Tag Archives: Lent

“White Supremacy, Systemic Racism, and Where We Fit within these Systems: It’s Confession Time” – Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

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“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Luke 13:31-35

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” we hear Jesus crying out this morning. “How often have I desired to gather your children – all your children – together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But you were not willing!”

You see, as a mother hen longs to gather together all her chicks so that they are equally taken care of, Jesus longs to gather all of God’s children so that we are equally taken care of, as well.

And yet, just as Jesus lived in a world full of inequalities, oppression, and persecution, here we are, in a world where 49 of God’s beloved children are murdered in their place of worship by an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant white nationalist. And here we are, in a country that was built upon genocide and slavery due to white supremacy and where systemic racism continues to bleed throughout our society.

As I hear Jesus crying out in our Gospel this morning, I can’t help but wonder which cities and countries he is lamenting over today.

So let us join him in a time of lament as we take a moment of silence to lift up our Muslim siblings around the world as well as all our siblings who suffer at the hands of white supremacy.

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Many of you may be aware that during Lent, we – as a congregation – are taking this time to learn more about systemic racism that continues to prevail throughout our country and our world – and particularly to examine our own place and roles in these racist systems in order for us to work toward dismantling them. During this season of the church calendar, we are reading and discussing the book: “Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

Now, this past Thursday morning at our very first book discussion, our Vicar, Noah, had us reread the Invitation To Lent, which is read every year as we enter the season of Lent during our Ash Wednesday service. And this was a perfect reading to begin our Lenten journey of exploring the sin of systemic racism and how and where we fit into these racialized systems.

You see, the Invitation to Lent reminds us that since our “sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation,” we must “acknowledge our need for repentance and for God’s mercy.” The invitation calls us: “as disciples of Jesus… to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.” And it invites us “therefore, to the discipline of Lent – self examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love” as we “continue our journey through these forty days toward the great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

When we read this invitation during our Thursday morning book discussion, someone pointed out how scary and difficult this all sounds.

And he is not wrong. None of this is easy!

To name and call out systems of injustice that oppress some in order to uplift others is difficult. Because those who stand at the front of the line in these systems rarely like to give up their position in the line and the power that comes with it, even if it means allowing those who have been at the back of the line to move forward. And the same goes for those who stand in the middle of the line, as well.

You see, it is not easy to let go of our positions of power, our comfort, and our sense of safety and security, even if it means that others are being marginalized and harmed because of it. In fact, most of us do not even realize where we stand in the line, how we even got to that place, or how people who stand behind us are suffering because we stand in front of them. Because when you stand in a line, all you have to do is look forward. And the closer you are to the front of the line, the fewer the people you actually see.

And when we do eventually start to look backwards, it is not always easy to acknowledge what we do see when we are closer to the front of the line. It is not easy to come to terms with where we stand, how we benefit from being in that placement, or how that placement perpetuates harm, such as systemic racism and all the inequalities that come with it. And it is not easy to realize how holding onto our position in the line keeps those behind us in their place.

Acknowledging and challenging systemic racism and injustice is far from easy.

And we see this in our Gospel text this morning.

You see, throughout his ministry, Jesus has been proclaiming a Kingdom of God that is quite contrary to the exclusive Roman Empire of his day. This Kingdom of God includes not just those who hold power in society, but it also includes those who lack it the most.

And right before our passage, Jesus says that in this Kingdom of God, people will come from north and south, east and west and will all eat together at the very same table. And he even goes as far as saying that in this kingdom, those who have been last will be first and that those who have been first will be last.

This upside down Kingdom of God is radically different from the way the systems of Jesus’ day worked. And it threatens those who are in power, particularly King Herod. And so at that very hour, some Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him to leave, “for Herod wants to kill you,” they say to him.

No, this holy kingdom work is not easy.

But no matter how dangerous the situation is for him, Jesus is not going to stop proclaiming this Kingdom of God that flips the systems of injustice upside down and that calls those in power to move to the back of the line so that those in the back can move to the front and be fully included.

“Go,” Jesus says to the Pharisees, “And tell that fox, King Herod, that I have some holy kingdom work to do, and I will finish my work on the third day: on God’s time.”

And you see, the hardest thing about this is: we are commanded to follow Jesus in this holy work of dismantling systemic racism, no matter how dangerous or difficult it might be. Because systemic racism is a sin and it is evil. And it holds us back from loving God and loving others.

And as the Invitation to Lent reminds us: “as disciples of Jesus, (we are called) to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.”

Now how we go about doing this antiracism work is going to depend on where we stand in line.

And while there are systems that keep me from being in the very front of the line – such as my gender, my sexual orientation as someone who is bisexual, my economic class (since I don’t fit into the very top in this country), or anything else that may have held me back: as a person who is white, the color of my skin (as well as other privileges I have), still place me somewhere toward the front of the line.

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A few years ago, when I was in the midst of beginning this life-long journey of becoming anti-racist, I read a blog post by the Rev. Denise Anderson, a black pastor in the Presbyterian-USA denomination, who – at the time – was one of the co-moderators of the denomination. This post challenged and encouraged me to take a big difficult step in this antiracism work. Rev. Anderson wrote: “For those of you who ask ‘how many times [police shootings of unarmed black and brown individuals] must happen? I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop.

It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness and white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color).” To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness…” She goes on: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism.

Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is… It’s confession time.”

After reading this, I sat down and made a very difficult and yet really important confession that I posted on Revgalblogpals, a blog I sometimes write for. And since antiracism work is a life-long journey, where I need to continuously confess and repent, I am making this difficult confession to you today:

I am racist.

I wish so much that I wasn’t. I try so hard not to be. But I am.

I think this is such a difficult confession to make because we often think people who are racist are “bad” and are intentionally hateful. Yes, there are many people who say and do overtly racist and hateful things. But the truth is, most people who are racist are good and well-meaning people, who don’t want to be racist, try their hardest not to be, and don’t even realize they are.

You see, I don’t belong to extremist groups like the KKK, call people racist names, or say things that are overtly racist. I even shut down jokes and call out comments that I recognize are racist. And yet, I am still racist.

I grew up in a diverse town and went to diverse schools. I currently live and work in Edgewater, which is an incredibly diverse community, and I have friends, neighbors, mentors and even a family member who are persons of color. And yet, I am still racist.

I follow people of color on facebook and twitter, read books and articles about racism and white privilege, attend anti-racism workshops, and participate in marches and rallies that address systemic racism.

But despite all of this: I am still racist.

Why?

Because my entire life I have been socialized to be. I have been conditioned to see the world through my eyes (the eyes that belong to a white body, which is the kind of body our society has supported, deemed the “norm,” and uplifted as superior for over 400 years.)

My school textbooks have been written from a white perspective. My television shows, movies, and books have been dominated by characters who look like me. The media I follow often perpetuates harmful racialized stereotypes and biases – no matter how progressive it might be.

Despite that my family taught me that all people were created in God’s image and deserve to be treated equally, I am still racist.  When I first see a person of color, I still sometimes fail to see her as an individual and instead see her as a stereotype. When I hear people of color share their stories of being racially profiled or denied upward mobility in their workplaces, I still sometimes question if their experiences are valid.

There are still times I say, think, or do things that I don’t even realize are racist and that perpetuate systemic racism. There are still times when I worry too much about ticking off my white friends or accidentally saying something that is offensive to my friends of color that I don’t speak up when I should. There are still times when I am in the virtual or physical spaces of my siblings of color and I end up wanting to center myself. And when people call me out on any of this, there are still times I feel defensive and focus more on my own discomfort than on the fact that black and brown lives matter more than my feelings.

You see, I am a white person who was raised in a country that was founded on white supremacy (the belief that white people are inherently superior to people who are not) and that throughout its history has continued to reinforce this white supremacy through social and political forces (the mass genocide of indigenous people living on this land, slavery, the Indian Removal Act, Jim Crow, redlining and blockbusting, the Urban Renewal Program, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, racialized policing – to name just a few)… As white person who has inherited all of this history and thus has been immersed in the culture that comes with it, it is extremely difficult to shed myself fully from my own racist views, biases, thoughts, and ways I believe the world should function… No matter how hard I try.

I am stuck in this 400 year old deeply engrained racialized system that not even the activists of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s could completely free us from.

And I benefit from this system. My whiteness is a privilege in it.

For example, as a white person, people look at me as an individual, not a stereotype. I will never be denied a loan, housing, or job interview because of my skin color. A store clerk will never follow me closely to ensure I don’t steal anything, and I will never be taken advantage of by a car salesperson because of my whiteness.

I have always had access to quality education and upward mobility. My white body is not seen as a threat. People will never look at me and think I could be a terrorist because of the color of my skin. People will not call the cops if they see me taking a walk in their neighborhood past sundown or quickly move to the other side of the road when they see me walking on the sidewalk where they are walking. I will not be pulled over in my car for no reason or on my bike because I look “suspicious.”

And if I do get pulled over, I will never have to worry that if I reach for my ID in my pocket, make a quick move, or even mouth back, I could get shot.

Among many things, racism denies the humanity in God’s beloved children and fails to see that God created all God’s children good, in God’s image, and beautifully and wonderfully just the way they are.

Racism is a painful and deadly sin.

And I am racist.

I live in a racialized society dominated by racist systems that were founded by white supremacy. And I benefit from and contribute to these systems.

*****

Now, this may sound incredibly hopeless. But it is not.

Because as Christians, we believe that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he freed the world from its bondage to sin. Does this mean we are no longer sinners? Of course not. Because we are human.

But this does mean that we no longer have to be bound to sin. When we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another, our sin loses its power over us. Confession leads us toward repentance, where – by the grace of God – our hearts, minds, and thoughts begin to be transformed and we start to turn away from our sins.

 And whenever we turn away from something, we also turn toward something in the opposite direction. In this case, for those of us who are white: when we turn away from our sins of racism and white privilege, we turn toward a life of being anti-racists. But we cannot just turn away from our sin, turn toward a new way of life, and then pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. We must continuously and actively move toward this new way of life.

Since the sins of racism and white privilege are so deeply engrained in us and in the racialized systems we participate in and are conditioned by, we must actively check our privilege and racism, confess it, repent of it, and be moved to take action. We must do this over and over and over again.

While I am still racist, I choose to not let racism and white privilege dominate who I am.

 I choose to be actively anti-racist. I choose to learn about and become more aware of my white privilege and how I can work to dismantle it and the harmful racialized systems of which I am a part. I choose to listen to and learn from the voices and the cries of my siblings of color, to show up, and to grieve and stand with them in their pain and anger. I choose to speak with my white siblings about white privilege and interpersonal and systemic racism. I choose not to allow my discomfort, embarrassment, guilt, defensiveness, or the mistakes I have made (and will make) to take over me and hold me back from doing this important work.

While this new way of life is really difficult, in the Christian tradition, we believe that we do not pursue this way of life alone. We do this with the help of God and with one another.

 So, will you join me in this holy anti-racism work?

I need you. We all need each other. So let us do this holy work together.

And as we begin this journey of Lent and this holy work through confession, repentance, and action, let us hold onto the beautiful gift we have: that God, who is rich in mercy, loves us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ.

In Jesus Christ we are indeed forgiven! So now together let us act!

Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Let Us Return To God – Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe

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“It is Ash Wednesday: the day we are called to be reminded of our mortality by receiving ashes – the symbol of mourning and repentance – in the sign of the cross on our foreheads…

From dust we came and to dust we shall return…

And it is on this day that we begin our Lenten path: our journey through the wilderness and toward the cross… Our time to retreat from the busyness of life, to reflect on what it means to be human and children of God, and to open our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways in which God is present in our lives and around us.

It is our time to recognize that life is short, and therefore to reevaluate how our own lives have and can have meaning in this world…

Let us be intentional this Lent. Let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts. And as we do so, let us equip our youth to do the same and walk alongside them in this journey.

1. How do you feel called to return to God with all your heart during this season of Lent?

2. What are some of the things you are giving up and/or taking on this Lent?

3. How are you equipping your youth to make extra space during this season of Lent to return to God and walking alongside them in this journey?”

Read full article here.

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Lent: An Invitation to Retreat”

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Why observe Lent?  How might we observe Lent in our personal lives, with our families, or in our youth ministries?

I’ve shared a few of my thoughts and included a list of Lenten resources (for youth groups, for families, and for personal devotion) in my latest post at Conversations on the Fringe.

“But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser. So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who we are and whose we are.”

To read the rest, click here.

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Ash Wednesday: Let Us Return To God”

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Today I’m blogging over at conversationsonthefringe.com:
“It is Ash Wednesday: the day we are called to be reminded of our mortality by receiving ashes – the symbol of mourning and repentance – in the sign of the cross on our foreheads…
From dust we came and to dust we shall return.
It is on this day that we hear the prophet Joel’s commission:
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
And it is on this day that we begin our Lenten path: our journey through the wilderness and toward the cross…”
You can read the rest here.

“Nevertheless, She Persisted” – Sermon on John 11:1-45

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Try to imagine yourself in the story. 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 

11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

As we get to act two in our story, take note of the emotions of and the interactions between the women and Jesus.

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when (Mary) heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 

In act three of our story, pay close attention to how Jesus takes on the pain of Mary and Martha and how he responds to it.

34(Jesus) said, “Where have you laid him?” (The women) said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 

41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the (crowd), “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. – John 11:1-45

If we keep reading past our assigned text for this morning, we would see that this very loving and compassionate act of raising Lazarus from the dead is what leads to Jesus’ death sentence on the cross. Take a few moments in silence to reflect on what this means about Jesus’ love for Mary and Martha and what it means about his love for us.

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She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

These words – which were originally used to quiet the voice of a woman senator in February – have been turned into the powerful battle cry for many women this past month. It didn’t take too long before these words were made into a hashtag, were being shared through memes, and were even being proclaimed on tattoos and t-shirts.

While many women today know quite well what it’s like to be quieted, nevertheless, they have persisted.

I love how these words especially ring true this morning.

For one thing: here we are, on the first Sunday after the one Women’s History month has come to a close. And while women still continue to be silenced at the pulpits… Well… let’s just say I’m very thankful for the many women who have gone before us to pave the way and for the many communities who do support women in ministry.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

But these words can also be heard crying out this morning through our Gospel text in John.

Here, in the midst of our very long story about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, we keep hearing the voices of Martha and Mary.

And despite the fact that their female voices had no importance or place in society: nevertheless, they persisted.

Now, as we are getting ready to follow Jesus toward Jerusalem beginning next week, some of you might be wondering why I would focus on these women rather than focus on what might seem to be the obvious good news of this story: Jesus’ act of raising Lazarus from the dead and thus foreshadowing his own death and resurrection that we will soon encounter.

And, yes: this is – indeed – good news.  Through Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus conquers death and brings forth new life… And not just in a heavenly kind of sense somewhere “out there” in another time and another place.  But the resurrection of Lazarus shows us that we don’t have to sit around and wait until our physical bodies die before we get to experience this new life Jesus offers us. And we don’t have to wait until Easter before we get to live as resurrection people. Rather, in Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus actually brings about new life right here and right now.

You see, just as Jesus calls Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, he calls us to do so, as well. Jesus calls us out of the tomb, from our own sense of lifelessness, and he frees us from the worldly expectations, insecurities, and sin that bind us. Yes, Jesus offers us new life, calling us to no longer live as we are dead, but rather to choose to live our lives fully.  This is, indeed, good news!

But the thing that I think is often missed when we look at this resurrection story in John is that this good news would not have been proclaimed had it not been for the two women. The resurrection of Lazarus would not have even taken place if it weren’t for the persistence of Martha and Mary.

You see, it was Martha and Mary who sent a message to Jesus letting him know Lazarus was ill in the first place. And when Lazarus died because Jesus had waited around for two whole days before going to Bethany to see him, it was Martha who confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when it seemed like Jesus was not going to do anything about the death of Martha’s brother, it was Martha who ran to her sister, Mary, and told her to go find Jesus.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when Mary was distraught over the death of her brother, it was she who fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

You see, it was the persistence of these two women (whom Jesus loved dearly) that opened his eyes to their pain, which greatly disturbed him in spirit and deeply moved him to tears.

It was Mary and Martha’s persistence that moved the one who is the Resurrection and the Life to compassionately respond to their suffering by raising Lazarus from the dead, calling him out of the tomb, and inviting Jesus’ disciples to help free Lazarus from all that kept him bound.

So may we too – like Martha and Mary – keep on persisting, even and especially in times that feel hopeless. May we too – like Jesus’ disciples – open our eyes to the good news being proclaimed through those who do persist. And may we too – like Jesus – be greatly disturbed in spirit at the suffering and injustice around us and thus be deeply moved to respond.

“The Gospel in a Nutshell” – Sermon on John 3:1-17

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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Grandma said you can’t have, you wait until she is watching her evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

Or when you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Most of us know that it is in the dark where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

And I think this is why Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night just before today’s Gospel passage in John. It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he is going and find out what he is up to.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, by the third chapter of John, we see that Jesus had already become quite the rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the money-changers who were taking advantage of the poor.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spreads to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they begin to talk, as well. But as they voice their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely don’t speak too kindly of Jesus.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus is curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus says to him: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

*****

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He was born a Jew, was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? Or those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? This was completely unheard of.

*****

Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

To give you a little background of this story: the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. And as their impatience increases, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt. And they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain about their food and their living conditions to Moses and they complain against God.

So God punishes the Israelites for rebelling against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil in the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are ready go back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punishes God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would acknowledge and call out the evil systems in the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

*****

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced it.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now Nicodemus is finally starting to see…

But Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God so loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: this eternal life “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe in, put our trust in, and follow Jesus Christ in his radical and inclusive way of love.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… a baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others… And when we start to repent of our own participation in and benefits from today’s oppressive systems.

This eternal life is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God offers us salvation from the evil in the world and calls us to take part in freeing ourselves and all our neighbors from it. That God saves us from the sins we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how snaky it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love for us, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

The eyes of the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus are finally beginning to open. He is starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God Jesus is telling him about involves grace, justice, and abundant love, which is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. For God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. Rather, God loves the cosmos.

God loves the whole world.

And God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

Save the whole world from captivity and oppression. Save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it.

And those who believe in Jesus, put their trust in him, and follow him in dismantling the evil systems of this world and sharing God’s inclusive love to the world will begin to experience this eternal life Jesus speaks of.

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world. For God so loved Nicodemus.  For God so loves me.  For so God loves you… in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, this truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

 

 

Guest Post at Bold Cafe: “Faith Reflections: Beloved and Wonderfully Made”

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Today I am guest blogging over at Bold Cafe: “Faith Reflections: Beloved and Wonderfully Made.”

It is really hard to be a preteen or teenager today. I unfortunately know this because as a pastor who works with youth, I have seen this firsthand. I’m not saying that it wasn’t difficult to be that age. I received my fair share of unrealistic and unhealthy messages about society’s definition of beauty and who was worthy and who was not. All I had to do was watch a few VH1 videos, stop at the magazine rack at a convenience store, or listen to my middle school classmates who bullied me during lunch to know that I did not fit into society’s most-valued list.

However, it is much more difficult today to shut out the negative messages about who is deemed worthy in the eyes of society and one’s peers.

 

To read the rest, click here.

“Snakes, Grace, and Eternal Life: The Gospel in A Nutshell” – A sermon on John 3:14-21

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“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21


When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

Everyone knows the best time to sneak around and get away with stuff is at nighttime when it is dark.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Mom and Dad said you can’t have, you wait until they are watching their evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

When you are not supposed to watch that R rated movie because it’s too violent, you wait until your parents go to bed before you quietly turn the movie on in the dark tv room.

When you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, close the door, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Or when your conscience tells you to befriend someone who isn’t quite so popular among others, but you fear that associating with her might affect your reputation, you only talk to her in secluded dark hallways and only hang out with her on the playground when it’s past dark and nobody’s around.

Most of us know that it is in the darkness where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

*****

And so I think this is why – at the beginning of John 3 just before our passage for today – Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night… It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he was going and find him out.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, Jesus did just that… by the 3rd chapter of John, he had already become a rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily driving out the money-changers and turning over the tables in the Temple.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spread to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they began to talk, as well. But as they voiced their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely didn’t speak too kindly of him.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus was curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus proclaims: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

What on earth could this mean?

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. How could he? He was born a Jew, is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? To those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? To just any old Jane or Joe? How could this be?

*****

Our passage for today begins here, as Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

This story Jesus references takes place in our Old Testament lectionary text for today in Numbers 21. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. As they were getting impatient, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt – and they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain to Moses and against God. “Why haven’t we gotten to the Promised land yet? Why have you left us out here in the wilderness to die? We are sick and tired of this journey. We are sick and tired of this food, which isn’t good enough for our liking. Why!? Why!? Why!?”

So the Israelites are punished for their rebellion against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are now ready to refocus. They are ready to put the trivial things they were complaining about behind them and look upon the wilderness with new eyes. They are ready to put their trust back in God and to return back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punished God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would remember that evil is in inherent in all things of the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced it.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

“Ah,” Nicodemus must have thought as the light bulb begins to flicker on. “God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now I am starting to see.”

*****

Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [For example, it is] what gives time its everlasting meaning for the believer through faith, yet [it] is also time-independent… [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

And as one scholar suggests, eternal life described in John is: “everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God through Christ. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe – and put our trust in – Jesus Christ, the One who manifests the greatness of God’s love and sets us an example for how we are to share that love with the world.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… A baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others and God.

Eternal life is a transformational life that is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God has saved us from the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. That God has saved us from our sin we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how sneaky and nasty it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but may have eternal life…

“Indeed,” Jesus continues: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Here in John 3, Jesus is saying to this law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus: “Yes, Nicodemus. Your eyes are finally beginning to open. You are starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God I am talking about involves grace. It involves abundant love.

However, this grace is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. God loves the cosmos. God loves the whole world. And, while the current legal religious system is one that has been excluding those of other heritages, social standings, economic statuses, and those who cannot maintain obedience to the strict laws – God’s kingdom is one that is inclusive of ALL.

God loves the whole world.

God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

That God would save the whole world from captivity and oppression. That God would save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it. God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal and abundant life in God’s loving and grace-filled presence.”

*****

I think our New Testament reading from the letter of Ephesians explains this well:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world… All of us once… follow[ed] the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. And [God] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

*****

For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but may have eternal life.

“Yes, those who believe in me,” Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in our text in John 3, “those who put their trust in me, those who follow me in sharing this love to the whole world will begin to experience this new eternal life. This new life – which is not of the flesh, but is from above. This abundant life – in which God’s love and grace is experienced and emulated to the whole world so that the whole world might be saved.”

*****

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later in John defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world, for God loved Nicodemus, for God loves me, for God loves you… in this way: that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, I whole-heartedly agree with Martin Luther. This truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

“From Palms to Passion” – Sermon for Palm Sunday for the Passion of Our Lord

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Palms Text: Matthew 21:1-11                     Passion Text: Matthew 26:14-27:66

 

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Well, it’s Palm Sunday for the Passion of our Lord. And it’s the beginning of Holy Week, which means we are finally coming to an end of the Lenten Season. I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little weary of wandering in the wilderness. This cold and snowy Chicago polar vortex went on way too long, and I’m definitely not looking forward to the snow that is predicted for tomorrow; I am sick and tired of soup dinners, somber reflections, and the practice of self-emptying; and – quite honestly, I am ready to get back to drinking the coffee that I gave up for Lent.

Give me Easter already!

And how many of us here wish we could have just gathered outside the chapel this morning for our great Palm Sunday procession, waving our palms, shouting joyful shouts of “Hosannas” to the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor…”

And then have called it a day…?

Or, I guess, for many of us, even called it a week… Until we come back next Sunday to celebrate the resurrection – and, of course, skip all that comes in between?

I think that author Anne Lamott puts into words what I – and so many others of us – feel as we begin this long, solemn Holy Week. She says:

“I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb; everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking!”

Isn’t this familiar? Isn’t it common for us to just avoid and skip over the cross?

Don’t we tend to avoid the suffering that is constantly dominating the headlines of our international, national, and local news? Don’t we tend to skip over the pain that is continuously taking over the lives of our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, and those we pass by as we walk to the train? And don’t we even sometimes tend to avoid the betrayals and persecution that we – ourselves – would have to experience if we did – in fact – speak out against injustices that marginalize the “least of these” in our society and sometimes even us?

I get it. I am with you. I am sick and tired of the wilderness and just want chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. I want Hosannas, Alleluias, and new everlasting life.

And I especially want coffee!

And yet, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be resurrection people, living lives here and now that bring forth light into darkness and proclaim the promise of new life that comes with the resurrection to both our neighbors and ourselves.  And to avoid and skip over the pain and suffering of those around us and even within our own lives is to choose to not live into the resurrection.  It is making the choice to not accept and proclaim new everlasting life.  For we know that we cannot have and experience the resurrection and the promises that come with it without first experiencing what comes before it.

We cannot have the resurrection without first having the cross.

And so, for those of us who are here this morning – on Palm Sunday – wishing we could just hear about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then “call it a day,” I’m sorry to disappoint…

After waving palms and shouting and singing joyful “Hosannas,” we must suddenly take a quick turn and hear and accept what comes next on our journey… and what was once bright and joyfully loud becomes dark and eerily silent as we veil the cross in black and hear the long, dark readings about Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, persecution, and suffering as he slowly journeys – with a crown of thorns digging into his skull – toward the cross.

Those joyful shouts of “Hosannas” have now become angry shouts of “Crucify!”

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But this is life, isn’t it? There have and will be times in our lives when we think we are just about out of that wilderness; just about ready to see and experience new life… But just as we begin waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Salvation has come!” things unexpectedly take a downhill turn. Those we trust the most may turn on us and betray us, the crowds around us might spit on us and mock us, and what looks like our escape and release from captivity sometimes ends up being the very thing that captures us and leads us on our own painful journey on a dirty and bumpy road through Jerusalem.

But it is in these times when we need the cross the most. It is in these times when we realize that we – indeed – need a God who not only was resurrected, but who also walked a similar path. That we need a God who knows what it’s like to experience broken relationships, grieve the loss of loved ones, watch those closest to him look directly in the face of injustice, and be betrayed by friends and ridiculed by crowds. And when things get really dark, we need a God who knows what it is like to feel completely and utterly alone and abandoned – even by his own Father, even by God – to the point where he cried out in his final moments of anguish and pain: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”

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

When we skip over and avoid the cross, we miss out on a God who knows and understands our pain, our suffering, and our doubts. We miss out on a God who is personal and who is near us. A God who is with us in the flesh, walking alongside us as we walk what may sometimes be a long, lonely road.

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But to skip out on the cross also causes us to miss out on a radical and bold Jesus we are all called to follow.

One of the reasons that we read the Passion texts (the texts about Jesus’ arrest, persecution, and suffering as he journeys to the cross) on the same day we celebrate Palm Sunday is because Palm Sunday is not an event we should separate from the rest of the events that occurred after it that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion.

In fact, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the center of religious and political power that alienated and marginalized so many – was “the moment of dramatic confrontation,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.  It was the inaugurating event and the beginning of a series of actions Jesus took that ultimately led him to his violent death.

And though riding in on a humble donkey and colt rather than on a chariot pulled by warhorses – as the worldly kings would have done as they began their kingdom ruling – Jesus entered Jerusalem boldly and loudly… In the name of the Lord, proclaiming a new Kingdom – the Kingdom of God – that would soon turn the unjust worldly empire upside down.

And it was his loud voice that angrily shouted as he turned over the tables in the temple after he entered Jerusalem and saw that the temple was being made into a den of robbers; a place where the religious leaders and the money changers were taking advantage of the poor.

It was his loud voice that cursed the religious leaders for placing heavy burdens on others that were hard to bear, for seeking honorable seats in banquets and synagogues and exalting themselves in public while exploiting the poor and the sick, and for publicly tithing expensive elements while neglecting justice, mercy, and faith.

It was his loud voice that preached that the greatest commandment is to love God fully and in doing so, to love ALL our neighbors as ourselves; that those who welcome, feed, clothe, and visit the least of these, do so for him and will be blessed, while those who do not do these things for one of the least of these, will be cursed.  It was his loud voice that declared that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.

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Jesus was a rebel rouser. A troublemaker. He challenged the unjust and dehumanizing hierarchical political system that not only took over Rome but also dominated the way of the Temple.  And it was Jesus’ loud, subversive voice that shouted and proclaimed on behalf of the “least of these” that got him into trouble in the first place and led him to be silenced on the cross.

But – although those who nailed Jesus there did so to suppress him, after Jesus breathed his last breath, the temple curtain tore in two, the earth shook, and the rocks split.

Death did not have the final say that dark night.

And after three days, we will realize that Jesus’ voice was shouting and proclaiming louder than ever before as his broken and bloody body hung silently and still on the cross.

Brothers and sisters, when we skip over the cross, we miss out on the center of the Gospel. We miss out on a God who came to be with us in the flesh, walk alongside us in our darkest moments, and carry and release us from our heaviest sins and burdens; a God who came to advocate for all who have been dehumanized, to conquer death and bring about life, and to enter in a Kingdom here and now that will elevate the humble and humble the elevated…

A Kingdom that is brought forth on and through the cross.

So this Holy Week, let us not forget the cross. Let us choose this resurrection life and do so by following Jesus on his journey through Jerusalem, remembering – as we do – that Jesus is right alongside us as we take every step, guiding us on which way to go.  Because when we do, we might be overwhelmed at how much we really do need this loud, radical, and personal Jesus of the cross that we too often miss.

 


Related Articles:

 The Politics of Palm Sunday (Adam Erickson on ravenfoundation.org)

Palm-Powered Protest (Rev. Adam Copeland on adamjcopeland.com)

Palm Sunday Ponderings: Jesus and those in Need (Rev. Grace Ji-Sun Kim on gracejisunkim.wordpress.com)

Holy Week and the Importance of Weekday Christians (Rev. Emily C. Heath on Huffington Post)

Prepare the Way (Again) (Sermon from All Peoples Christian Church)

 

Stations of the Cross – for Youth Group

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(This is a multi-sensory stations of the cross that was created by Youth Specialties – with a few of my own adaptations.)

Materials Needed: Chant music, several copies of the Stations Instructions at each station.

Station 1: Sandals

Station 2: Perfume, cotton balls

Station 3: Coins

Station 4: Bread

Station 5: Grape juice, cups

Station 6: Rope

Station 7: Robe

Station 8: Large cross, pens, sticky notes

Station 9: Candles and matches or flameless candles

Station 10: Bowl with rocks in it

Station 11 and 12: nothing (besides the station instructions)

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Station 1

God in the Flesh

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

—John 1:14

Today you’re invited on a journey through the last days and hours of Jesus’ life.

In front of you is a pair of sandals, the kind that any ordinary man or woman would wear.

As you begin this journey, focus on what it means for the eternal God to become a man. Think about what it means that Jesus once stood in sandals like these, just like any of us might.

The God who created the world stepped into an ordinary human body. Take time to meditate on the mystery, majesty, and humility of Jesus, the Son of God.

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Station 2

Mary Anoints Jesus

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” —John 12:1-8

 

Mary poured out expensive perfume onto Jesus’ feet as an act of worship. Spray a few sprays on a cotton ball. Smell its fragrance. The fragrance may not be strong at first, but you will smell it for hours. It’s long-lasting.

Mary’s act of worship was pure…passionate…real…expensive…extravagant. And it touched the heart of Jesus.

Jesus knew he was headed to the cross, and Mary’s act of worship was a blessing to him.

How can you pour out your love to Jesus, extravagantly, in a way that will spread the beautiful fragrance of Jesus where you are?

When you leave, take the cotton ball with you. Let its fragrance remind you that we are called to live every moment of our lives in fragrant worship of Jesus.

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Station 3

Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

—Matthew 26:14-16

 

Judas was one of Jesus’ closest friends, one of the twelve disciples who had been with him for three years. He agreed to betray Jesus for just thirty silver coins.

Hold one or two of the coins in your hand. How could Judas betray Jesus, his friend, for money? How do you think Judas felt when he looked at the coins in his hand and realized what he had traded for them?

Is your own heart tempted to betray Jesus over material things? Take this time to talk with him about it.

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Station 4

The Last Supper

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

“What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.  —John 13:21-30

 

Jesus was celebrating the Passover feast with his disciples.

Tear off a piece of bread and eat it as Jesus did. As you’re eating, think of the heartbreak he must have been feeling at the betrayal of one of his own disciples.

He knew his disciples would soon face confusion and fear. Contemplate his sorrow and compassion for them.

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Station 5

Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”—Matthew 26:36-38

 

This scene reveals the sorrow in Jesus’ heart that night. He prayed to his Father that he would not have to go to the cross if there were any other way. Yet he prayed the hardest prayer any of us can pray: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

When Jesus said, “May this cup be taken from me,” he was referring to the difficult thing his Father was asking him to bear. Yet he chose to drink the cup, even though it was painful.

Pour a cup of grape juice and drink it. As you do, remember that Jesus chose to bear the agony of the cross—to drink the cup—for you.

Is there a cup that God is asking you to drink—something about which you need to pray the prayer of Gethsemane: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.  Not as I want, but as you want.”

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 Station 6

Jesus’ Arrest

When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” —John 18:1-11

 

Even though Jesus could have given the word and overpowered all the guards, he let himself be bound and led away.

Pick up the rope and hold it in your hands. As you do, remember that Jesus was bound with a rope like this one. He chose to submit to the difficult way of the cross with every step that he took.

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Station 7

Jesus’ Trial

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. Matthew 26:57-60, 27:27-31

 

Imagine yourself in Peter’s shoes. You are looking out over the courtyard where Jesus is being tried and mocked. You know that he is being unjustly accused. As you stand here, you see men telling lies about him. You watch him being beaten, spit on, and ridiculed.

Here is the man you have followed for three years, the man you had put all your hope in, being sentenced to death. In your heart you have believed he is God, the promised Messiah of the Jewish people.

Your whole world is crashing around you, and worst of all, you have denied that you even know him.

Pick up the robe; hold it in your hands; put it on.  As you do, think about how Jesus wore a robe like this and a crown of thorns on His head so that angry soldiers would wound and humiliate Jesus. What do you want to tell Jesus right now?

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Station 8

The Crucifixion

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ “ In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. —Matthew 27:32-44

 

Here is Jesus, dying a brutal death on a Roman cross, an instrument of torture. Kneel in front of the cross. Imagine yourself there at the scene. What is going through your mind? Don’t rush this part.

God’s great love for God’s children is the reason Jesus went to the cross. Jesus died on the cross in order to relieve all of us from our sins and our burdens. He could have answered the taunts by calling the angels of heaven to bring him down from the cross, but he didn’t. Because He loves us, and YOU, He chose to stay.

Near you are several pieces of paper and pens. Think of a burden (something that makes you feel pain in your life or worries you) or a sin or something that you did that you know hurts others or disappoints God and keeps you from God. Write it down on a piece of paper.

Take the paper, rip it up, and place it on the cross. As you rip it and place it no the cross, think about how your sins and burdens were nailed to the cross that day with Jesus. With each rip, remember Jesus’ words: “It is finished.” He bore the pain of the cross so you could be forgiven and set free from slavery to your sin and burdens.

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Station 9

Jesus’ Death

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

—Matthew 27:45-54

 

When Jesus died that day, so many people watching must have thought that their hopes had died as well. Darkness came over all the land that day.

Remember the darkness that covered the world that day. Think about the darkness that covers the world today in your neighborhood, school, church and among your friends, family, and classmates that is in need of the light of Jesus. (violence, depression, death of loved one, bullying, etc.)

How can you be a light of Christ to those who live in darkness around you? Light a candle and ask God to help you be Christ’s light to the world.

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Station 10

Jesus’ Burial

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. —Matthew 27:57-61

 

The rocks you see here are a fraction of the size of the rock that sealed Jesus’ tomb. Imagine the heaviness of it. Pick up one of these rocks. Feel its texture. Feel its weight.

Can you sense the heavy weight the disciples and those who loved Jesus must have felt as Jesus’ tomb was sealed? In their eyes, death had won. This was a stone that no one could move. It was final. Jesus was gone and buried.

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Station 11

Jesus’ Resurrection

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

—Matthew 28:1-10

 

Imagine the cold, heavy, anxious fear and sorrow that these women must have felt as they journeyed to the tomb that day. Imagine them arriving at the tomb and finding the stone rolled away, the empty grave clothes in the place where Jesus’ body was supposed to be.

Imagine the shock and the overwhelming joy they felt as they met the risen Jesus in the garden. Their Lord was alive! Imagine how these women were transformed in that one moment.

How do you think the risen Jesus wants to transform you today?

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Station 12

Crossroads: What Will You Do with Jesus?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

—Matthew 16:24

 

You are at a crossroads.

Look over the Journey you have just taken through the final days of Jesus to the cross and beyond. Every step Jesus took was purposeful, deliberate, by plan. Every moment of pain, betrayal, and agony was borne by him out of love for you. You were—and still are—a part of his journey.

Jesus bore and carried your sins and burdens on the cross. Therefore, when you ask for forgiveness, you are freed from all sin and guilt. You can leave tonight knowing that Jesus journeys with you every day. You are not alone in your life journey.

You experienced tonight some of the emotions Jesus Christ experienced on his journey to the cross. You can leave here still holding on to parts of your life, the parts you don’t want to surrender. Or you can leave choosing to surrender everything to Him because He chose to do so for you.

If you feel led, tell Jesus that your life is His. Then ask Him to reveal to you what is in your life that keeps you from being fully in relationship with Him. Ask Him to guide you and help you make changes in your life so that He is first in your life.

Pray the prayer of Gethsemane: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

What is Jesus saying to you tonight? Stay at this station or sit in a pew or chair until everyone else is finished with the stations. Reflect, pray. You can write your response to Jesus, draw, think, etc. Take this time to respond to Jesus’ love for you.