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Passion Sunday Year B - Psalm 31:9-16

Psalm 31:9-16
Psalm 31 is the song of sorrow for the multitudes who suffer strength failing sighs and waste away with grief. Scorned by enemies and abandoned by friends they are forgotten like the long dead though they live in plain sight. We should take note that in the Christ God chose to embody this psalm instead of “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46) even though in the end every knee will bow and every tongue be silenced, except to declare Jesus is Lord. (Philippians 2:10-11) The story of the passion, from palm fronds raised in praise to the palms of his hands pierced by nails, is the story God chose to incarnate. I know in light of what I’ve written the old saying attributed to Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” might be apropos but I think comfort might be its own affliction when God so clearly identifies with the opposite. So I will confess that even my “worst of times” would be the “best of times” for those who “are as useless as a broken pot” and the only hope I have is that God does not hold the affliction of my comfort against me. But then “to whom much is given much is required” means those afflicted with plenty are called by Christ to use their “much is given” to comfort those who are afflicted by want and thereby enter Psalm 31 with those who really live it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Passion Sunday Year B - Isaiah 50:4-9

James, the brother of the Lord, presumes teachers will be judged more strictly for no other reason than presuming to be teachers. (James 3:1) No one received a harsher and less deserved judgment than his half brother, the one given “the tongue of the teacher” who did not hide his face from insult and spitting. But the lesson the teacher learned "morning by morning" was not sufficient to sustain his life when at the third hour he was stripped naked and nailed to wood. Of course it was because in faithfulness he gave his back to those who struck him and his cheek to those who pull out the beard that the Word made flesh was not put to shame even when subjected to a cruel and unjust death. This is the mystery of God becoming one with all that has gone so horribly wrong with the creation so that the creator is crucified by those created in the image of God. And the final irony is that he is killed for being more righteous than the religion he comes to redeem. If that were the end of his story the story of the world’s suffering would have no end, but since his end is our beginning the weary world will be sustained by the word that even death could not silence.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lent 5b - Conclusion

Every two weeks a number of Lutheran pastors from Fort Worth, TX meet at Calvary for what our Director of Youth and Family Ministry, Janelle, calls a “pastor party.” We call it a pericope study which doesn’t sound as much fun as a party but then youth directors tend to be more fun than pastors. There are times when our pastor pericope party isn’t about a party or a pericope study as this past Wednesday when after some open and honest sharing of pain and sorrow and hope for healing we “circled up” to pray for one another. You probably think we do that all the time but pastors often live in isolation, partly because people put pastors on pedestals and partly because we pretend to like the view from on high. The truth is we are just like the people we pastor and need prayer and comfort as much as, well... the people we pastor. In “the days that are surely coming” pastor and people both “know the Lord” making hearts and minds holy. The honest confession of the psalm – against you only have I sinned – creates in parishioners and pastors a clean heart.  In Hebrews Jesus is designated a priest forever and while pastors might occupy a priestly position thank God it’s not the same thing. And seeing Jesus doesn’t happen any more clearly then when after sharing what is really going on in our lives a pastor party becomes a prayer party.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lent 5b - John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33
“We wish to see Jesus.” My grandmother, Lillian Smith, saw Jesus at the foot of her bed a few nights before she died. Her dog Julie was there too. If that mean little Schnauzer can get into heaven there’s hope for everyone. I’m just saying.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lent 5b - Hebrews 5:5-10

Hebrews 5:5-10
I’ve started and restarted this post a dozen times trying to say something about Melchizedek but truth is he’s just a bit player in the Bible and most of what is said about him is speculation. It may be that I just don’t want to talk about learning obedience from suffering, not a pleasant thought on a spring day in Texas, but that is really the point of this passage. During the days of our lives we experience suffering, both our own and the pain and sorrow of those connected to us. But submission to suffering does not mean grin and bear it since fervent cries and tears are anything but silent. Jesus' obedience is not about being stoic but about being steadfast. He did not cease in crying out and it was obedience unto death that made him perfect. Hebrews is the letter that contains descriptions of Jesus like “since the children have flesh and blood he shared their humanity” (2:14) and “he was tempted as we are in every way, yet without sin” (4:15) and “he suffered death…so he might taste death for everyone.” (2:9) The point of all this is that we who are flesh and blood, tempted in every way, with our days numbered, can hope our fervent cries and tears will be heard from the one who can save us from our death. Not because Jesus is like Melchizedek, but because he was like us and one day we will be like him.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lent 4b - Psalm 51:1-12

All sin is “against you only” which means the careless ways we think and talk about our neighbor are careless thoughts and words directed towards God. It means neglecting the needs of others neglects the needs of God. Injustice tolerated or promoted denies God justice. Love withheld from one another is love withheld from God. The trouble is God’s ways are absolute and we live in shades of grey. "Bones crushed" might question whether God is justified when judging given that we did not choose to be born to mothers who without choosing were also conceived in sin. But God’s judgments are right since even the best among us appear to be unable to overcome the sin that comes naturally and therefore no one lives the joy of salvation without assistance from the Almighty. So by grace God’s face is tuned away from sin while God’s countenance gazes on contrite hearts with tender mercy. Grace recreates hearts, purifies minds and grants willing spirits so that kind thoughts, words and deeds directed towards others are kind, thoughts and deeds directed towards God.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lent 5b - Jeremiah 31:31-34

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days “that are surely coming” have been coming for a long time unless you believe they have already come, in which case “know the Lord” might mean a good number of us already do, even if it appears we don’t. By that I mean some believe as if they know the Lord but behave as if they don’t and others who behave as if they know the Lord believe in ways that indicate they don’t. We can’t seem to agree on what “know the Lord” means and even the cross becomes a subject for debate. Does the cross only dot the i but we still need to cross the t? Or is the free gift of grace truly free? I don’t know for sure but I can tell you this in all honesty. I need “the day is surely coming” to be true for me right now because I remember my sins everyday and I am sure to believe I am damned if God does as well.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lent 4b - Conclusion

In 1975 I was the wrangler at Camp Lone Star in LaGrange, Texas. Through the course of the summer I encountered any number of snakes, including a two foot red and yellow and black one that next to the copperheads and cotton mouths I saw everyday looked harmless enough. So I went to pick it up. Of course it bit me at which point I wished some Texan would have told me “red and yellow kill a fellow; red and black venom lack.” At that moment I did not think of putting a Coral snake on a pole and looking at it. Instead I killed it and showed it to the Camp Director whose reaction suggested this was not his first rodeo with kids from Chicago who do dumb things like pick up snakes in Texas. After a wild ride to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin and a dose of anti-venom I returned to camp 36 hours later with a snake skin and a story. The snake on a pole story in Numbers reminded the people that there is a consequence for complaining but also a remedy. In the same way the Psalm recounts the stories of Israel’s rebellion and redemption. Following the ways of the world is a punishment in and of itself while the free gift of grace comes at no cost to you but great cost to Christ. And in the Gospel Jesus comes to complete God’s story and ours. He is not a snake on a pole but he is the anti-venom for death itself so that we might know the life that is eternal in our everyday. But that being true if you happen to be out and about in your everyday and see a snake whatever you do, don't pick it up. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lent 4b - John 3:14-21

Hezekiah broke the bronze serpent into pieces (2 Kings 18:3-4) because the people were burning incense to it – which you might have done if as a child you were told the boogie man story of deadly vipers in the desert. But in the Gospel of John God repeats the feat in a time when the poison of complaining was the contagion of religious ritual were hearts were far from God while lips piously offered praise. Our worship is idolatrous when it fails to understand God prefers real relationship to ritual or when our professed love of God does not translate into a life lived for the neighbor which is the way we love the world God so loved. Anything less turns the cross into just another snake on a pole where darkness masquerades as light. But whereas the image Moses fashioned became something that needed to be broken into pieces it is the Son of God “high and lifted up” that breaks us so that we might be refashioned to love the light and live the life that is eternal in our everyday. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lent 4b - Ephesians 2:1-10

Most of my following “children of wrath” ways have been lived at my own expense though I won’t deny there has been collateral damage. But that is to be expected when one is driven to satisfy the cravings of the flesh with its thoughts and desires. The trouble is transgressions and sins can be easily identified in wanton ways but are not so easy to detect when hidden behind walls of self-righteous piety. To be saved by grace means those who know they are far from God and those who think they share the corner office with the Almighty occupy the same room, which is to say, the place we neither design nor control and where all are welcome because God loves people we don't. So the truth that escapes us time and again is that the One who could return wrath for wrath is rich in mercy but only as a remedy and not as an excuse. What God believes, even if we don’t, is that love is the way wrathful hearts are warmed and hardened hearts are softened so that we all become as merciful as the one who created both.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lent 4b - Psalm 107:1-3; 17-22

Psalm 107 is a long song that describes the rebellious ways of God’s people. It is something most of us don't like to acknowledge but the truth is our life of faith is not consistently faithful. Like the children of Israel described in Psalm 107 we wander in the wilderness and sit in darkness and are rebellious and fearful and wicked and then in the end are humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow brought about by the paths we choose to walk. When all else fails we turn back to the Lord who is good and whose mercy endures forever. But then we grow comfortable and complacent and conceited and find ourselves back in the dark places we had hoped never to inhabit again. The good news is that God’s goodness endures forever even when our faithfulness does not so that when we again tire of "the high cost of living ain’t half the cost of living high” (Jamey Johnson) wicked ways the God whose love endures forever is waiting to bind up our broken hearts and set our captive souls free. Maybe this time we’ll have learned our lesson and stay put – but I wouldn’t count on it and I bet God doesn’t either.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lent 4b - Numbers 21:4-9

Numbers 21:4-9
If the Lord could talk to Moses through a burning bush, beat the great and powerful Oz (Pharaoh) at his own game and part the Red Sea with an upraised arm and a stick you’d think the Lord could come up with a better menu than manna three times a day seven days a week. I’m just saying. And even if the recently freed slaves complain about the Sinai Diet © while waxing nostalgic about the meal package in Egypt I think getting bit by vipers is overkill for what comes naturally to human beings. When push comes to shove heaven knows we will blame or complain. Then again if God could get the children of Israel out of jail free with "a mighty word and an outstretched arm" they should have trusted that manna was just the appetizer for a Promised Land happy meal of milk and honey. Maybe that is true for us as well. Times of trouble, as difficult as they are to bear, are in the end still temporary and call for trust that the God who provided in the past is more than able to get us through the present while we journey towards the promised future.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Lent 3b - Conclusion

The lessons for Lent 3b begin with the Ten Commandments and end with Jesus trashing the temple. In a similar contrast Psalm 19 is practically giddy about the perfect path of the Lord’s commands while the apostle Paul is equally passionate about the Christ of the cross who does away with what we do in favor of what God does for us. So which is it? Are we saved by what we do or by what has been done? As one of my seminary professors used to respond to such questions, “You’ve asked the wrong question.” The psalmist celebrating the perfect law while praying to be set free from hidden faults and presumptuous sins might be the way to understand what these lessons are all about. God intends the commands and ordinances to order our lives because living in such a way is a richer way to spend the short time we have breathing earth’s air, but whatever happens after that is all about the God that the cross reveals as worthy of trust. So we rely fully on the grace of God while living fully the law of the Lord. So which is it? Is it Law or Gospel? To which my seminary professor would simply say, “Yes.”

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lent 3b - John 2:13-25

"Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" by New Zealand artist Michael Smither, 1972 (Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, New Zealand)
John 2:13-25
“What a friend we have in Jesus…” doesn’t harmonize very well with John’s whip wielding, table tipping, Jesus gone wild. But then this temple tantrum is about more than just bake sales and Starbucks in the narthex. In three and a half years Jesus has had plenty of reasons to react with all consuming zeal towards those who opposed his message but other than some name calling, “you brood of vipers” Jesus shows great restraint. Even on the cross, where you or I might be tempted to cuss, Jesus forgives. So why does Jesus call out the dove sellers and go ballistic in the temple mall? “Zeal for your house will consume me” is what the disciples remember later but in the heat of the moment I imagine even some of his followers might have thought he went too far. The temple sacrifices prescribed by law were about avoiding the jealous God “who visits punishment on the children for the sins of the parents” by obeying the God who shows steadfast love towards generations that keep the commandments. But Jesus objects to the house’s profit margin and not just because his Father holds the mortgage. No. This is about a human institution masquerading as a holy one and making monetary demands in the name of God. “Stop bringing me meaningless sacrifices” is how God speaks about the system through the prophet Isaiah. “Love justice, act with kindness, walk humbly with your God” is what God requires according to Micah. In the end it will be the human house that consumes Jesus with blood thirsty zeal. “Crucify!” What they couldn’t see coming was that consuming Jesus on the cross was the way God would make our human houses holy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lent 3b - 1 Corinthians 1:8-31

The message about the cross has become so familiar it has lost much of its foolishness to those who are perishing.  And even we who are being saved prefer a sanitized version of the real thing. The cross is decorated with gold and jewels and made to be an object of art rather than the brutal instrument of death the Romans used to control civil unrest and punish common criminals. The foolishness of the cross is that God would chose to die stripped naked and nailed to wood when twelve legions of angels were chomping at the bit to do some damage to whoever dared lay a finger on the blessed Son. But then our way would be to save ourselves at the expense of everyone else. God chooses to bear the expense of our blood lust and cruelty in the body of Jesus to save a world with suicidal tendencies, hell bent on destruction.  If God displays power in weakness and reveals wisdom in foolishness, maybe we who proclaim the cross as the power and wisdom of God should live the sort of sacrificial life that shames the strong and makes foolish the wise rather than pursuing  power and prestige. But that would be stupid, wouldn’t it?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lent 3b - Psalm 19

Psalm 19
“Above all keep me from presumptuous sins “is how the NRSV translates “keep back your servant from the insolent” that would gain dominion over us. We usually think of sin in terms of weakness but these sins are acts of avarice and pride. These presumptuous, “hidden faults” left undetected grow into the great transgressions from which the psalmist prays to be spared. It is when we live in ignorance of our complicity in the patterns of thought, word and deed that deaden the heart and whither the soul that our lives grow increasingly disconnected to the source of light and life. The trouble is we can become accustomed to life in the shadows and think all is well when those around us can see it isn’t. As difficult as it is to hear the truth about ourselves it is a means of grace whereby God returns us to the place of peace where the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts are acceptable to our Rock and Redeemer, and everyone else as well.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lent 3b - Genesis 20:1-20

I know that well-meaning people believe posting the Ten Commandments in public spaces will help society adhere to them but if clearly posting laws at regular intervals meant compliance there would be fewer speeding tickets. The Ten Commandments were given to the people of Israel after their cries for freedom were answered. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of slavery.” Relationship with God is the foundation upon which the commandments stand and the only way to begin to live them is to remember that God acted first. Which means every “thou shall” or “thou shall not” needs to be prefaced with a “therefore” as in “I am the Lord your God” therefore… When we understand the commandments from the standpoint of a loving relationship with the God who rescued people for no other reason than their desperate cries prompted merciful action the commandments can be understood as a gift to be lived and not a rigid rule to regulate life or a burden we must bear to be accepted. We love God above all else and honor the name that is holy setting aside a day of rest because God loved us first. All the rules for living with each other depend on how well we live with God as in “You are my people that I love, therefore… love each other.” Jesus said it best. Love God. Love neighbor.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Lent 2b - conclusion

I imagine Peter needed a hug after Jesus’ rebuke which was a little over the top, don’t you think? I mean Peter might be dumb as a rock but I don’t think he qualifies as the Prince of Darkness. But then I don’t think Jesus was talking to Peter per se. It was the temptation that Peter’s “don’t talk about dying” presented that Jesus rebuked. And in this case a friend’s advice to avoid great suffering, rejection and death was temptation indeed. In the same way Abraham is tempted to give up on the pregnant promise that is long overdue but instead, as the apostle Paul writes, hoped against hope that his body as good as dead would eventually bear the blessing. The psalmist could stay in the place of forsakenness but instead imagines telling a people yet unborn that the tragic beginning has a happy ending. So I hope two weeks into the Lenten fast you are not tempted beyond your ability to resist whatever you’ve determined to give up for the sake of the one who took on our sin and gave up his life.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lent 2b - Mark 8:27-38

The divine thing Peter’s mind could not comprehend was how his idea of a butt kicking, conquering hero Messiah could undergo great suffering, rejection and death. That was not the Messiah program that Peter signed on to when he left his nets to follow. And more to the point, his earthly idea was to be the rock upon which the Jesus church would be founded, even if the two blowhard brothers, James and John, were lining up to sit at Jesus right and left. In the end he is the only disciple brave enough to follow the bound and gagged Jesus into the courtyard even though when push comes to shove his courage fails him. Perhaps his bitter tears have as much to do with being ashamed of Jesus as hearing the cock crow. We’re not so different and much of what passes as priestly piety is really about power. Earthly boundaries erected around font and table and pulpit and pew can be ways we save our life instead of losing it for those God came to save.  Even claims of “Love wins!” might miss the point of what God is about when you consider that winning only happens when someone else loses. So if love does win, which I believe it does, it’s only because Jesus was willing to be the biggest loser.