Friday, April 29, 2022

Heroes...

 


“Heroes”

 

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest

9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.

9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

9:5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."

9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.

9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.

9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord."

9:11 The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,

9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight."

9:13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;

9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name."

9:15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;

9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."

9:17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."

9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,

9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,

9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."

 

Who are your heroes in life? Some might say the various “first responders” who show up at accidents or at other times of tragedy to pick up the pieces, often saving lives. Others might lift up those who serve in the military, as they are willing to put their lives on the line for “freedom,” whether that means preserving American freedoms, or those of some other country. Like the first responders, our military is a volunteer effort, meaning those who serve choose to serve, and are not conscripted into service. In the waning wake of a global pandemic, we all certainly should honor those in the medical community who took great risks to care for the stricken, with more than a small number of nurses, physicians, technicians, and aides losing their own lives to COVID-19, especially in the ramp up to the broader pandemic, prior to the availability of drugs and vaccines. I would also chose to honor the medical researchers who advised the world and conjured up life-saving vaccines in record time. Any of these people I have listed would qualify as bonified heroes. 

 

Apart from disasters and epidemics, I have always viewed teachers as heroes. From the time I hit the books as a first-grader (I did not attend preschool or kindergarten), to walking across the stage at East Liberty Presbyterian Church to receive my Doctor of Ministry degree in 1998, I have venerated the ones who taught me so very much. Many of these servants were grossly underpaid and all worked long hours in the classroom, developing curriculum and lesson plans, and grading papers. Like social workers (another large class of heroes!), teachers go into that profession because of a “call” to the work. I don’t know a single teacher who ever said, “I’ll be a teacher—they make lots of money and the work is easy.” If you want to get a contemporary “education” about education, spend time over a beer or a cup of coffee with a current teacher. You will find that the challenges they face have only multiplied. And while their pay has increased, you can judge for yourself as to whether they are adequately compensated when you hear their stories. As for me, my teachers will always be my heroes.

 

Now, when we talk about heroes of the Bible, most of us can cite many who would qualify. Moses, the other prophets such as Elijah and Isaiah, King David, Rahab, the disciples of Jesus, the gospel writers, Paul, Timothy, Phoebe, Dorcas, Lydia, the Marys of the gospels, just to mention a few. I didn’t mention Jesus, as he had a bit of help—just kidding, but he is unique. Today’s Acts passage is the famous story of the Damascus Road conversion of Saul, who would soon be known as the Apostle Paul. Paul has always been one of my heroes, mostly because of his total turnabout after encountering the Risen Christ in this story, and then demonstrating bravery as he fleshed out the gospel ministry to the Gentile world. Paul is probably the main reason most of us are Christians today, thanks to this outreach beyond the Jewish community. Paul’s epistles and their theological teachings became the basis for just about everything we believe, and what the church is. I know many women have been critical for Paul’s apparent chauvinism, but when one realizes the era in which he was writing, and that he actually encourages women’s involvement in the early church—even answering to and working for a wealthy Greek heiress named Phoebe, as she bankrolled several of his missionary journeys—we can go a bit softer on our judgments of his view on women.

 

Honestly, though, the “super hero” who stands out in today’s scripture text is a guy named Ananias. The text just says he was a “disciple in Damascus,” which isn’t much of a biography to go on. God “visits” him in a vision, but it seems like more than just a vision, in that the two of them actually have a brief conversation. When God calls his name, Ananias says the magic words so many other great heroes of the Bible spoke: “Here I am, Lord.” While he must have been a humble, simple man, his response to God’s call is our first sign that he will be asked to take on a heroic task, and that he will “show up” for it, willingly. Is it any wonder that these words have been immortalized in a hymn? One that has become a favorite of many of us today—“Here I Am, Lord”? Without hesitation, our man Ananias responds to the voice of God, “Here I am, Lord.”

 

There’s an old story about a guy who falls off the edge of a cliff and as he is falling, presumably to his death, he manages to snag a branch sticking out of the side of the rock face. As he is hanging by this “thread,” he looks toward heaven as asks, “God, are you up there? Can you help me, God?” Suddenly, the voice of God booms from the clouds overhead, and God says, “Let go of the branch.” The man, too afraid to look down, and not aware that he has actually grabbed a branch that is just a few feet above the ground, inquires again, “Is there anybody ELSE up there?” This humorous story reminds us just a bit of our hero, Ananias.

 

He has answered God’s call with his “present and accounted for” response, and then God fills him in on the nature of the call: 

 

"Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight."

 

Ananias was pretty plugged in to the fledgling Christian community, apparently, and was well aware of the persecution it was facing, especially at the hands of a man named Saul of Tarsus, who had been given broad reign by the chief priests to chase down and arrest (at best) or capitally punish (at worst) Christians throughout the region. Ananias would have been well within his rights and wits to ask, “Is there anybody ELSE up there?” Or maybe, “Is there something ELSE I can do for you, God?” But God persists, filling in Ananias of God’s incredible plans for this newly minted apostle nee evil Pharisee, Saul. From persecutor of Christians extraordinaire, to perhaps the greatest spreader of the gospel ever, no one would ever become a Christian disciple again without coming to know the life and work of Saul or Paul, as he would become known. And his first contact in the new realm of his faith was to be this simple man, Ananias. The text says simply, “God said ‘Go’,” and Ananias “went.” Isn’t it amazing the courage any of us may muster when God says “Go,” and we go? Friends, Ananias is a hero for us all because he is LIKE us all! Woody Allen once said that two-thirds of success is just showing up. Ananias showed up, and here we are today, thanks in large part to the work of the man Ananias prays for to receive his sight.

 

I love the fact that the text tells us Ananias calls him “Brother Saul.” What would you say, if greeting for the first time someone who had the power to snuff out your life with a word? I’m guessing, though, that this was a faithful, genuine “brother” greeting, as Ananias seems to have such a strong faith, as all heroes seem to. He is convinced that the transformation of Saul is legitimate, and he lays hands on Saul, sharing the prophetic words he received in his vision from God. He prays not just for Saul’s sight to be restored, but also that he will be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” If the modern church has a fault, it is that most of us just don’t give the Holy Spirit of God the credit she is due for “bonding” us to Jesus, guiding our steps, illuminating our paths with wisdom, and giving us the power we need to do what we are called to do, not just in the moment, but for the long haul of the life of faith. Even the Pentecostals, who focus more passionately on the work of the Spirit, too often use the Spirit as a kind of “endorsement” or “talisman” of how “deep” their faith is. In fact, the Holy Spirit of God is more like blood in the veins of Christians and the church. Without the agency of the Holy Spirit, we and our church would surely die, or at least our faith would. Ananias knows how essential it is for Saul to “receive the Spirit,” for it is only through the Holy Spirit he will be able to accept and execute the monumental commission he is receiving from the Risen Christ as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” 

 

The text says that after the healing and empowering prayer by Ananias, Paul “got up and was baptized.” Who baptized Paul? While the text doesn’t say, we are free to assume our hero Ananias did so! One wonders if Ananias survived the era of persecution in the church, and if so, did he, years later, have some “bragging rights” because he baptized the great Apostle Paul. Thank God, God chose a simple, obedient servant like Ananias to be the “first contact” with the post-conversion Saul!

 

At least we know of Ananias, thanks to this Acts account, and can hold him up as an “everyman” hero who helped launch the church. I remember reading a story in a Guidepostdevotional years ago about a humble shoe salesman who had attended a revival at his church one weekend, which convicted him of the need to be a better witness for Christ. The next work day, he prayed to God and promised to witness for Christ to the next customer who came into the store. He was most dismayed when it was a young teen looking for a new pair of sneakers. Never one to “connect” well with young people, nonetheless, he kept his promise and shared his faith, encouraging the young man to recommit his life to Christ and return to his church, from which he had been estranged. We don’t know the name of that shoe salesman, but the young man was Billy Graham. 

 

Simple heroes of the gospel are all around us. Who are your heroes of your faith? When I am saying prayers of gratitude to God, I pretty regularly rehearse for God’s benefit the list of “simple heroes” who have deeply touched my life. Why, just today, I wrote a letter to the members of the school board of the high school I attended (graduating from there 50 years ago this year!), encouraging them to name the recently renovated football complex after one of my teachers, the late Duane L. “Pat” Patterson. He had been hired as football coach and physical education teacher during my sojourn there, and was a strong influence on me. I was more “bookworm” than athlete while in school, and was not very careful with my physical health. “Coach Pat,” as we knew him, encouraged us to make physical fitness part of our lives, and in my senior year, that message finally kicked in. I began a weight-lifting and distance running regimen, dropped 40 pounds, and adopted a life-long discipline of caring more for my physical well-being. I ran into “Coach Pat” while out running the Summer after my graduation, and he fawned over me and how “fit” I looked. He offered even more words of encouragement. “Coach Pat” died in March after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. 

 

So, today is a day to be grateful for all of the “Ananiases” of the world—yours and mine! But let us not forget the one memorialized forever in the pages of Holy Writ—the one who was “Coach Pat” for the Apostle Paul! Amen.

 



Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tom Thumb...

 


“Tom Thumb”

 

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

20:27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

20:28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

20:29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

It's just a week beyond all the hub-bub of Easter, and already the disciples are in hiding, behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews.” I often wonder, if Jesus had picked a load of geniuses as those first disciples, if we would be better off? Or would most of us—who aren’t geniuses—would feel left out of the church, and not bother to apply? 

 

Reminds me of the old SyFi Network show, “Eureka,” which I have enjoyed revisiting in retirement. For the uninitiated, “Eureka” is a mythical town created in the 1940s by Albert Einstein and the Defense Department as a haven for scientific geniuses, with the thought that if they were gathered into their own “community” and given abundant resources, they could save the world with technology. The series is set in modern day Eureka, now a bizarre town filled with geniuses of all ilk, and policed by a “normal” sheriff named Jack Carter (played admirably by Colin Ferguson). The brilliant citizenry is quite entertaining, although usually manage to create something that endangers the town, if not the whole world, rather than saving it, and the less-than-genius sheriff manages to save their behinds in each episode. The moral of the story is that excess brainpower is in the eye of the beholder, and a wise person with an average brain is more apt to “save the day,” especially when that person is a quick study, an above-average questioner, and brave enough to act on what they learn. 

 

What if Jesus had picked the geniuses of his day as disciples? WOULD we be better off? Or would he have just had to chase them around saving the world from the advanced folly they might have created, kind of like a divine Jack Carter? Those of you who know me, know I love film, and have taught “Theology and Film” courses in just about every church I have served. I teach folk how to “read” film (or a good TV series), how to watch for the role of evil in the film, who are the “townspeople” who are usually thrown into peril, and who is the “Christ figure” who saves them all? Most good drama incorporates all of these storytelling elements because we respond to them, possibly because it is the God/Satan/human story all over again. “Eureka” is loaded with such symbolism in most of its entertaining stories. Is it a coincidence that the “hero” of the show has the initials J.C.? I think not.

 

If Jesus HAD picked geniuses, let’s imagine what might have happened. Rather than Peter, Jesus could have chosen the father of James and John, who was apparently the head of a large fishing conglomerate—a kind of fish magnate and top businessman. He most likely would have been the treasurer of the disciples, rather than Judas, who would never have been included in this genius pool, given his penchant for being so easily tempted. Andrew was good at inviting others to come meet Jesus, but was probably no genius. Instead, Jesus may have chosen one of the top Human Resources (HR) people of his day, you know, an expert “headhunter,” who could recruit the best people to flesh out the twelve. Jesus certainly would have chosen a medical genius, given all of the sick people they would encounter, from lepers to the blind. Dr. Luke, who was NOT a disciple, by the way, might have made the cut as an early physician. He certainly was good at chronicling accurately the journeys of Jesus and the history of the early church (witness the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts). And rather than a shifty tax collector like Matthew, Jesus’ genius gang might have included a popular and brilliant public official, who would have been helpful in keeping them all out of trouble with the authorities. While we don’t know much about the other disciples, we can be pretty sure they were not the intelligentsia of their age. But if they had been, Jesus may have been able to couple his godly power with quality management and superior technology to take over the known world, ushering in an era of peace, and a well-managed one, at that. Of course Jesus would not have had to face the trial—his public official would have seen to that—and therefore could have avoided the cross. Yes, he could have had a team of geniuses and saved himself a LOT of trouble!

 

If we learn anything from “Eureka,” though, it is that a carload of geniuses usually tow a trailer full of trouble. They either get so caught up in advancing their field that they make earth-shattering errors, or they succeed so thoroughly that it goes to their heads, and they sell out to the first high-dollar investor who happens along. Either way, the “stability” of the world they create is upset or put in jeopardy. When humans “sell out” to the idea that they are capable of fixing and running the world without God’s help, coupled with the shared gifts and sacrifices of the broader community, things can go terribly awry. We have seen it throughout history, numerous times. We’ve even fought World Wars over it. Oh, and if this “new and improved” community bred by a hypothetical band of genius disciples had its way, Jesus would not have faced death. As we understand the Christ Event and the redemption it offers to the human world, this would have been a tragedy for all of us!

 

No, Jesus chose very, VERY common folk as disciples. Some might even say they were “outcasts,” based on their professions. Smelly fishermen and tax collectors were not exactly the illuminati. While they would later rise up, when filled with the Holy Spirit, and become sacrificial leaders who birthed the church, initially they were just “street folk.” And clearly, Jesus got exasperated with them, from time to time, especially when they just didn’t seem to “get” what he was trying to teach them. I’m sure the teachers out there can empathize with this. But like any great teacher, Jesus loved his pupils, and it was this deep compassion that kept him from killing them, I’m guessing. 

 

Here we are, a week after the resurrection, and all of those “Alleluia, He is Risen” cheers that went up around the stories of empty tombs, and the initial witnesses to the Risen Christ, and where are the rag-tag disciples? Locked in a house, gathered by their common fear, and I’m sure it was of more than “the Jews.” We know the story—Jesus just “beams in” or at least shows up on the other side of a locked door, and tells them to be at peace. Next, he gives them a “free sample” of what will later become “The Great Commission” we read about in Matthew, just before he departs the Earth. He also “breathes on them” and gives them a sample of the Spirit, that will later come in her fullness at Pentecost. One of my favorite lines of this simple discourse is: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Have you ever stopped to ponder this sentence? It was an earth-shaking event for God to birth the Only Son into the world, to commission him to teach the truths and lessons of the Kingdom of God, and to lay his life down on the cross for the sins of the world. And now Jesus is saying that his disciples—and I think the church is included in this—are similarly sent. Later, the writer of John was say they “turned the world upside down,” and history records that most of them died a martyr’s death. What will be the epitaph of the Christian church? And do we act like we have been sent by Jesus in the manner that God sent HIM into the world? Too often it seems like WE are on the other side of a locked door, barricaded in by our fear of many things.

 

Jesus could have gotten really mad at Thomas for refusing to believe until he “saw with his own eyes,” including a desire to touch Jesus to make sure he wasn’t just an apparition. And while he does pronounce an extra blessing upon those who “believe without seeing,” he fully subjects himself to Thomas’s tests. At other times, I have preached on this, calling him “Doting Thomas,” not “Doubting Thomas.” This line of thinking is that Thomas just wanted to SEE and EXPERIENCE Jesus again, “in the flesh.” He just wanted to touch Jesus one more time before things began to move forward. Jesus certainly seemed OK with that. And I can’t blame Thomas—can you? He just wanted to poke his thumb at Jesus and be assured he was real, for this fact would make all the difference, not just to the rag-tag disciples, but to the fledgling church that would soon be under the thumb of persecution BECAUSE of the resurrected Christ. To Thomas’s question, “Is Jesus REALLY alive again?”, the answer was a resounding, “YES!”

There are some wonderful stories and legends about what this “last touch” from Thomas motivates him to do. History says he went as far as India to proclaim what he saw and heard of Jesus. He, too, would one day die a martyr, but before he does, he became the patron saint of India, and launched the Christian mission there. Thomas becomes a hero of the Christian movement. No wonder Jesus was willing to let him put him to the test!

 

Maybe we would do well to poke a thumb into Jesus? Well, while we may not be able to do this physically, we certainly have ways to do it spiritually! The scriptures are a way to grow so close to Jesus, you can touch him. Prayer is like having him right there in the room with you. When you use your faith stories and voice to witness to Jesus, you bring him to life for others. And when we share in the Eucharist, we experience the body and blood of Jesus. Why, when the church is doing its best, it IS the Body of Christ!

 

In choosing common folk to be his disciples, Jesus brought hope to the people who would be called to bear his message and love throughout the ages. There’s nothing wrong with geniuses—the world needs them, too! But anyone can “touch” Jesus and be touched BY him, and it is in this common experience of redemption that we touch one another and others with the timeless love of Christ. Amen!

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Uncooperative Corpse...

 


The World’s Most Uncooperative Corpse…

 

Luke 24:1-12
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.

24:2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,

24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.

24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.

24:5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,

24:7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again."

24:8 Then they remembered his words,

24:9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.

24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.

24:11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

 

Everyone expected Jesus to stay dead. These people were quite used to people who died staying dead. Back in that day, a person could die from a head cold, or a Summer dip in bacterially-infested waters. Why, a person could die from an attack by robbers along the Jericho Road—just ask the near-death victim in the story of the Good Samaritan. Of course, one could die by crossing a Roman soldier, especially if you weren’t a Roman citizen, or if they didn’t like the color of your skin—sure glad we don’t have modern cops shooting people for that reason in our time… Of course you could die for being “convicted” of a crime, real, imagined, or trumped up by your religious enemies. This is pretty much what happened to Jesus. Religious leaders were not happy with his brand of evangelism, saw him as a threat to their gig, and convinced the local authorities that he was dangerous. Pilate, the local prefect, wasn’t convinced, but Jesus was  a nobody to him, the religious leaders thought THEY were somebody, and Pilate just knew they were all trouble to his cushy patronage job , so he wussed out and gave permission for Jesus to be punished—capitally. The cross was an “entertaining” way to carry out the “sentence”—kind of like the electric chair in a town park where the people could bring a picnic and watch a scourged man suffocate to death. (Their idea of entertainment was different back then—like watching a really bad Netflix movie today.)

 

No, these people fully expected their dead to stay dead. Tombs, catacombs, and graveyards were a big business, for this reason. The wealthy folk—Bezos (river trader), Gates (abacus programmer), and Musk (horseless chariots) had rock-hewn tombs; the middle class had community caves, such as the catacombs; and the poor had the above-ground graves outside the city gates, near the garbage dumps. When the Bible talks about “throwing someone into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” it would be into this paupers’ gravesite outside the protective wall of the city where the poor families would gather to grieve (weeping) and near where the wild dogs were chowing down on the garbage (gnashing of teeth). Death was no stranger to these folks, and their dead just plain stayed dead, giving them no problems.

 

The main characters in today’s scripture story from Luke were already banking on this “the dead stay dead” track record. The women show up at the tomb where Jesus had been laid by a kind, wealthy guy named Joseph of Arimathea, who owned a nice final resting spot with a garden view. The women came to grieve the loss of their friend, I’m sure, but the text says they brought burial spices to cover the body with, which was the custom when a body was buried in a rock-hewn tomb. They were obviously expecting to find Jesus’ body, since he was dead. We know Jesus was dead because the gospel witnesses describe how, after dying on the cross, a soldier rammed a spear into his side, just to make sure. Those who connived with the authorities to have him put to death must have been satisfied that he was dead, too, as they had left after watching the public spectacle of his crucifixion. No, Jesus was quite dead, so the women came, out of love, respect, and maybe even a desire to honor him one more time, bearing spices for a proper burial.

 

The eleven remaining disciples of Jesus had run off in fear after his crucifixion. Their leader was dead now, and even though he tried to tell them that in his case, this was not going to be a permanent condition, they went with their death traditions and their fears, and fled. We know from other gospel accounts that they clearly were now rudderless (a real problem for a bunch of fishermen), and had no idea what to do, so they planned to return to their trades and most likely fade back into the fabric of first-century Palestine. (The Gospel of John tells us that they went fishing, for example.) 

 

Each year on Easter weekend, Christians rehearse the story of that first Easter when Jesus became an uncooperative corpse. Like he warned he would, he did not stay dead. Now we could spend a lot of time in this message—as I did in so many Easter sermons over 36 years of pulpit ministry—waxing eloquent on how Jesus was not just “revived” from a physical death. While this would have been a miracle equaling that which he performed on Lazarus, who had also been quite dead for three days, this is not what happened to Jesus. Oh, of course he became alive again, but our theology and the witness of scripture believes that he was raised as what Paul called “the first-born of the dead” or the “Second Adam,” meaning something far more significant occurred in what we simply call the “resurrection.” It is the belief of the church that Jesus was raised in a whole different “mode” of human-being—as a timeless, incorruptible one, with a body that would not again decay or yield to disease—a body that could walk the earth, eat roasted fish, get poked, prodded, and even hugged, but one that could also exist in the cosmic, eternal realm of the Divine we call “heaven.” This new body/being Jesus was raised to be could walk through walls and locked doors. It could pop into our time and out of it, just as easily, at least according to the scriptural witness. In describing him as the “Second Adam,” the Apostle Paul was trying to tell us that in the resurrection, Jesus was “created” as the new type of “man” (human) that would be the prototype for all humans of faith in the “second resurrection,” or when God brings the human age to its final fruition. So we see that Jesus was so much more than just an uncooperative corpse, or an inconveniently un-dead guy! The epistle of I John 3 verse 2 says, Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is, meaning in that day, we who have benefitted from what Jesus has “new-birthed” into the world in the resurrection, will “be like him,” or will have this new and divinely, eternally improved self. Ever wonder if you will recognize others in heaven? This seems to be the “yes” answer you were looking for! While Jesus’ disciples DIDN’T recognize him immediately, it was most likely because they weren’t EXPECTING him to be alive! If you ever ran into someone you fully believed to be stone dead, you might not recognize them right away, either.

 

Now, let’s look at the Easter text from Luke again (although the one from John is just as convincing). The women were coming to bury a dead friend. Instead, they found him to be alive, which ruined their plans. After the shock wore off, and the “two men in dazzling clothes” (most likely angels) clued them in, their fears subsided and they ran off to tell Jesus’ disciples about what had happened. The other gospel witness says they were “amazed and perplexed.” I would guess! 

 

There’s a whole other sermon here, by the way. Several times throughout my ministry I preached on how the women were our salvation in this story. The disciples—the ones who SHOULD have gone to the tomb on the third day, since they had been TOLD by Jesus he would be raised, ran and hid. My theory is that if the WOMEN hadn’t shown up at the tomb, God might have just given up on the whole scheme, figuring that if the ones closest to Jesus wouldn’t believe, what would be the chance for the rest of the world? But the women DID come, and Jesus DID appear to them (or at least to Mary Magdalene, depending on how you read the gospel witness), and they DID run off to inform the disciples, and here we are—Christ followers, and “heirs to the promise, possibly because of their faithfulness!

 

So, for the women, Jesus may have been an uncooperative corpse, but they were thrilled to experience this epiphany! The Disciples? Not really so much. Luke says they initially would not believe what the women were telling them. Only after they discovered the resurrection truth for themselves (and in the case of Thomas, after he poked at the side of Jesus) did they believe and even begin to understand what a brilliant event had occurred. Even then, though, they found Jesus to be an uncooperative corpse, now that he was no longer dead. Their plans to be reassimilated into life in Palestine would be jinxed by this no-longer-dead Jesus. He would find them fishing and tell them to go “fish for people.” He would nag Peter three times to “feed my sheep,” knowing that Peter had a penchant for saying one thing and doing another. Jesus was even more of a “bother” resurrected than he was in his first iteration!

 

Now the disciples would have to “go to Jerusalem and wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them,” and would then have to “go into Judea, Samaria and all the world, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” They would scatter, led by the spirit and prompted by persecution and threats on their lives. One would be exiled to an island called Patmos. The rest would eventually die as martyrs, giving their very lives in service to this uncooperative corpse, Jesus Christ. Had Jesus just stayed dead, it would have been so much easier for his first-century followers—but then, there would have been no more followers in the second and third and fourth centuries, nor would the church have been born. And where would we be today? Just as lost and clueless and trapped in our corruptible humanity as was everyone who came before that reborn Jesus shook up life on Planet Earth for all eternity.

 

Friends, we are still being shaken up right now by the un-dead Jesus! His promises are just still as alive and available as they were from the beginning of his being born into the world and after being fully “activated” by his resurrection. And so is his commission to “go into all the world preaching the gospel.” The church would often love to go back to its ancient traditions, hold on to its comfortable doctrines of yesteryear, resist change that is just as inconvenient as that Son of God living-again corpse was to the first disciples. Because Jesus is ALIVE and still calling, inspiring, leading, and empowering us today, we are prohibited from treating his teachings and miracle-working as just history, as merely unchanging dogma. Jesus still wants to save, forgive, and love every single human being into someday “being like him, when we shall see him as he IS”…IS, now and evermore! Let us not hold on to a “form of godliness but denying the power thereof,” as the writer to young Timothy would say. The power available to us today is energized not by doctrines and traditions of the past, but by a LIVING SAVIOR who has kept up with the times! A LIVING JESUS offers a daily challenge to living disciples, and even to those desiring a connection with the Divine. The LIVING JESUS compels us to look at all things Divine through him.

 

A STORY: I was a fan of the TV COP show, NYPD Blue. In one episode, detective Andy Sipowicz, the focus of the series, goes into a diner for a cup of coffee, as he is deeply grieving the death of his son, Andy, Jr., a young cop who was killed while on duty. He sits at the counter, beside an older fellow in a flannel shirt, and wearing a baseball cap. As he leans forward to sip his coffee, he sees that the person sitting on the other side of the man is his deceased son, Andy, Jr. With much excitement, he begins to inquire of his son how this is possible, and shower him with questions. Through his horrific grief, he tells his son how much he loves him. As he is trying to talk to Andy, Jr., the older fellow between them keeps getting in the way, and finally detective Andy lashes out at him. The man simple says, two times, “Talk through me! Talk through me!” Puzzled, Andy leans forward and remarks to the visage of the deceased Andy how rude this other man is being. Young Andy says, “Dad, don’t you know who this is? This is Jesus! He wants you to do your talking through him.” I always loved that scene, and imagine that the Apostle Paul could have been the “writer” recording it, as he makes quite a point in his writings, reminding us to “Talk through Jesus.”

 

What we joyously celebrate on Easter is the same thing that makes our lives more complicated, keeping us from just doing what WE want to do, and enjoying the selfish ambition of fulfilling our own wishes—the uncooperative corpse of Jesus Christ. But because he pulled off that “first born of the dead” thing, now we are conscripted into a mission and a calling far greater than just our little, solitary life. We are now part of the ”Body of Christ,” another way of saying that we are now ALL destined to be “uncooperative corpses” in the great unfolding of the Kingdom of God. We can’t go back to fishing, and when we have those moments of feeling God’s words are an ”idle tale,” that uncooperative corpse “shows up” and freshens the wonderful Spirit he has put into each of us, reminding us to “Talk through me!” Oh, and men, every time you gaze at the “miracle” of women, remember that their “showing up” probably saved our derrieres, on that first Easter. 

 

So PRAISE GOD for the undead Jesus! Hallelujah that Joseph of Arimathea’s gift of a tomb turned out to only be a three-day timeshare! May the world’s most Uncooperative Corpse richly bless you this Easter, and may the life you lead be not EASY, but one with purpose, with inspiring and increasing meaning, and without an expiration date!

 

Hallelujah! He is RISEN! He is UNDEAD, indeed! Amen. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Passover--a Message for Holy Thursday 2022

 


“Passover”

 

Exodus 12:1-14
12:1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

12:2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

12:3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.

12:4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

12:5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.

12:6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.

12:7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.

12:8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

12:9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.

12:10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.

12:11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the LORD.

12:12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.

12:13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

12:14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 

 

Depending on whose Gospel version you read, the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was most probably the Jewish Passover meal. Modern Jews celebrate the beginning of Passover with a meal called the Seder, a Hebrew word meaning “order.” The Seder, as the manifestation of the Passover meal and remembrance that comes directly for the Exodus narrative above, probably began sometime after the destruction of the second Temple of Judaism in 70 C.E. The “order” of the Seder meal has been celebrated by Jews since then, and is the most widely recognized feast of the Jewish faith. The modern Seder or “order” has specific elements, including the symbolic foods that  are consumed, as well as ritualistic traditions that include involvement of children and the essential retelling of the great story, known in Hebrew as the Haggadah,  of how God led the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt and into freedom, eventually in the Promised Land of Canaan. If you don’t know the Haggadah from Exodus, you most certainly know it from Cecil B. DeMille’s famous film, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses!

 

The meal Jesus shared with his disciples that Christians have come to know as The Last Supper was most assuredly a Passover meal. However, since the current form of this meal and remembrance we call the Seder most likely didn’t evolve until after the destruction of the second Temple, it would have been a simpler form of the Passover ritual meal, as described in Exodus. 

 

Know that both meals would have moved from symbolic foods to a joyous feast, however, as the Jews celebrate their freedom in each age from various pograms and bondage to which they have been subjected, even as the first Passover was about being set free from the bondage of Egypt. It is most important to understand the celebratory nature of the Passover and the Seder.

 

A brief, personal story: As a first-year seminarian at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, eight of us accepted an invitation to join the congregation of Temple Rodef Shalom on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh for their Seder in the Spring of 1985. Our spouses joined us in this unique opportunity. The week before, we were invited to a session with a Pitt professor who was also a Rabbi, so we could learn about the “order” of the Seder and what to expect. He went over the theology and history of the meal more than its practical aspects, but he did tell us it was his understanding that we would be dispersed among the congregation-members’ tables so we could “follow their lead,” so to speak. And while I grew up in a small town with a vibrant and fairly large Jewish population, and shared many meals and Jewish foods with friends and their families, I had never actually attended a Seder. Of course, when we arrived the next week at Rodef Shalom, we were NOT placed among other families, but were instead seated at two adjacent tables with only each other as company. Hence, we spent the evening gawking at neighboring Jewish families to see what and how to eat next! We arrived hungry, as the Seder was scheduled at a time that barely got us out from our final class of the day and over to the synagogue. Understanding this was, first and foremost, a symbolic meal, we pigged out on the elements of it. Know also that the Seder involves drinking four glasses of wine, ritually, as the Haggadah is shared. Each of us had four glasses of wine in front of us, and as a Methodist, I was thinking grape juice, but it was instead four full glasses of a really decent alcoholic wine. Eating only matzoh, horseradish, parsley, and the apple concoction known as Charoset, meant that the overabundance of wine left us a bit more than “tipsy.” As we sat there, still left hungry by the symbolic meal, and a bit blitzed, the “secret” of the celebratory nature of the Seder was suddenly revealed, as a huge entourage of servers emerged from a giant kitchen with a very generous, full-featured chicken dinner! As we wolfed down this glorious meal, we all hoped we weren’t being lousy witnesses for the seminary, but it is my understanding that Rodef Shalom’s invitation for seminarians to join them for Passover has never been repeated, so there’s that.

 

While the Gospels leave us in doubt as to whether the “Last Supper” Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal, let us assume it was, for the purpose of this exploration. The Exodus passage has God telling Moses and Aaron to “celebrate it as a festival to the Lord,” and to “observe it as a perpetual ordinance,” meaning make it rule that Jews will each year hold a Passover meal, which later evolved into the Seder. The original Passover meal had three elements: the Paschal lamb, killed and eaten as a sign of God’s provision and God’s giving Israel on a “pass” on the judgment God was about to bring on Egypt for the Pharoah’s hard-heartedness; unleavened bread, as a reminder of the haste with which they would be “getting out of Dodge” when the Pharoah finally yielded to that judgement; and bitter herbs, as a reminder of the captivity and suffering in Egypt. If Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with the disciples, this would have been the fare, most likely, accompanied by wine, which was both a ceremonial and culinary necessity. 

 

Later, as the Seder evolved, five cups of wine were included, with the fifth one being set out for Elijah the prophet. Here is a brief explanation from the website of reformjudaism.org as to why the Seder has five cups:

 

The custom of drinking multiple cups of wine derived from God's promises to the enslaved Israelites. Four promises follow one another in rapid succession within Exodus chapter six, verses six and seven: " I will free you...", "I will deliver you...", "I will redeem you...", "and I will take you to be My people." Then, after an intervening verse, a fifth promise appears: "I will bring you into the land...." Each cup of wine is a symbol of the joy we feel as beneficiaries of God's promises. But is the fifth promise connected to the prior four, or is it a separate promise? On this the rabbis could not agree. Some said there should be four cups in honor of four promises; others said five cups for five promises.

 

The five cup model won out, but this fifth cup was offered to the great prophet, who was “invited” to join each Seder as part of its ritual. The Seder added other symbolic foods to the Passover commemoration including: Charoset, an apple, nut, and honey concoction symbolizing the mortar out of which the Jews had to make bricks while in captivity; a sprig of parsley (Karpas) representing hope and redemption, dipped in salt water, for the tears of God’s people while laboring in Egypt; and a roasted egg (Beitzah), symbolizing the continuation of life, according to God’s promise and provision.

 

Beyond sharing this information for any of you who were not up on the Jewish Passover/Seder celebration, why is it important for us to know this? If the Passover IS what Jesus was celebrating with his disciples on the night he was betrayed, it puts a very different “spin” on his using it to consecrate that first Holy Communion. Jesus was most likely NOT “Christianizing” timeless commemoration of the Passover, but giving Christianity firm Jewish roots, and “extending” its key elements to the rest of the Gentile world. Those key elements are: God’s miracle of creation; God’s abiding love for all of God’s people; the concept of “covenant” that defines and sustains a relationship between God and humanity; and God’s freeing, redeeming, and forgiving acts. In Christ Jesus, God was now all people into relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

 

The significance of doing this at Passover may be that the “New Covenant” Jesus institutes with the non-Jewish world includes a “New Passover,” as God now “passes over” the sins and short-comings of all people. This “pass,” what we Gentile Christians might call “salvation” is not the central point of the Gospel, as some have made it, but merely the starting point! God forgiving sin is easy; humans being covenantally committed to live in relationship with God and each other, and living out the teachings of Jesus, is hard, and will require a lifetime of effort. Even as the Passover celebration was ordered so Israel would never forget both their suffering under oppression and God’s deliverance and freedom, so Jesus gives Christians Holy Communion, so we never forget our own deliverance and freedom to live the life of Christian discipleship. Our Roman Catholic siblings call Communion “food for the journey.” It is OUR Passover. 

 

Even though we can certainly see so many parallels between the symbolic foods of the Passover meal and modern Seder manifestation of it, we should not “Christianize” it, as this is offensive to our Jewish siblings. Again, it is more appropriate to see that Jesus uses the meal to provide a Jewish faith foundation to God’s outreach to the Gentiles through the Christ Event. I have been guilty of having symbolic Seders in some of my churches, and even bowing to the temptation to bring Christian symbolism to the elements of the Seder. I have come to understand both the offense to the Jews that this is, as well as how inappropriate it is, theologically. There is one important parallel we can draw from Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper at a Passover meal, however.

 

Again, the Passover celebration is held to commemorate God’s freeing God’s people from bondage in Egypt and leading them to freedom—free life--in the Promised Land. The lamb that is killed and eaten is the Paschal lamb, or the “lamb of freedom.” This is NOT the lamb that was sacrificed for atonement from sin in the tabernacle or the temple! It is a celebratorylamb that is joyous consumed by all of the people at the feast. The important parallel here is that Holy Communion is meant to be a celebratory meal as well, recalling Jesus’ sacrifice that lead to our freedom. To turn it into merely a solemn remembrance of Jesus’ “blood sacrifice” for sin is missing the big picture of what it is meant to be! Christ is announcing he is the Paschal lamb for us, freeing us not just from sin, but for “joyful obedience.” One this, much of our Communion liturgy is often short-sighted and even obfuscating.

 

To make the Good News of Jesus Christ focus so strongly on the atonement of sin and “personal salvation” is to miss so much of the power of the Christ Event. Like the Passover celebration, Holy Communion reminds us of how God “passes over” our sin and offers us freedom and life in the “promised land” of the unfolding Kingdom or “realm” of God. We are called to be partners in this unfolding, living in covenant with God, working together to feed the poor, alleviate suffering, share the Good News of God’s love in Christ, and love God and neighbor with an unfailing passion. As Galatians 5:1 reminds us, For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. It is my belief that fixating on human sin and an inordinate focus on the need for atonement has become for much of the Christian world a type of bondage. In Christ we are set free. Accept it! Now, share celebratory meal—Communion, “food for the journey”—and go live the life of that freedom, within the teachings of Christ’s New Covenant. 

 

Remember, we weren’t designed for selfishness and loneliness, but for relationship and community. We screwed that up.

 

We weren’t designed for hate, but for love. We screwed that up.

 

We weren’t designed to be judges of each other, but for advocating for one another and uplifting one another. We screwed that up.

 

We weren’t designed to separate ourselves into “camps,” divided by doctrines, a host of “isms,” and irrational fears. We screwed that up.

 

We weren’t designed to consume the earth and use it up, but to marvel at it and be good stewards of its rich resources. We screwed that up.

 

We weren’t designed to hide from God, but to walk with God in the garden. We screwed that up.

 

Hear the Good News: In Jesus Christ you ARE forgiven! And in Jesus Christ you are free to right the wrongs and fix the things we’ve screwed up! Amen.

 

Friday, April 8, 2022

Cloak Sunday...


“Cloak Sunday”

 

Luke 19:28-40
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,

19:30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

19:31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'"

19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.

19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?"

19:34 They said, "The Lord needs it."

19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.

19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,

19:38 saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop."

19:40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

 

This weekend is “Palm Sunday.” I know that many will commemorate it as “Passion Sunday,” and will read the biblical texts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. This latter phenomenon has been popularized by the decline in Christian faith communities foregoing the observance of Good Friday, and their pastor’s “fear” that they may therefore skip over the suffering aspect of the Christ Event. Back in the day (as has become a popular phrase), Good Friday was most often an ecumenical, community-wide event. Often coordinated by a “ministerium” of local clergy, it may include a processional parade through the streets of a given small town, with one volunteer dragging a cross. From Noon to 3:00PM, businesses were closed, and an extended preaching service featuring the “Seven Last Words of Christ” was held in a centrally-located church. It was a big event. Unfortunately, it has largely faded into the past in most places, hence the newfound emphasis on the biblical passion narratives the Sunday before Easter is celebrated. Some large churches still observe Good Friday, but typically with a service of Tenebrae, or the pairing of the passion narratives with the methodical extinguishing of candles, resulting in a darkened sanctuary at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross in the story. 

 

As an aside, my favorite Good Friday observance was during the years I served in the Shenango Valley. Each year there, the two ministerial groups—one predominantly of African American clergy from the Farrell area and the other predominantly white clergy from Sharon—would sponsor a Noon to 3:00PM event focusing on the “Seven Last Words.” This would alternate from year to year, with a Black church from Farrell hosting one year and usually First UMC in Sharon hosting the next. It was such a refreshing thing to share the “words” with African American colleagues and to hear the passion and power of Black gospel preaching. I miss that, honestly. One of my African American colleagues—Rev. Clevon Dukes—was one of the best preachers I have ever heard. I will never forget how, one year when Sharon First UMC was hosting, he preached on the phrase from Luke, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He absolutely made it come alive. I will never forget that message.

 

Still, all this in consideration, I like keeping the “old” tradition of observing the Sunday before Easter as “Palm Sunday.” Having walked down the curving, hillside cobblestone from the Mount of Olives, down through the Kidron Valley, and up through the gates into the Old City of Jerusalem—the best guess of the route Jesus would have traveled on the back of a donkey—I enjoy reading one of the gospel narratives of this event each year. Luke’s version of the story gives us a bit of a different version, as the gathered crowd puts their “cloaks” on the road in front of Jesus, rather than palm branches, as we read in the Matthean narrative. 

 

Imagine, if you will, how different it would be in our traditions if the church had adopted the Lukan version. Would we be observing “Cloak Sunday”? Would we be throwing coats around as the children process? Would we burn some old coats for ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday? Or might we adopt this as a time to collect coats and clothing for the needy? Waving palms as King Jesus came riding into town may have had a bid of a “royal” flavor in its time, but Luke records a greater sacrifice made by those who threw down their cloaks to honor him. Waving palm branches was no sacrifice, except possibly an inadvertent one by local landowners whose palm trees were plucked by the “mob” greeting Jesus. Laying down one’s coat on a dirty road possibly tainted by animal waste and the traffic of filthy feet certainly would be. There was a cost to their praise in Luke; not so much, in Matthew. I admit, though, that our churches look so much better adorned in the majestic palm branches rather than covered in cardigans, barn coats, or hunting camo.

 

Let’s talk about “praise” for a moment. What does it mean to “praise God”? There are those who sing praises, shout words of praise, sway rhythmically with the “breeze” of the Holy Spirit, and others who lift up their hands as an act of praise. Still others like to sit in silence, imagining within their minds sweet prayers of gratitude for God’s blessing, God’s pardon, or God’s goodness. Some like to listen to the musical offerings of others, praising God along with the musicians or vocalists by listening, absorbing, and apprehending the moment as praise, both corporate and individual. I’m fresh off a wonderful night of conversation and sharing with a young, incredibly gifted Black pastor friend, who could describe in almost poetic terms the impassioned, yet Spirit-coordinated praise of the Black church, which is music, voice, dance, clapping, and even swooning in sincere, as well as deeply historically-rooted acts of praise. And while he somewhat eschewed the more benign “praise” acts of the white church—often more rehearsed performance than spontaneous in nature—he acknowledged that we should at least respect each other’s “church culture.” Our praise has integrity when it emanates from within the soul, and is endorsed by our mind and “comfort level.”

 

This takes us to the second consideration of what praise is—it is most “praise worthy” for me when it is a form of praise with which I am comfortable, and that causes me to enter into the experience without feeling coerced. It may not be legitimate praise for me, if I feel YOU are forcing me to praise in the way that works for you. In trying to create a worship service that serves both of us, one may either provide time for reflection so we each may have a “privacy window” of praise, or one may attempt to cover several of the popular “praise bases” wo we each may find something in the course of the service we can observe as praise moments. The service may include times of “corporate” praise, such as a shared liturgy, a hymn, or a simple praise song, but rarely is a worship service able to sustain corporate praise that will draw all persons in attendance, in. When it tries, it is presumptuous, and uninviting to many. When worship planning doesn’t try to take more than one idea of what “praise” is into account, it will fail as well.

 

I don’t believe that praise does much for God. There, I said it. If we believe in a God who made the glory of the cosmos, in a God who created all living creatures, and who loves so deeply that God reached across the expanse to connect with God’s human creation, then nothing we do can purport to “bless” God with words, music, or liturgy. In fact, the best “words” of praise are already inscribed in the pages of holy writ. No, I think the act of praising God is meant to change US. I believe it helps us focus on “the other,” beginning with our Creator, and then transferring this love and compassion to the other things God created, including the world, the ecosystem, and especially “my neighbor.” Praise moves us off “the great I” to the beloved other. When I am engaging in praising God, I am acknowledging that my needs are being met, and I can be “freed” to now help, or uplift, or encourage others who are still needy. God is most acknowledged and uplifted when we do this! And is even more “praised” when we act on this praise-induced compassion through acts of mercy, mission, and ministry. Ultimately, I believe God feels most “praised” when God’s people join together to worship, learn, and serve. Pretty much, the Bible tells us this.

 

In today’s Lukan narrative, the Pharisees begin to fear the “power of praise”—most especially this “change of focus” it brings about. They could see that as “praise of the people” for the efficacy of Jesus was increasing, their hold on the reins of religion would be lessened. They demanded that Jesus tell his disciples to stop praising like this. I think that Jesus’ answer that if he did, “the rocks would cry out” was his way of saying that the movement instituted by God visiting earth “in person” could not be stopped, nor could its new focus be derailed by a prohibitive command. And throughout history, when newly redeemed souls were “ordered” to stop “speaking,” the rocks of justice cried out. Black people under the thumb of enslavement were, themselves, “rocks crying out,” empowering a movement that resulted in the beginnings of freedom. “Rocks” under the threat or condemnation of fascism cried out from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and the remnant that persisted today vows “never again.” Religious oppression under fundamentalists, be they Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or Hindu, continues to be threatened and eventually defeated by “rocks crying out.” Jesus knew. He also knew that in a seven-day week, another stone would “cry out”—the one that others attempted to use to blot out the New Covenant he was instituting by using it to plug up a tomb. Doesn’t it just drive you nuts when people want to STOP good things that happen? It would seem that CONTROL is more important for some than compassion, mercy, and empowerment of the oppressed. This is so very sad.

 

So, for some of us, we praise by waving branches and shouting our cheers. For still others of us, we rather choose to praise by throwing down our cloaks, feeding the hungry, and “releasing the captives.” Both count; both help us refocus away from it being about “us.” Both may be legitimate acts of praise. And both may move us closer to our Creator God, and to our neighbor. But ultimately, the praise that most affects or “blesses” God is the changed heart, the genuine affection of a loving child, and the singing of the soul, freed by the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” indeed. Amen.

  

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...