Maundy Thursday

This past July I was on my way back to the church for a staff meeting after having had lunch with a member of the congregation and as I was riding down 64 coming East, I felt the Toyota Prius start to shake and rattle, so I edged over to the side of the interstate and slowly made my way up the Parham exit ramp looking for a place to park on the side of the road. There really wasn’t one but I made one and I was able to get off the road, but not by much.
I had never changed a tire on this Prius that my wife Sarah usually drives, and I was distressed to find out that after I had the car up on the jack I couldn’t get the wheel cover off so that I could unscrew the bolts and take the flat off.
After about 10 minutes of trying my own ideas, I gave up and got out the owner’s manual.
It was the middle of summer and it was really getting hot and I was taking off clothes – I took my shirt off, I rolled my pants up, I pushed my socks down; people were staring. After another 20 minutes of trying to read the manual and finding nothing to help, I was greasy and I sat down in a little grassy hill and I gave up. I just sat there covered in sweat.
And then my phone in my pocket buzzed and I pulled it out and realized there is nothing you can’t look up how to do on youtube.
I watched a 30 second video of a man sitting beside his own Toyota Prius where he walked me through the process and I had the hubcap off in less than two minutes. I changed the tire, was back in the car, and I even made it to staff meeting on time.
If people say a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth ten thousand, because you can see someone show you how to do something as if they were right there.

On the night of the Passover, when his hour had come, Jesus gets up from the table, gets a basin of water and a towel and shows us what love looks like.
Jesus does not leave us stranded to figure out how to love one another, he doesn’t give printed instructions, a book or an essay to tell us what love is like. Jesus himself shows us what love looks like.

On the night before he is crucified, Jesus stoops down to the ground.
God’s own Son, the King of Creation deserves to be worshipped. These men should be on their knees in front of Jesus but here HE is on his kneeling at their feet, performing the act of a servant.
He is doing something very strange and embarrassing.
He comes to wash the feet of Peter – the one who will deny him. He kneels down to wash the feet of Judas – the one who will betray him. And he washes the feet of each one of these friends who will desert him and say they do not know him.
And when he is finished washing their feet, and has dried them, and has put down the towel and returned to the table, he says to them,
“Do you know what I have done to you?”
And there’s total silence. No one dares to answer.

As we hear the story we don’t know how long the pause was, but Jesus asks if they know what has just happened – what he has done to them – and they can’t come up with a response.
They are speechless, and so Jesus continues:
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and that is right, because that is what I am. So, if I, your Teacher and Lord have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Jesus is going to send this group of disciples out to change the world, but first he shows them what true humility, forgiveness and love look like.

Living in community together is more complex than removing a hubcap, as we well know.
Forgiving a person who has talked behind my back…
Remaining open to someone who has not invited you to an event…
Sometimes, when it feels like you’re doing all the work on a ministry team and others aren’t contributing, you might want to give up on this whole intentional-Christian-community thing.
It is easy to break ourselves off from community – because acting with love is hard work…
After his death this community of disciples will be ashamed and will likely blame one another…
But Jesus shows them and shows us what love looks like – choosing what is best for the other, even when they hurt us, ignore us, despise us, or disrespect us…

Every year he UN publishes what it calls the World Happiness Report. The report for has just been released for 2018, and it finds that the US has slipped from 14th happiest nation in the world to 18th. We have never made the top 10 and we are slipping.
This isn’t hard science, but the researchers think that the thing that is different about us and the countries that consistently rank as the happiest – Finland, Norway, and Denmark – is their emphasis on community.
In our own country, community is eroding through distrust of the government and one another, a sense that the system is rigged and those who are wealthy are in control of things, and spending much of our free time with work, and the ceaseless hunt for money, security, and consumer goods.
As a nation, we are lonely. We are living with addiction. We are hungry for community… but we literally do not know how to do it.
Jesus calls us into a community to witness for ourselves what love looks like.
Jesus says, “if I, your Teacher and Lord have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also do as I have done to you.”

We might wonder if Jesus REALLY means for us to wash one another’s feet literally…because literally washing one another’s feet could be awkward and uncomfortable…
But I can tell you – This past summer in Philadelphia I was with youth from Epiphany working in community gardens, schools, providing care for children and working on homes, and on the last night before we left we washed one another’s feet – we had the opportunity to literally take one another’s smelly, calloused, blistered feet in our hands and pour water over them and pat them dry as a remembrance of the reason we had come to Philadelphia to serve.
There are ways we literally wash one another’s feet.
Pastor Phillip and Pastor Bosserman and I have been making visits to homebound members this week to take Holy Communion to people who are a part of our community but can no longer join us in worship and as we visit I am so aware of these husbands and wives who have been married 40 and 50 and more years who wash one another’s feet, and wash one another’s bodies, and attend to their spouse’s personal hygiene when they can no longer do it themselves. These members who have contributed to our present, vibrant life as a community by their service as treasurer or Sunday school superintendent or choir member so many years ago.
And many of our sisters and brothers around the world tonight will enact Jesus words – as uncomfortable or messy or bothersome as it might be – and they will do what Jesus asks us to do and wash one another’s feet with water.

And we ALSO wash one another’s feet spiritually when we put aside our livelihood and serve one another so that Christ is made known.
The youth service trips that we go on can only happen because of the adults who go as adult leaders, often using their vacation time -sometimes one of only two or maybe three weeks that they get – but they would give one of those weeks so that youth can go and have an experience with Christ through service.

And last Wednesday it snowed and we had to cancel our 5th Wednesday Lenten service at noon, and we were on the fence about cancelling our 7pm service, but a couple came and just the two of them shoveled the driveway and the walk so that we call could have the service and no one would slip and fall, and we only found out later that it was this woman’s birthday. On a day when many people want to go and eat the food they want to eat, and do the things they want to do, she came to shovel snow for me and for you and for this community.

And YOU cook meals, and take flowers, and mentor youth, and pray for one another, and give financial offerings to those in need. This year you designated our Lenten offerings to go to South Sudan, the country which ranks number 154 out of 156 in the UN’s Happiest Countries of the World report – and we have prayed and continue to pray over those gifts that God will use them to bring healing and help and nourishment to our sisters and brothers there – because we know our own happiness is not our chief calling but faithfulness to God.

If we had to serve and love one another with OUR OWN love – with the love we could muster from our own reserves, there would be no hope and no chance. I don’t have enough love to give. You don’t have enough love to give. But it’s God’s love in Christ that is the wellspring of our life together.
Jesus models loving service for us himself — and then sends his Spirit to be with us and give us power to do his loving service to one another and to our neighbor.
At this table, Jesus feeds us and fills us with his very own life so that we know who we belong to and whose love we share.
Here at this table, God transforms what could have been an occasion for mourning into an occasion for experiencing the presence of the One who is Risen.
Tonight we gather at Christ’s table as he gives himself to us – he is truly present here –showing us how to give ourselves to others.
Holding fast to this promise, let us pray:

Lord, you welcome us to your table and set a feast of love. We give thanks to receive your body broken on the cross and your blood spilled for our sake. Through this meal deepen our faith and draw us ever closer to you and ever closer in relationship to the world you love, that we would all come to know our greatest joy to be the life we have in you. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

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Palm Sunday

Some people say that I am a good man. They stop me and shake my hand and say, “You’re one of the good ones.” People even say that I’m righteous, although I will freely admit I am not exactly sure what that means. But I will tell you what people say about me that is true: People say that I am a man looking for the kingdom of god.

That is true. But it’s true about all of us. We all have been looking for the kingdom of God!

You see, I grew up in a small town in Judea, called Arimathea, and just like everyone else, I grew up hearing that the kingdom of our ancestor David was coming and hearing the promise God would restore our fortunes

David! The good king, who united the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, who invaded Mount Zion and established a capital he called Jerusalem, built a wall, conquered our enemies, and gave us peace.
All my life I have been told about King David and heard about how someone would come to restore his kingdom.

I don’t know if you can appreciate this but under David, we were the strongest power in the world. No nation could touch us and everybody knew it. We could not be defeated from the outside by any enemy. But after his time, we we’re so divided we crumbled from inside. Leaders took care of themselves rather than the people. People forgot about the Lord, until we were so weak we were invaded and conquered, so that in my own lifetime when I walk through the streets of Jerusalem, there is an armed Roman soldier on every corner, watching me and watching my people to keep us in line.
So when I heard about Jesus I had to go see! I watched as he spoke to the crowd, as he touched a woman who was sick and miraculously healed her! I stood in the back. No one could know. I am a member of the Sanhedrin – the council of the leaders for the Hebrew people – but when I heard and saw Jesus with my own eyes, a seed of hope was born in me.
I was there in Jerusalem on the day that Jesus rode the donkey into the city. Like everyone else, in my mind I could hear the prophecy of Zechariah: “Lo! Your king comes to you humble and riding on a colt.”
I didn’t tear a palm branch down from the tree like so many others. I didn’t throw my cloak down in the road. I couldn’t risk being seen, but my heart leapt with hope.
I thought: this could be the one who could bring our nation glory again!
That’s what we all thought, and the crowd shouted: “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
I believed! But the same crowd that sang “Hosanna!” shouted “Crucify, crucify!”
I’m still trying to make sense of the cross and what happened there. I still don’t know what happened, but somehow the tide turned.
I guess, somehow, we realized his kingdom wasn’t going to be the kind of kingdom we thought we wanted.

We wanted him to give glory to us and to our nation. We wanted God to bless us and our community, and Jesus made it clear his vision was larger than that. He wasn’t about just blessing me and my life and that’s what we saw on the cross.
But on the cross we saw his kindness to everyone. We saw his kindness to the thief who asked for forgiveness but also the thief who ridiculed him… and for the soldiers who tortured him and the crowd that laughed at him.
And I don’t think any amount of time could’ve prepared us for the cross. To see his body naked and bloody and his hands pierced through with nails. To see him give up his spirit.
But when Jesus died, my fear died too. And I went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.

Somehow, I had come to love him, but I hadn’t told anyone.
I was afraid at what people who say if they knew.
Would I lose my place on the Sanhedrin?
What would they do to my family?
It didn’t matter now.

I had to take his body and take care of it. No place would have been good enough, but some place, I just gave what I had. All I had was an ordinary tomb that was supposed to be used for my own body when that day came, but to give this tomb for his body was the one small thing I thought I could do for him.
So, I came and I took the body and I held it in my arms and I knew, somehow, as I held him and wrapped him in grave clothes, he had brought the thing I had been waiting of my whole life – the kingdom of God. But I also knew that it wasn’t just for me and not even just for my people, but it was for the whole world…
As I held him I realized that’s what Jesus wants from us. I felt that I didn’t have much to give, but I gave what I had.
The small thing I had to give seemed like not nearly enough, but Jesus wants us just the way we are. We do not have to wait to give ourselves to him. Our life and what we have gathered is enough. Sometimes we hold back, thinking: I’ll give something to God when what I have is good enough. God wants to be in relationship with us with all of our brokenness, the messiness, the inconsistency, just the way we are.
God used my small gift – and people mention the tomb I gave when they tell of how Jesus’ Kingdom came early on the first day of the week, when the women came to bring spices and found the stone rolled away.

Let us pray:

O God, whose blessed Son steadfastly set his face to go to the city where he was to suffer and to die; let there be in us the same devotion which was in him. Forgive us for our many evasions of duty. We have held back from fear of what others might think of us. We have valued our security and our comfort over your justice and truth, and our hearts condemn us. But we ask you, O Lord, who are greater than our hearts to have mercy on us. Purge us of the fear that comes from our self-concern and fill us with the compassion of the One who for our sake endured the cross; that we may be saved from selfishness and cowardice; and that dedicating our lives to your service, we may be used by you to help one another and heal the hurt of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The life we hold fast: ending…beginning

 

“Are we THERE yet?”

This is what the 5th and 6th graders wanted to know. We had LITERALLY not been out of the parking lot of Eagle Eyrie retreat center for more than 10 minutes headed home to Richmond.

I told them we were there, which puzzled them.

But what confused them more was 2 hours later, when we all knew we SHOULD be on an interstate of some kind, and we found that we were instead traveling in a 45 MPH zone…which turned onto a thinner road with 35MPH a sign. We drove by sleepy looking neighborhoods and then it looked like the GPS was going to take us down a dirt road.

We were NOT LOST. Not exactly.

We had just been listening to music, talking, laughing, passing candy, we had missed the BEST and FASTEST way home, and we were taking some crazy backroads. Thankfully we were still well-stocked with popcorn, skittles, and Hersey’s chocolate.

“But, where ARE we?” The youth wanted to know. And as I looked in the rearview mirror, I have to say, it felt as if the youth were losing confidence in their leaders. Their faces looked as if they were straining to imagine a scenario where we arrived safely back in the parking lot in Short Pump to meet their parents.

It’s hard to say if the Israelites are LOST – God IS leading them after all – but they sure are taking some crazy backroads. I mean their trip has taken so long, people have started dying of old age. Miriam dies. Then Aaron dies. And when this starts happening, as you might guess, the people lose confidence in Moses. And these traveling Hebrews who are somewhere between their beginning in Egyptand their hoped-for ending in a promised land don’t have skittles to pass, or Taylor Swift tunes to crank in order to lift their spirits And man do they need cheering up!

First, they complained that the water in the desert was bitter, so God showed Moses how to sweeten it. Then they complained about being hungry, so God gave them manna. Then they asked for meat, so God gave them quail. But nothing makes them happy and they continue to grumble to God about their leaders, until finally they’ve been out there so long and so many years have passed that they grumble against God himself. And complaining about their leaders is one thing but complaining about GOD is another.

So, God has had enough and sends fiery serpents among the people, and they bite the people, so that many of the Israelites die.

But the people repent.

They admit their guilt in speaking against God and even apologize for speaking against Moses and ask Moses to pray that the Lord will take away the fiery serpents. And Moses prays and God has compassion.

In a startling turn of events, God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole, raise it up so that all eyes can see it, and when anyone who has been bitten looks at this bronze serpent, they will live.

By looking at the very thing that has caused them misery, not looking away or covering their eyes, but having to look at the source of their pain, the Israelites are given healing and life.

You and I just stood together and confessed our sin – personally and individually and collectively with all humankind — with our violence and inability to feed the hungry, and our apathy in the face of other peoples’ suffering– and by looking at the source of our misery, and by not hiding from it, by refusing to pretend it doesn’t exist, by acknowledging that our pain and failure is our own fault – we are opened to receive healing.

The life we hold fast is the new beginning God has made from our ending. In baptism, God puts to death our sin and selfishness and forgives us and gives us a new start.

The Israelites are healed, not by some magic bronze sculpture hoisted above Moses head, but by the repentance it inspires.

Their suffering comes to an end when they finally begin to acknowledge that they were wrong to speak against the God who delivered them out of slavery.

OUR suffering comes to an end when we tell the truth to God and to ourselves that we need God, we can’t make it in life without God, we are completely dependent on God’s goodness to survive.

We would never have to wrestle with this strange story from Numbers if the writer of the Gospel of John didn’t recall it as an image that helps us make sense of Jesus.

But John tells us that in the same way that the serpent was lifted up
in the wilderness so that all who looked at it received healing, so Jesus was lifted up on the cross, raised up from the empty tomb, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, so that all who look to Jesus see God’s healing power.

In the cross we see OUR sickness and pain placed on Jesus, who takes it willing FROM US so that we might be rescued and healed.

In the cross we see God takes the sickness and sin of the whole world.
He takes all that is ruined and depraved and spoiled and sour and evil-intentioned. He takes it, and in return he gives us love, kindness, friendship,
and forgiveness.

And so we see in Jesus the depth of God’s love and we know we can trust God
– Not just as in idea we subscribe to – But we can TRUST God with our life
so that our relationship with God informs our life, our choices, and our actions.

The Israelites are healed in the wilderness when they look at the bronze serpent
EVEN THOUGH the fiery snakes are still at their feet — God doesn’t get rid of them!

But they can look to God and trust him, so that they pick up their feet and keep walking, keep traveling those crazy backroads, believing God will lead them to the new beginning he has promised.

And we can pick up OUR FEET and keep walking.

The cross is revealed as God’s healing for a world against God, and against itself, and the Holy Spirit helps us to trust God.

So we can pick up our feet and keep walking through the world in which we are called to work with co-workers who are hard to respect,
to forgive the spouse who frustrates us,
to invest in the friendship that takes more than it gives,
to pray for the person that we don’t want to pray for,
and to try to live a virtuous life and make decisions based on kindness when it feels like our culture has judged that passé.

We pick up our feet and keep walking because Jesus invites us to walk with him
on the adventure of love that is not returned.

Sometimes the love Jesus calls us to give is not returned to us by the world, but Jesus fills us with trust in God’s love and God’s healing.

We aren’t dependent on the love we might receive from the world,
So we can be completely focused on lifting up Jesus….
in our words and in our speech,
in the lives of our youth,
and in the service we do.

In youth group last week, we watched a video provided by the ELCA to prepare us for our trip to Houston this coming summer.

In the video, in a public outdoor mall a crowd is gathered in front of a huge x-ray screen, perhaps 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide.

Just like the crowd that is gathered, as we watch the video we see images of people standing behind the screen. But all we see are skeletons of the real people behind the screen. As the people behind the screen move; as they dance, walk around, hug one another — we can’t see the person’s skin color or their gender, their sexual orientation or how much money they make, if they have a cognitive disability or their religion.

Its only when the people walk out from around the corner of the screen, we see their bodies in all their detail:

We see a couple in love, holding hands, one Asian and one black,
We see a woman who is Hindu and a pastor who is female linking arms,
We see 2 sisters, one looks to have a cognitive disability, smiling and laughing,
We see a young family with a daughter who has two mothers,
We see a couple married 50 years on their walkers, in a bear hug.

On the screen we read:

“Love has no gender.”
“Love has no race.”
“Love has no disability.”
“Love has no age.”
“Love has no religion.”

Unfortunately, the church didn’t make this video.

But we should’ve.

And the last line we read should be:

“Love is Jesus.”

God is Christ loves the world, and especially all those people who have ever been judged or bullied or hated.

Jesus has been given to us and to the whole world, to each and every human person, to all of us who are just alike, in that we are:

Beautiful,
sinful,
in need of healing,
and loved by God.

We are called to love as God loves.

Are we there yet?

On this journey,
By God’s grace,
today we are given a new beginning.

We have a God who LITERALLY forgives the past and who is present with us as we walk into this new day.

Come and see Jesus lifted up for you.
And may the love that is poured out on us in Jesus, fill us and overflow in our lives, as the Holy Spirit inspires us to give our life away for the sake of the world.