Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Response to "Easter Shouldn't be a Big Deal"

I read a blog the other day that said we shouldn't make a big deal about Easter. When I read the first line or so I was very disturbed because if not for Easter what would be the point? We wouldn't have a resurrection to build our faith around. We would have lots of excellent teachings to live by but . . .

Then I read the rest of the blog. And I got the point. The blogger was talking about the whole visitor thing. It seems that some churches get a whole bunch of Christmas and Easter visitors.

Some of those visitors don't know what to expect in church and get lost during the program, which is apparently funny to some. It further seems that members and even (gasp) preachers at those churches can be somewhat unfriendly about the whole Christmas and Easter thing. They say things like "Nice to see you here for a change,' which is not a comment geared to bring the visitor back next Sunday or even next Easter.

In some congregations the service is totally unlike what a visitor is likely to find if they come on any other Sunday during the year. There are processions and plays and full orchestras. The folks who normally show up in jeans are in dresses and suits. The clergy are wearing their best vestments. Visitors may get lost in the shuffle or embarrassed by being made to stand up and introduce themselves.

And some congregations have LOTS of opportunities to attend services on Easter. They have a special sunrise service and their regular morning service or two and maybe a special afternoon or evening service. I know this because the religious page in our local newspaper expands from 1 page to 3!

We don't get a lot of visitors at Easter. We might have a few, but usually what we experience is that everyone who ever shows up during the year is pretty sure to show up on Easter. Some of our folks are once a month church folks and some are once every couple of months church folks. But on Easter everybody is here. We don't have any extra Easter Sunday services, just have our regular 10:30 a.m. service. Some years we have our choir concert on Palm Sunday and some years we have it on Easter. The same people who are always in the choir are in the choir. We always have an egg hunt after church and the kids find all the eggs so quickly that I have yet to watch the hunt happening.

But I have to confess that when visitors come we do make them sign our visitor book and then stand up or at least sit and wave at the congregation when they are introduced. We warn them that this is going to happen, and I always make sure to invite them publicly for our after worship fellowship time. But then, we do that every Sunday to whatever visitors show up. It's not to embarrass them, it's to make them feel welcome. It's to help the rest of the folks remember they are visitors so they can help if the new folks seem to be lost at any point during the service.

I especially love the Lord's Supper when we have visitors. Because when we have visitors I get to explain again why Disciples share this meal every Sunday and that everyone is welcome to partake. I get to give directions on how we do communion here so that no one has to feel left out.

So - is Easter a big deal at our church? Absolutely! Even though we do things pretty much the same way at Easter as every other week, there's a good theological reason for that. You see, once upon a time somebody told me that we celebrate Easter EVERY Sunday and so every Sunday is a big deal.

Happy Easter y'all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palms or Passion?

Matthew 21:1-11
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately. " 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

There has been a big battle among preachers this week over whether we should focus on Palm Sunday or treat this Sunday as Palm/Passion Sunday. In seminary I was taught that we really should do Palm and Passion together because many of our churches won’t have Good Friday services. And that means that for many we will go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter without ever having Jesus suffer on the cross. I was taught “Without the crucifixion there can be no resurrection.” Those were the same arguments I saw on line for doing the whole Passion today. While those in opposition spoke of rushing the season and living in the grief of Holy Saturday all this last week instead of letting the events progress as they actually did. Sort of like putting the Christmas decorations out before the kids had gotten home from Trick or Treating.

Every year since I came to Delhaven we have celebrated Palm/Passion Sunday. Some years we have had our choir concert on Palm Sunday, so the music took us through the entire week including Easter celebrations. Some years I have preached and have taken us through the entire week up to Easter, forcing us all to struggle through the week with the image of Jesus, bloodied and broken, laying on the slab of rock inside Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. One year I even did a dramatic presentation as one of the women who followed Jesus.

My decision – and I like to bring you all along with me on these theological and liturgical decisions – is to do Palm Sunday this year. We’re going to be together on Thursday evening for supper and a Maundy Thursday service that Kate will be leading. And we will be praying all day, from noon to midnight, on Good Friday. Even though we may not all be in the same room at the same time during these events, we will be observing Holy Week in our homes and hearts, in our prayers and actions. This year for Palm Sunday we will stay in the day, lauding Jesus the rabbi from Nazareth as king, the way the crowd at the gate of Jerusalem did. We will take this opportunity to sing alleluias during Lent and forget for just a brief moment all the troubles that surround us. We will look to our king and believe that everything will be great almost immediately! – just as the crowd at the gate of Jerusalem did.

Me, I LOVE palm Sunday. It’s all about hope for the future, maybe even more so than Christmas. Welcoming the king of kings into my life, my heart, my soul. Celebrating that he is entering the city. Like the crowd, having no idea what is going to come later in the week but after a lifetime of suffering and waiting – wow! Here he is! The last will be first and the humble will be made great.

I was reading Ann Lamott’s “Plan B” this week and she says she just can’t deal with Good Friday. She is a resurrection kind of person. Well, me too. I think we have enough of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in our lives. We have enough pain and crucifixion and grieving and suffering and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Palm Sunday helps us get ready for the resurrection in a way that no other celebration can do – Palm Sunday leads us in that direction, even though the crowd didn’t quite have the right idea of how Jesus was to be King.

In ancient times, the prosperity of the land was believed to be tied directly to the king. A good king, a righteous king, a king who loved his land and his people and cared first about their wellbeing, would rule a land that prospered. For example, the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Joseph was a good king because his people were well cared for despite the fact that there was a famine. He listened to Joseph’s interpretation of a prophetic dream. He prepared for the famine and made sure his people were fed throughout that long seven years. King Jehoaichin of Judah, on the other hand, was not a righteous king. He cared only for his own power, he disregarded the plight of the poor and ignored the prophets. The Babylonians carried him away along with the nobility and priests and all the wealth of the land. Now, we know that he wasn’t the first unrighteous king in the land. He was the last in a line of bad kings, kings who cared only for their own comfort and power, and who didn’t listen to the prophets who kept trying to bring them back to the ways of their God. In fact, from the time of Solomon onward, the Bible only tells us about one king who was righteous, who had the Temple re-dedicated, re-instituted the celebration of Passover and had the Law of Moses read aloud from the steps of the Temple. In his time things were looking up a bit. Alas, his descendents returned to the ways that displeased their God and so, eventually, they were overcome by might of Babylon. From that time until the time of Jesus there hadn’t been any really Good kings. In fact, the kings they had ruling them were mostly puppets of some empire or other. The people of the land were looking for a messiah, a king who would return them to the glory days of David and Solomon, when their nation had wealth and power and the respect of their neighbors, when all the poor and widows and orphans were cared for, when judges spoke with righteousness and didn’t always make decisions in favor of the most powerful. This is the king they welcomed into Jerusalem that day. This is the Messiah they proclaimed, laying their cloaks and palms in the street in front of him.

Frankly, we sometimes have trouble understanding Jesus as King. Oh, we speak of him as Lord. We give him king-like titles. We sort of shake our heads at the poor, ignorant folks of his time who couldn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said his kingdom is not of this world. And we are quite sure that he is the King of Heaven. King of the Afterlife. But that’s not quite it either. He is the king who leads us into a world that is radically different from the world he, and we, inherited. He is the king who models how we, his people, are to live, just as any good king does. He is the king who could have described himself with these words from Isaiah 50:

4 The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

What kind of king brags of having the tongue of a teacher? The kind who wants to lead his people into a new way of living. The kind who says to them, the way of the world is not the way of God. Let me show you how to live in God’s kingdom. The kind who says, it’s going to be hard, and there will be sacrifices made. But don’t worry, I’m going to show you how to live through even the worst of times. I’m going to show you how to love even the worst of people.

As I get to this point I realize how very difficult it is to celebrate Palm Sunday without the Passion. Because you see, we know what comes next. We know that the adoring crowds will melt away, that even his followers will run and hide when he is taken from their midst.

But we also know how he faced his trial. We know that when one of his followers pulled out a sword, Jesus made him put it away. We know that Jesus even healed the man he injured, a man who came to arrest him. We know that he spoke not a word in threat or anger even when he knew he was being wrongfully accused and tried in an illegal court. We know he gave his back to those who struck him and blamed no one for what he was enduring.

We know . . . he was human. Which means that anything he could do, we can do. I know that when stuff happens, when tragedy comes into our lives, when oppression is looming large and we are called upon to be like Jesus, our first reaction might be “Well, yeah. But I am not Jesus. I can’t do what he did.” And maybe that’s true. But we can model ourselves after what he did, because he is our king, now and forever. He lived to teach us how to live, he died showing us how to face even the worst oppression and adversity, standing proudly for what we believe is right. Confronting evil with good, confronting violence with peace. As with anything else worthwhile that we learn how to do, living this way takes practice and dedication. It is difficult, but it is doable.

Jesus is our king. He is not the Once and Future King. He is not a king who lived a long time ago and will come back someday to be king again. He is the King of the world. He is our king, day in and day out, in good times and evil. He is the king who came to teach us how to live in love and justice, to bring us close to God, to set us free from the tyranny of anger and oppression, to shower us with God’s grace. Let us celebrate our King, waving our palms like the crowd at the gates of Jerusalem, singing Hosanna and crying out Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the God of Israel!

Blessed Be the God of Israel 135

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Seeing Clearly

Ephesians 5:8-14
8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

By this time of year many of the folks in the northern hemisphere are feeling as if winter will never end. It’s grey and gloomy outside and it seems as if spring will never arrive. Likewise by this time in Lent when so many of us are engaged in soul searching and self examination we may be feeling a little low and wondering why Easter is taking so long to arrive. So as I pondered the various passages offered by the lectionary for this fourth Sunday in Lent I was struck by the imagery of light and dark in this passage in Ephesians. “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light.”

Darkness. The Dark Side. We all know Dark is used as a metaphor for all the less desirable character traits, things like hatred, anger, greed and violence. We use it to describe fictional villains and real ones; black hatted cowboys, vampires, Darth Vader and Charles Manson. Dark is cold. It is the home of spooky shadows, mold, evil plots, secrets and conspiracies. Many children are afraid of the dark and even though we tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of, most of us are quick to turn on a light when we enter a room. We don’t like the dark very much.

And then there is Light. Light is more than simply the opposite of the Dark. Light is everything that is warm and good and pure. When light shines the dark is chased away, evil is defeated. Vampires are destroyed, lies are exposed, ugliness is seen for what it truly is, children are comforted. Light is Luke Skywalker and Saint George the Dragon Slayer and Roy Rogers and Mother Theresa. Light is truth and justice and love, all the good things, all the blessings of life. We love the light.

People who live in the light see the world differently. It’s way beyond glass half empty or half full. It’s looking for the good in situations, not the potential for trouble. It’s trusting. It’s deciding the world is a good place and behaving as if you believe that to be true. People who live in the light are willing to shine their light into the darkness, to stand up against evil and speak out for the right. People who live in the light live in God’s kingdom.

Paul say to the church in Ephesus, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” We may not always be able to do that well, but we can usually figure out what is not pleasing to God.

You all know that I watch the news a lot. I watch for a couple of hours in the morning and then for another hour or two after dinner. When I can stay awake long enough I end the day checking out what the Comedy Channel does with whatever the rest of the media is reporting on. And yet somehow I entirely missed that Terry Jones, pastor of a small congregation in Florida, presided over a group of some 30 people who burned a copy of the Qur’an two weeks ago. You might remember that the last time Pastor Jones was in the news was just before September 11th, when he was threatening to burn a whole stack of Qur’ans. The president condemned this recent action and many Christian and interfaith groups in the US spoke out publicly against it.

I’m quite sure that treating any other person or group of people with complete disrespect and hate-filled speech is not pleasing to the Lord. Jesus said “Love your neighbor” not “mistreat your neighbor”. Even if you are sufficiently ill-informed as to believe that all of Islam is the enemy – which it isn’t - Jesus also said “love your enemy.”

I suppose I can be excused for not noticing the Qur’an burning at first. It didn’t get a lot of press in the US, what with the political budget stuff here and the earthquake and tsunami and nuclear plant problems in Japan and anti-government demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East and a new war starting and all. We’ve had some really busy news cycles and I guess the media thought that since only 30 folks showed up and there were no demonstrators present maybe it could just sort of slide under the radar. Unfortunately, the rest of the world was paying attention. Particularly the parts of the world where they believe that America as a nation is anti-Islam. People in those parts of the world held demonstrations to let us know they were displeased. Things turned ugly in Afghanistan. Seven people were killed at a United Nations office building. According to the Associated press: several hundred demonstrators were peacefully protesting the purported [Qur’an] burning when the gathering suddenly turned violent. This violence in response to a hateful act is also not pleasing to the Lord.

I was blessed to meet Noor-Malika Chisti, a Vice President of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of World Religions and a member of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations at the Interfaith Peace March in Pomona last September. On Saturday Noor-Malika had this to say in response to that violence: The Prophet Mohammad, peace upon him, gave us the example of how to respond to ignorant and hateful language: show them something better. The killings of United Nations workers in Afghanistan by those who were protesting the burning of the Qur’an by Terry Jones is NOT what was modeled for us, nor taught to us in the Qur'an.

According to Dr. Margaret Aymer of Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Paul is urging the church in Ephesus “to set boundaries and ethics for life together as a community of faith, boundaries that call community members to pursue goodness, justice (or righteousness) and truth. Part of that pursuit includes not only following truth, but truth-telling: exposing that which is false or secretive to community discernment.” (Dr. Margaret Aymer Commentary on 2nd Reading,

Silence in the face of evil is not pleasing to the Lord. Allowing any kind of darkness, any kind of hatred, any kind of evil to exist without speaking and acting against it is not pleasing to the Lord. In fact, when we stand silently by, when we say nothing in the face of evil, we ourselves are engaging in evil. We ourselves are living in the dark instead of living in the light. It is not enough to turn our back on the evil doer. It is necessary that we speak out against their actions. Especially when that evil doer is one of our own community – one of the body of Christ. Now we can say “Well, that guy who burned the Qur’an and that guy who shows up with his “God hates Fags” signs at military funerals, they’re not really Christian. If they were really Christian they’d act differently. They would get the whole concept of loving your neighbor.” But I say that if we simply turn our back, if we simply pretend that they are not one of us, if we don’t speak the truth in opposition to their behaviors we are allowing everyone else to believe we feel the same way they do.

However, if we are to be children of the light, the one thing we cannot do is to treat them hatefully, the way they treat others. Even the harbingers of hate must be treated with love. They are also children of God, our neighbors, whom we are commanded to love and to forgive. We can speak about how Christ calls us to act without speaking evil about others. We can pray for God to open their hearts, we can condemn their acts, but somehow we must love the persons. That would be living in the light – and that would be very hard.

Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia is moving from darkness to light. In 2005 their youth director was fired after being found guilty of sexually abusing a young girl in the church. Other girls came forward but the congregation didn’t want to know. They sort of blamed the victims and wanted to just let the whole thing go away quietly. So it festered quietly. In 2008 a new associate pastor was called who realized that light had to be shed on this evil in order for the church to heal. The church formed an abuse outreach ministry, the young women are receiving help and last year were finally able to tell their stories to the congregation. Last week Pastor Peter James stood before the congregation and preached the story of “the darkness that had been eating away at the church for nearly six years,” publicly apologizing to the young women sitting together in the back row of the church. Associate Pastor Jordan-Haas said “We really seek to change, institutionally and relationally, and that comes at a cost. There is still something hopeful here, and that brings me great relief. It is good when we bring darkness into the light.” (Josh White, “Vienna Presbyterian Church seeks forgiveness and redemption in wake of abuse scandal” The Washington Post April 2 )

It is good when we bring darkness into the light.

In our prayer this morning we asked God to “Open our eyes to Christ’s living presence.”
Christ is present when members of a church choose to “act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large.” (Dr. Margaret Aymer Commentary on 2nd Reading,

Christ is present when we seek to shine the light of God into the darkness.
When Christ is present we can see clearly, we can stand and speak light into the dark.
Let us ask our Lord to open our eyes to Christ’s presence, that we may see.