Monday, April 28, 2014

Pushing the "Pause Button" in the Middle of Easter Stories

Yesterday in morning worship, we shared about Jesus appearing to Thomas, who did not yet believe he had risen. We reflected on the way Thomas experienced his own “resurrection” of the mind, now able to see with different eyes. Jesus did not do funerals. Jesus did resurrections. And he continues to do them!

Sometimes there is more I wish we had time to share in a sermon. So last night, at our last “Evening Prayer at the Piano” for the spring season, I shared a few more thoughts about John 20, reading the remainder of the chapter. I would like to share these thoughts with you.

In John chapters 20 and 21, several amazing resurrection appearances are reported. It begins with disciples running to see the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene weeping outside, mistaking Jesus for the gardener. Then Jesus appears and breathes on them, inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit … and Thomas wasn’t there. Then there was the story of Thomas, who did not believe until he saw for himself, a story which ends with Jesus’s words “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Then John pushed the pause button. Woah!

He paused before he tells of Jesus appearing by the lakeside, telling the disciples where to find fish and inviting them to the fire to eat breakfast. He paused before he reports on Jesus telling Peter three times to “feed my sheep” after asking if he loved him, and before the book closed with John’s confession that he is the beloved disciple he had been referring to (and clearing up the rumor that he would not die).

He paused right between chapters 20 and 21, in the middle of these amazing stories, to say this: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.”

Why hit the pause button? Why insert commentary there?

Look at the setup. He hit the pause button right after John told us what Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” He is speaking of you and me, and he is speaking to you and me. We are blessed because though we did not see the risen Christ for ourselves, we believe. And through believing, we find life in his name. This is the whole point of the resurrection!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Tide of Easter - Reflections on the "at-ONE-ment" of Christ

Easter is a day of great joy and celebration, not only because it is the culmination of the drama of Holy Week, and not only because it is the climax of the entire Lenten experience. It is the grandest celebration of the church because it is the ultimate expression of new life in Christ. Because of the resurrection, we have been set free from the bonds of sin and death. Thanks be to God!

Now that the holy day is over, and the season of “Eastertide” has begun, it is a good time to reflect on the deeper mystery of what I sometimes call the “great trilogy”, the three big events that changed faith history: the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

One of these standing alone would not be enough to save the world. These three pivotal events intertwine to form the sacred story of salvation by grace. It is by the work of God, who crossed over the chasm between the divine and human, that Jesus became what we are so that we can become like he is. It is by the self-emptying love of Christ that we find the ultimate expression of God’s very being and discover the essence of true love. And it is by the immense victory of life over death that we find meaning when we ourselves walk through death’s shadow. These three events shape our spirituality and restore the world to wholeness.

I have never been a fan of teachings related to the concept of “substitutionary atonement.” These teachings revolve around the idea that God had to vindicate himself against himself, because of the blood sacrifice he demanded for sin. So Jesus had to pay the price to purchase our forgiveness from God (when Jesus is, himself, God’s self). I do not mean to caricature a belief that is sacred to many, but for me, it simply doesn’t make any sense. The atonement is not a transaction, a slight of hand, or tricky payoff.

But seeing each of the “great trilogy” of events as an integral part of the salvation story puts the atonement in perspective. I appreciate what the Disciple Bible Study series teaches, that the essence of the atonement is the restorative “at-ONE-ment” action of God. This is what both the cross and the resurrection are about.

The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s self-giving love, and it is the emptiness of the cross that expresses our victory over the grave. The atonement is not some twisted transaction that an angry God required to satisfy himself. It is the most extreme, life-changing, earth-cleansing expression of the very nature of God’s stubborn love. God refused to give up on us, on a world that kept “going to pot” on its own. And the grace of God’s love is what transforms the cross into victory.

Easter is not about avoiding God’s judgment. It is about embracing God’s grace! We must never stop at thinking Easter is our ticket to heaven. It is about more than personal salvation. It is about the world’s redemption.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Churches Are So Full of Drama!

Usually when people talk about all the “drama” at their church, it’s not a good thing. But this week? It certainly is.

Holy Week is the most dramatic week imaginable for people of faith. We began yesterday with grand processionals and palms, acknowledging the kingship of Christ who reigns in glory. During the services themselves, we moved our thoughts toward the passion of Christ, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. We began to fathom the wondrous love this is, that he would pour himself out for others.

During the week, our thoughts and liturgies will move toward the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made his boundaries clear that cultural and commercial religiosity is not acceptable to the heart of God. When Jesus got angry, we need to pay attention to it.

Then there is the betrayal and denial. I can’t imagine the sorrow Jesus felt when he was betrayed and denied by such close friends (as we all know, people you don’t care about can’t hurt you as much as someone you love). I often reflect that out of 12 disciples, which Jesus had spent 3 years closely with, one of them betrayed him, one denied him, and two of them couldn’t see past their own desire for status and position. In the end, 1/3 of the disciples let him down.

Then there is Maundy Thursday, when Jesus shared Passover with his disciples, dramatically changed the symbols of the night to become about his body and blood and sacrifice, instituted our precious sacrament, washed the feet of his disciples, and gave them a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.

Then we arrive at Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and gave himself for you and me. How strange that we should call it “good” when it is a day so full of darkness. Yet we call it good because it is holy darkness; this is how God chose to save and redeem the world. Then we pause for the darkness of the tomb on Saturday.

Then we will gather for Sunrise service and breakfast on Easter. We are always (and have always been, and always will be) people of hope! All of our liturgies and activities lead us through this dramatic journey. I hope you will participate as much as you can.

But the drama of the story itself is greater than anything we can possibly dramatize. Let the week move your heart and deepen your soul. Let it bring you to tears and cause you to struggle. Let it be dark night of the soul, which brings us to the joy of Easter light.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of drama at your church. That’s just what the world needs.

Pictured is Antonio Ciseri's "Behold the Man"

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Way of the Methodists

We are entering a time of transition at Saint Mark. On Sunday, our Staff-Parish Relations Committee chair announced that I am being appointed by Bishop Wallace-Padgett to serve as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church in Arab, Alabama.

Saint Mark is truly an incredible church, well-known for doing great things in missions and hands-on ministry. Sandy and I love the people here, and the church has been very good to my family as we finished the journey of raising Jeremy and entered the transition into the empty nest. I will always cherish and value our time together, and I have learned so much about love and about life!

I couldn’t be more excited about the pastor coming to Saint Mark. Ron Gonia is a well-known, brilliant, and gifted pastor in our conference with 24 years of experience. He is presently serving as pastor of Fultondale United Methodist Church. His wife, Rachel, is also a member of the clergy and will continue serving as pastor of Hoover First UMC. They have a wonderful daughter, Jessie, who is 22 years old.

Rachel is well known in missions in our conference as former director of the Society of St. Andrew, and Ron plans to graduate in May with a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia seminary in Altanta where he did his DMin project related to his involvement in prison ministry.

Sandy and I love Saint Mark, but at the same time we are excited about the new opportunity and adventure with the people of Arab First UMC!

During Lent, I have been preaching on the theme of “The Way” and we have considered the “Way of the Pole,” the “Way of the Mud,” and the “Way of the Wind.” Smooth and healthy pastoral transitions are the “Way of the Methodists!” I look forward to the next steps of my life and ministry.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Setting Our Hearts Free

I had a most incredible week as part of the Mexico Mission Team from Saint Mark. As I shared on Sunday after my return, it was an amazing journey of connecting with brothers and sisters in the faith in our sister church in Rio Bravo, addressing the overwhelmingly systemic problem of poverty one casita (small house) at a time, and putting our hands and feet to work in service to our Lord. I came back tired but very full!

On the first day of our trip, as we gathered there for worship, shared testimonies, and met the families that were to receive the casitas we worked on, Pastor Marco did a sermon on discovering the truth of who we really are, the question of our existence that runs deep and that we can not avoid. It resonated with the people, and with me. It is a message that transcends all cultures and languages.

I took with me on the week's journey a devotional book that I went to during devotional time each morning and each night. It is selections from the writings of Francis de Sales, who was Bishop of Geneva in the early 1600's. He was noted for his deep faith and his gentle approach to the religious divisions in his land resulting from the Protestant Reformation. He is also known for his writings on topics related to spiritual direction and spiritual formation. One of the entries really struck me, and I feel led to share it with you today in hopes that it helps continue your wilderness journey of Lent, longing for the heart of God and rediscovering who we truly are.

A heart that is free is the close companion of a peaceful soul.
A free heart is one that is not attached to its own way of doing things, that does not become impatient when things don’t go its way.
A free heart will surely enjoy spiritual consolations, but is not dependent on them and will, to the best of its ability, accept troubles in their stead.
A free heart is not so tied to a schedule or a way of praying that any change is upsetting and a source of anxiety.
A free heart is not attached to what is beyond its control.
A free heart prays to God that his name be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
For if the name of God is hallowed, if his kingdom is in us, if his will is being done, a free spirit need not concern itself with anything else.

Lord, set our hearts free. Help us be who we truly are created to be.