Tag Archives: lent

He drew in the sand. Godspell Lent, part 3 #tryLENT

This is part three of the Godspell journey in Lent. The theme for the week is Conflict, and the song is “By My Side.”

Part 1: Prepare Ye the Way.

Part 2: Jesus Plays The Clock Game.

heart in the sandHe drew in the sand.

The woman was in front of him. As were the Pharisees and legal experts who brought her to him and the regular crowds there in the Temple.

She was faced with public humiliation and scorn in the very least. Capital punishment, though unlikely, still placed on the table before her. A pawn in a game played by powerful men, the woman has no name. We know nothing of her history. Nothing of her circumstances. We know only that she is a slut, an adulteress, unworthy of being treated as a human, and we know that only because the powerful men say so.

“Caught in the act of adultery,” is what they say. How exactly they caught her is unclear. Was she set up? Was she raped? Where is the man? They claim to be holding to the Law, but the fact is, the men care little about the Law. They use it for their own good. They use it for their own benefit, setting themselves up over and above all others. They aren’t interested in justice. If they cared about the law, then where is the man? Leviticus 20:10 requires that both the man and the woman caught in adultery are to be executed. The alternative is that the woman wasn’t yet married. Adultery laws were based entirely on property rights, so if the woman wasn’t yet completely the property of another, than the man did nothing wrong. Instead, if she was simply betrothed to another man, she alone would suffer the consequences.

And while this sort of inter-gospel speculation is something I usually avoid, I cannot help but see this as a possible part of the story. While the accusers saw simply a woman who could be used in their game, perhaps Jesus saw something else. When Jesus looked at this woman, a woman pregnant and betrothed to another, perhaps he saw part of his own story. This, clearly, is pretty wild speculation, but it is speculation that fits. This whole story is wrought with speculation. There are dependable reasons to think that John 8:1-11 is not authentically John. There is good reason to think it was added later, maybe much later, than the already late writing of the Gospel of John. In most modern Bibles, the fact that this story isn’t found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John is noted. Yet it remains a part of the story. It remains so because it feels like it fits.

In the musical Godspell this story is a turning point. It is a place where the community starts to question. This is where the community starts to wonder. The telling of this story is not done in the third person. It is not acted with frivolity and joy. It is the source of genuine discord, and a lot hangs in the balance of Jesus’ reaction. His response is a part of the cultural understanding of Jesus. Even those that know little of the man know the words that are attributed to him, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In the musical, there is a moment of tension before the community comes back together. The response to this crisis is the song “By My Side,” a beautifully haunting song that describes the groups resolve to move forward. The song however, ends with Judas deciding once and for all he had enough. At the end of the song, the community was tested by the conflict, and most of them decide to stick with Jesus even if doing so can be difficult. Judas decides to betray Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, the passage plays an important role in seeing what is at stake. The story isn’t about the law or justice. It’s not even really about grace. The story is about the leaders operating under the system that creates winners and losers, and about how Jesus refused to play along. The leaders care nothing about the woman nor her supposed sins. All they care about is beating Jesus. They want to trap him. They put him in a situation which cannot be won. Either he picks to condemn her, which upholds the Law, but jeopardizes him in the eyes of the Roman government, who are the only ones able to inflict capital punishment; or he chooses to let her go, thus making a mockery of the Law. They think they have him cornered. Either way he breaks the law. And how does Jesus respond?

He plays in the sand.

He refuses to get caught in their trap. Instead of seeing a pawn placed in front of him as a challenge, he sees a woman. His answer befuddles those that sought to trap him, and they leave one by one.

In our story of Godspell, this is when Judas had enough. This is the moment it was just too much to take. He wanted there to be a winner and loser, and he wanted to be on the winning side. Jesus, on the other hand, is not on anyone’s side. He is not interested in winning and losing. He was not willing to get caught up in the conflict – at least not in this conflict. He was not going to choose between the Law and grace because this is a false choice. I’m not saying that Jesus avoided conflict. He simply chose to meet conflict on his ground, in his way. He faced the conflict with nonviolence, with the power of grace and forgiveness, and with a will that was in perfect union with God the Father.

He faced the ultimate conflict when he faced the cross. Those that crucified him saw that as the ultimate trap. Finally, they forced his hand. They asked him if he was king. They demanded that he either declare himself King and attempt to rule, or  face death and be defeated. When he hung from the cross they thought they finally had him, but once again, Jesus refused to play along.

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Jesus hosts The Clock Game: “Higher, Higher, Higher”

Part two of our #TryLENT journey with the Godspell, the musical. Read Part one: Prepare Ye the Way.

Remember the Clock Game? It is a The Price is Right classic, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. The premise is so simple: just name the exact price of the prize, and you win it. You have as many guesses as you can muster in the 30 seconds on the clock. The contestant says a price, and the host says simply “higher,” or “lower,” until the right price is found. Above is a video of a woman who won $1 million playing the game. It helps that she nailed the first price on the first guess. It also helped that the second price was a nice round number. Still, it was an impressive feat.

This is the second part of our Godspell journey, and there is a great part of the musical that tells the story of Matthew 18:21-35. It is the story of a servant who owes his master ten thousand talents. I think the amount, taking exchange rates and translations into account, is one bajillion dollars. Actually, it is an amount that equals 60 million days of labor, so it may as well be a bajillion. When the master wants to collect the debt, the servant begs for mercy and promises to pay the master back. Clearly this is absurd promise. It would take him over 150,000 years to pay the master back. The master though, takes compassion on the servant, and forgives the entire debt. It feels like a happy ending, but then the servant goes and sees a fellow servant who owes him money. The second servant, facing a debt of about two month’s pay, seeks the same mercy. It is refused. When the master gets wind of the refusal, he’s mad. “I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33).

This is a great parable about forgiveness, and it is important to hear the echo of the Lord’s Prayer in the background, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” On its own, it is a great fable about compassion and how we should behave as a people who have been granted mercy. Our of our gratitude for the mercy we have been shown, we should show others the same mercy. Given Jesus’ intro to the story however, where he plays a little bit of the Clock Game, it takes an even greater weight.

Yes, Jesus plays the Clock Game with the disciples as a part of a long teaching about the nature of the community Jesus is forming. Back at the beginning of the chapter Jesus is asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (Matthew 18:1). His answer includes several parables and tweetable quotes, like:

      “I assure you that if you don’t turn your life around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom.” (18:3)

 

    “Those who humble themselves like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcome me.” (18:4)”If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away.” (18:8)”If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine to search for the one that wandered off?” (18:13)”If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together… But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others.” (18:15-16)

The disciples are taught that humility matters. They are taught to avoid sin as much as they can, but Jesus acknowledges that sin is going to happen. So he tells them how to work to bring people back into community. He tells individuals to do all that they can (I’m assuming that the cutting off the hand thing is hyperbole) to avoid sin. He is also telling the community to work hard at keeping in community – even in the face of those that sin against you. So Peter, who seems to be getting it, starts to play The Clock Game.

The prize: Community. It is the ability to stay together as the Body. It is nothing less than entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, which is inseparable from connection to the Community. So Peter guesses at the price of community. His first guess is seven times. Jesus’ response? “Higher.”

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive them as many as seven times?’

“Jesus said, ‘Not just seven times, but seventy and seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

So does Jesus mean 77 times?

Higher.

Does he mean 70 times 7 times?

Higher.

Does he mean a bajillion times?

Now we’re getting closer.

This feels like an impossible task, but the task of staying in community is never easy. Being in community is full of difficulty. It is full of pain, pitfalls, and disappointment. Being a community means that faulted, hurtful, selfish people are going to come together for long enough to see the faults, the hurt, and the selfishness.Yet it is only in community that we may know Christ.

The only way to God is through community. Are there moments of individual revelation? Of course. Are there moments when solitude is a holy experience? Yes. But any full pathway to God includes others. It includes doing the hard work of justice, mercy, kindness, grace, and love. And if we are going to be in community, we need to forgive. Day by day, every day. We are need of forgiveness, and called to extend forgiveness to others. It is not an easy task. It takes a lasting, growing, long-term relationship with Christ and others to be able to remain in community.

Day by day, the Godspell song says. Day by day I pray for three things, to “see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.” Those things don’t come easily. They don’t come magically after saying a prayer, or after having water poured on your head at baptism. Seeing God more clearly is a process of practicing intentional grace. The only way to see God more clearly is to see God in the face of others. See God in the face of strangers, in the face of homeless man on the street, in the face of immigrants struggling to make a life, in the face of the women on your screen with nothing else on, in the face of those that want to do us harm. It is no easy task to see God clearly. I’d much prefer a caricature of God, one that looks like me, acts like me, worships like me, works hard like me, and thinks like me. So Day by day I pray. I pray for the compassion it takes to forgive. I pray that God will have the same kind of compassion on me. And I play The Clock Game.

How many times will I be forgiven? How many times am I called to forgive my brother and sister? How many times will I be invited into community? How many times can I see the face of God in another? How many days will I have to live in the Kingdom, if I but answer the call? How many times will Christ call me back?

Seven. Higher

Seventy Seven. Higher…

Seventy times Seven. Higher…

Higher…

Higher…

 

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Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. It begins in the middle of the story, and ends before it’s over.

Mark begins John baptizing people in the Jordan River. There’s no wise men, no manger or shepherds. There’s no virgin Mary or stunned Joseph. There’s no Christmas at all. There’s just John, the wild and wooly prophet telling people to change their lives and minds, and look forward to the coming one. Jesus shows up pretty quickly, and is baptized. As he comes out of the water, Jesus hears a voice from the heavens, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Thus marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thus marks the beginning of the musical Godspell. Thus marks our beginning of Lent, and our photo journal. For the next few weeks I will be writing and reflecting on different themes, songs, and stories that are found in Godspell. After a prologue, Godspell begins with John the Baptist blowing the shofar and calling the people to baptism. In our production, the children are the first ones up. Then they bring the adults with them to the stage. We sing joyfully, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” until Jesus comes to be baptized as well. It is the start of the musical. More importantly, it is the start of our journey. We are invited this week to take pictures of things that makes us think of “Prepare the Way,” and words like begin, embark, baptize, water, and Spirit. Some began the journey by sharing pictures, all of which you can see on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter using the hashtag #tryLENT. These are some that were shared on various social media:

Announce

Announce

Begin

Begin

Start

Start

Water

Water

The Jordan River

The Jordan River

 

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. It begins with these words: “From dust were you formed, and to dust you will return. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These were the words I used as I applied ashes to the foreheads and hands of those that came forward on Ash Wednesday. As the start of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a chance to take the sign of the cross in ash, and begin the journey toward Easter. We begin the season of Lent with reminder of our own mortality, a call to repentance, and a call to faith.

Why then, on the first Sunday of Lent do we share the story of Jesus being baptized? Why the sudden shift from Death, mortality, and repentance to baptism? Because it really isn’t that much of a shift. The words of the imposition of ashes are a poignant reminder, and an apt starting point for the journey of Lent.

“From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.” This has not only a theological truth rooted in the second creation story as found in Genesis 2. It has a scientific truth in our understanding of the cosmos. Carl Sagan is famously quoted as saying, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” All of this is to say that we are mortal. The human body was made as a fragile vessel.

When we take on the ash of the cross we are reminded of the simple fact that we will die. The truth of death is one of the only universals of life. It is something we all share. Yet it it is a truth we seldom want to acknowledge. It is good, every now and then, to be reminded of our own mortality. Not to dwell in morbidity or to scare people into believing. Instead, I like to remind myself and others of our mortality so as to savor every breath. Yes, we were formed from dust and to dust we will return. But in between, we are fill with breath. We are filled with life. We are filled with spirit.

On Ash Wednesday my daughter came forward to receive ashes. I placed my finger on her forehead, rubbed some dirt on her and said, “From dust you were formed, and to dust you will return.” I looked into her deep brown eyes and I could scarcely get the words out. It was too much. It was the truth, but in that moment it felt like too much truth. Somehow I got the words out. I was thankful that this was not the end of the imposition. I had more words to speak. Through my tears, I put my hand on her shoulder and continued, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

And thus we get back to the beginning. “Repent and believe in the good news,” was the heart of John’s message while he was baptizing. It was Jesus’ first message after coming back from the wilderness. In Mark 1:16, Jesus says, “Now is the time! Here comes the God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news” (Common English Bible). This translation gives us the meaning for repent. For too many teachers and preachers repentance has to do with shame and guilt. Repentance though, is not about shame. It is about orienting. It is not about looking back, it is about looking ahead. It acknowledges that we have fallen short, but repentance does not allow us dwell on sin. When we repent, we turn. At the beginning of Lent, and at the beginning of this journey, we are invited to repent.

Turn away from those things that distract us from God. Turn away from the things that pull us away from life. Turn away from the things that get in the way of loving God and loving others. Turn toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Turn toward justice, healing, and peace. Turn toward grace. Repent, and believe the good news. And what is that good news? It goes back to Jesus being baptized. When he got out of the water, there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (Mark 1:11, Common English Bible).

The ashes are a reminder of our mortality. They are reminder that we must turn away from the things that keep us from life and toward the things of God. And they are reminder of this good news that we may all share. “You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter, whom God dearly loves. In you God finds happiness.” To believe this statement is as true of me as it is of Jesus is not to believe I am the messiah. It is to understand that God’s love is so full, so abundant, so steadfast, that even I am God’s son. I was formed from dust, given the breath of life, and offered the water of baptism. I am God’s son, adopted into God’s family not because I earned my way to such a distinction, but only by the grace of God.

This is good news. This is truly remarkable news. This is amazing news. It is the kind of news I want to share. It is the kind of news that makes me want to sing. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe in the good news. Prepare the way for a journey with Christ.”


 From February 25-March 3 we’re invited to reflect on “Day by Day.” This song in the musical comes in a time when the community coming together. The song includes the beautiful prayer “See thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.” So the words we should look for are things like follow, grow, see, community, friendship. Please share pictures using #tryLENT


 

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#TRYLent Photo journey through Lent

TRYLent revisedHere’s something we’re going to try at our church, Two Rivers United Methodist Church. From February 16-April 4 everyone will be encouraged to participate in this photo journey. Each week we will have a different theme. Pictures should be marked with the hashtag #TRYLent. TRY stands for Two Rivers Youth. Lent is the time of year when we participate in repentance, preparation, and reflection as we move toward Easter. I love the season of Lent because it is a time to encourage new practices that can bring us closer to God. I don’t focus my energy on “giving something up for Lent.” Last year I wrote about giving up, and the need to give up my own sense of control. I’ve also done a lot in the past to encourage building relationships in Lent by offering the 40 Notes in 40 Days exercise. I’ve also encouraged people to Take something up for Lent.

I’ve participated in photo journeys before. I usually don’t make it more than about a week. That’s why this isn’t a daily journal. Instead, it’s a weekly one. Each week corresponds with the theme of my sermon on the coming Sunday in Lent. I will be preaching in Lent using the songs of Godspell as my guide. I’m going to work to include a blog about each week as well. Here’s the schedule for my sermon series. The posting schedule is Wednesday to Wednesday, so pictures will be posted leading up to the Sunday, and for a few days after. Then shift to the new theme. The exception to that is the week that includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Here’s the schedule:

Feb 18-24 — Prepare the Way.  Themes for the week: Preparation, Baptism, Water, Holy Spirit. The text will be Mark 1:4-13, the baptism of Jesus.

Feb 25-Mar 4 — Day by Day. Themes for the week: Community, Fellowship, Growth, See more clearly, Love more dearly, Follow more nearly. The text will be Mark 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Mar 5-Mar 11 — By My Side. Themes for the week: Pebble in your shoe, Conflict, Tension, Determination, Courage. The text will be John John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery.

Mar 12-Mar 18 — On the Willows. Themes for the week: Sadness, Depression, Lamentation, Betrayal, Judas. The texts will be Psalm 137 and Matthew 26:14-16, which is the moment Judas agrees to betray Jesus.

Mar 19-25 — All Good Gifts. Themes for the week: Thankful, Seed, Harvest, Gifts. The text will be Matthew 13, the parable of the sower.

Mar 26-April 4– We Beseech Thee. Themes for the week: Palms, Crucifixion, Sorrow, Service, Supper, Bread Broken, Washed Feet. The text will be Mark 11:1-11, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday.

Apr 5-Apr 8 — Beautiful City. Themes for the week: Easter, Resurrection, Eternity, Empty Tomb, Wonder. The text will be Mark 16:1-8, the women find the empty tomb.

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I give up

We still get a daily newspaper, and sometimes the only page I touch in the whole thing is the crossword.  I love doing crossword puzzles, especially if they’re not too hard. I can’t even touch the Sunday New York Times crossword.

I like the one in our newspaper because on most days I can fill most of it up.  My favorite part of doing the crossword is when I tackle one big blank part of the puzzle at once after feeling blocked.  In one flash of brilliance the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of right answers comes pouring out.  Whole sections of the puzzle that were once blocked can quickly come alive once I remember that an artichoke is an edible flower, and that acme is a four-letter word for peak.   Eventually though, I hit another block.

I seldom finish the whole thing.  It seems like there is always some intersection of an obscure town in India and the first name of an actress from the thirties that I just can’t figure out.  I try as hard as I can to finish the whole thing, but almost inevitably, I have to seek help.  But first I have to declare to myself, “I give up.”

“I give up” are three powerful words.  On Ash Wednesday, Christians of many stripes feel compelled to give something up.  Most people give up some vice or bad habit.  The practice of self-denial is an ancient spiritual discipline.  Others, and myself in the past, have poo-poohed the idea giving up of things for Lent.  Many writers have warned against the dangers of going through the motions during Lent, or giving up something superficial that won’t really get to the heart of the matter.

While I agree that the sacrifice that the Lord requires is not superficial, I’m giving up judging others’ discipline.  If you want to give up chocolate, who I am to tell you that you shouldn’t do that?  I know what the Lord requires of me.  Nowhere in mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God does it include commenting on your spiritual discipline.

I haven’t decided if I am going to fast for Lent.  In the past I’ve given up chocolate.  I’ve also done daylight food fasts.  For a couple years in a row I didn’t eat any solid foods between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.  Every year I contemplate doing that again, but haven’t attempted it in years.  Last year I tried to write a note to someone for every day of Lent.  I wish I could tell you I actually wrote 40 notes in 40 days.  I can tell you though, that it was a very rewarding experience.

This year I feel ready to give up.  Giving up is an easy thing to do sometimes.

I feel weary, and I don’t think I’m alone.  I feel weary of a world torn by violence in Central Africa, Syria and Venezuela.  I feel weary of impending war in Ukraine.  I feel weary of divisive politics.  I feel weary of debating.  I feel weary of a long and brutal winter that just won’t relent.  I feel weary of social media, being bombarded every day by this post, this article, this meme.  I feel weary of my to-do list, which seems to be growing faster than I can check things off.  I feel weary of reacting harshly at my daughters when they don’t deserve my ire.  I feel weary of the  laundry pile in my basement, the paper pile on my desk, and the snow piles on the street.  Pile after pile seem to come in wave after wave.

And now Lent comes and I’m supposed to give something up, and I can’t pick just one thing.  So I give up.

Pass me the ashes, I give up.

I give up my plan.

I give up my power.

I give up my ability to affect change.

I rub ashes on my head, and mark myself “given up.”  Weary. Tired. Defeated.

I remember that out of dust I was formed. To dust I will return.

I give up.  I confess my failures. I examine my shortcomings.  I reflect on the ways that I cannot do it all.  I resign myself to God’s will, not my own.  I remember that I will die, and pain and suffering will remain, but I will have lived.  I will live without the need to be right every time.  I will live without the need to follow my plan, without the need to check every box, without the need to fix everything.  Out of dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, but in between I am going live.

I am going to live.

I fall on my knees and cry out to God, “I give up.”  God smiles, embraces me and says, “Finally.  Now, allow me…”

And suddenly the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of grace comes pouring out.

The fast I choose is justice, mercy, and kindness.  Not because my actions will solve the world’s problems, but simply because God is.  God is justice.  God is mercy. God is kindness. God is love.  This same God took a pile of dust and breathed life into me, so how else can I live?

I can’t solve the world’s problems.  I can barely finish my laundry.  These ashes are a reminder of my own mortality.  These ashes are a reminder of my own shortcomings.  These ashes are a reminder that God took ashes and formed something that I could never form.  God provides answers I could never know.  God provides paths I could never find.

I give up. I get up with God, and I feel fine.

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40 Notes in 40 Days, 2.0

Read my blog about taking up ashes to begin Lent. “I Give Up.”
40 Notes in 40 Days, 2.0

Last year I introduced this idea for Lent. It was a powerful experience for many who tried it. The point of this exercise is not to get overwhelmed by another thing on your to-do list. The idea is start thinking about relationships. Think about real, past, new, old, strong, strained relationships. As you write your notes, if something cool, unexpected, fun, or funny happens, let me know. Tweet it out using #40Notes40Days.

Read my blog about taking up ashes to begin Lent. “I Give Up.”

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March 5, 2014 · 12:17 am

40 Notes in 40 Days

40notes40days2014Rethink Church has come up with a great Lenten discipline focusing on taking pictures of different themes.  It looks like a great spiritual discipline, and I’m looking forward to seeing the creativity that gets shared in Pinterest and other sites.  A week ago, I decided that one of my Lenten disciplines would be to write 40 notes to people in 40 days.  Inspired by Rethink Church’s effort, I created my own list.  Below is a list of 40 different people to write a note to.

There are no real rules to this idea.  This is just a way to write a note to 40 different people, and pray for them in the process.  I’ll leave the content of the note up to you.  Only share what you feel comfortable sharing with others.  For example, you don’t have to tell someone that you’re writing them a note to fill in their “might be fearful” slot, and you don’t have to offer forgiveness to the person on March 27.  Any note could be as simple as saying, “During the course of my prayers today, you came to mind.  I hope you are doing well.”

And if any readers feel compelled to take this idea, and create a better-looking picture to share, I wouldn’t mind (just please send it to me before you share it).

If you try it, and want to share experiences on twitter, use #40Notes40Days or #FatPastor.  Also, you can go to the facebook page and share on the wall.

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Thank you to two readers who took the idea, and redesigned it for me. I think either of these look a lot nicer than the one I created a couple of years ago.

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Lent Photo a Day #40Days

Lent Photo a Day #40Days

This is an idea to share a Lenten prayer journal. Each day take a photo that captures the subject on the day. It starts Ash Wednesday, and ends the day before Easter. Might I suggest the word “Resurrection” for Easter Sunday? I’ll be posting mine on twitter @FatPastor, with the hashtags #40Days and #RethinkChurch. I just wish I had instagram. I’ve got a very old camera phone, but it should be an interesting endeavor.

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February 10, 2013 · 11:20 pm

Sermon: Lazarus was a miracle and the motive

My first attempt at a podcast. I think the audio is pretty low, so you might have to turn up your volume.

Listen to the sermon by clicking here: Lazarus was a miracle and the motive

Click here for the original blog post from this sermon.

Scripture: John 11:17-52

 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.  Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “ Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you. ”

Jesus told her, “ Your brother will rise again. ”

Martha replied, “ I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day. ”

Jesus said to her, “ I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? ”

She replied, “ Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world. ”

After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “ The teacher is here and he’s calling for you. ” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him.  When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “ Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. ” When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “ Where have you laid him? ”

They replied, “ Lord, come and see. ”

Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “ See how much he loved him! ”  But some of them said, “ He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying? ” Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “ Remove the stone. ”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “ Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days. ”

Jesus replied, “ Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory? ” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “ Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me. ” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “ Lazarus, come out! ” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “ Untie him and let him go. ”

Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.  Then the chief priests and Pharisees called together the council and said, “ What are we going to do? This man is doing many miraculous signs! If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people. ”

One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “ You don’t know anything! You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed. ” He didn’t say this on his own. As high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would soon die for the nation— and not only for the nation. Jesus would also die so that God’s children scattered everywhere would be gathered together as one. From that day on they plotted to kill him.

The Raising of Lazarus, 1962 by John Reilly. From the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Art

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Lazarus: Miracle and Motive

Listen to a podcast of the sermon “Lazarus: Miracle and Motive”

The lectionary text on Sunday is about Lazarus.  The Gospel of John tells us of the illness, death and raising of Lazarus.  This Sunday is exactly why I am not a lectionary preacher.  All too often, the lectionary cuts off stories just when they start to get interesting.

(A note to non-preachers: the lectionary is a tool used by preachers in many denominations to help guide worship.  It is a three-year cycle that offers four different Biblical texts from the gospels, the epistles, the Psalms, and the Hebrew Bible.)

It doesn’t just cut off the story before it gets interesting, it cuts off the story before the most important part is revealed.  The raising of Lazarus, as it is found in the lectionary, is about the power of Jesus.  The story, in typical John fashion, has Jesus almost floating around in his divine cloud, then raising his dead friend with only words.  The one glimpse of Jesus’s humanity is revealed in words of the story, “Jesus wept.”

To me though, the story of Lazarus is not so much about the power of Jesus.  The story of Lazarus is about how people react to this miracle.  The lectionary selection ends with, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (John 11:45, NRSV).

It sounds like a happy ending.  Jesus raises his friend.  Everyone rejoices.  Many people believe in him – “Woo Hoo!”  Here’s the problem: that’s only part of the reaction.  Ending the story here is irresponsible, and I think is symptomatic of a much greater problem we have in the church (and our culture) today.

Everyone likes the happy ending.  I can understand that, but focusing on the happy ending without also seeing the dangerous ramifcations of what Jesus accomplished simply capitulates to a christianish way of knowing Jesus.

Read more of the story – the part that the lectionary (and thus thousands of churches on Sunday) cuts out:

But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation,and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. (John 11:46-53, NRSV)

Here we see the other reaction to Jesus.  In Lazarus, we see Jesus’s greatest earthly demonstration of his power.  We see Martha recognize Jesus as the “Mesiah.”  We see many come to believe in Jesus.  We see Jesus offer life, and ultimately, we see those in power respond with death.

It can be difficult to understand their motive.  Why would they want Jesus dead?  He offers life.  Why would they respond with death?  It is hard to understand. Didn’t they understand what they were doing?  Why would they respond with death?  Didn’t they understand that Jesus offered life? Didn’t they know his power?

The answer is: Yes.  They understood, and that is why they were scared.  Their response was motivated primarily by fear.  They feared Jesus because his was a power they could not abide.  They feared Jesus because he was threatening their way of life.  He was threatening their comfort, their position, and ultimately their power.  The Chief Priests were in power because they had capitulated to the greatest power that the world had ever known – the Roman empire.

They killed Jesus because he offered life, and they knew that the only thing that Rome had to offer was death.  They killed him because he offered life.  They killed him because they understood what his message was, and now they realized that he had real power behind him as well.  Until Lazarus, he was just another reformer.  He was just a vagabond with some followers stirring up trouble here and there.  After Lazarus they knew his power.  They knew they were in trouble.

It is unfortunate that in most churches on Sunday, no one will hear this part of the story, because hearing this part of the story makes us answer the question: What is our response to Jesus?  Who are we going to be like, Martha – calling Jesus the Mesiah, or the Chief Priests – fearing what Jesus might do if he were allowed to live.

Before you jump to an answer, let me offer this: If you don’t have a little bit of fear, then I think you might be christian-ish, or as Kendra Creasy Dean would put it, you might be Almost Christian.  I say this because I think the Chief Priests had it more right than most people give them credit for.  Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus has the power to turn your life upside down.  Jesus offers life, but he also offers a cross.  He offers life, but only to those that would turn their life away.  He offers comfort, but only to those that mourn.  Jesus came to afflict the comfortable.  He came to turn sons against fathers and daughters against mothers.

If we don’t have at least a little bit of fear about what discipleship really means, than I’m not sure we really get it.  Following Jesus can lead people into dark places – uncomfortable, dirty, smelly places.  It can lead us into danger, and bring us into contact with dangerous people.  Following Jesus calls us to our pews and our hymns and our rituals, but it also demands that we go out into the world.  Jesus calls us to love.  And love can be difficult sometimes.

Following Jesus means that we have to love, and its okay if that scares you a little.  It should.  It means that you’re paying attention.  It means that you have your eyes wide open to the cost of discipleship.  It means that you didn’t stop reading the story of Lazarus with the “Woo Hoo!” moment.

The Church, by and large, on Sunday will end the story of Lazarus with a happy ending, but they will forget to see the danger of what Jesus did.  Jesus revealed that his power was of God, and those that held onto Earthly power reacted in the only way they knew how.  But here’s the part the chief priests didn’t understand: they thought the death they gave him would be the end of him.

They thought the cross they hung him from would break him.  They thought the tomb they sealed him in would keep him.

How wrong they were.  And how wrong we are if we think that the power of Jesus is something that shouldn’t be feared.  I hope that when the Church hears Jesus cry, “Lazarus, come out!”  all the people heed his words.

Church, Come out!  Come out of your comfort zone.  Come out of your fortress.  Come out of your “good old days.”  Come out of your sin.  Come out of the lies that tell us how to succeed, consume, spend, buy, then donate and be happy.  Come out of your slumber, and go into the Kingdom.  Come out of your slumber, and go into your  mission.  Come out of your slumber, and go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Go knowing that it can be dangerous.  Go knowing that Christ is with you.  Go knowing that the Holy Spirit will sustain you.  Go knowing that love is the only power that lasts.

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