Wednesday, April 8, 2020
The courage to follow God is a courage that few of us truly understand. We are still with Peter and John who have now been publicly jailed. While in jail, an angel of God opens the prison doors, brings them out, and compels them to get back in the temple and “tell the people the whole message about this life.” The religious leaders can’t believe their eyes. They can’t keep them in prison. They can’t stop them from talking. They can’t dissuade their witness. Their courage knows no end.
If anybody in this church has ever received an email or note from George Brightwell, there is a good chance he signed off: “Courage, George!” George reminds me frequently that the word “courage” comes to us from the Latin word “cor” by way of the old French word “corage.” Both are the word “heart” … as in, the seat of our passions … feelings.
Holy Week is when we talk about the Passion of Christ. It is about suffering or aching … another feeling word. So this is a week that is less about being rational and more about the suffering heart of Christ. Here God weeps with us. Here God uses our hearts to connect with those who are suffering.
It takes courage to speak truth to power. It takes courage to stand alone. It takes courage to speak out … to call out … our own faith traditions, our own denominations, our own pastors, or our own leaders. It is so much easier to fall in line and refrain from making waves. But finally, if we listen, we will hear God calling. God calls in the voice of the weak, the poor, and the people standing in the margins. Through prayer and Christian dialogue.
With Peter, we then answer the authorities: “We must obey God over human authority!” God calls us to love of God and neighbor. If our actions don’t meet that test, God is speaking. “Take courage. Speak truth to power. When you stand with me, you will never stand alone!”
Give us courage, Lord, to listen and stand with you! Amen.
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Peter and John are still in the temple when they are confronted by the religious leaders of the temple. They thought Jesus was gone, yet here are his disciples teaching the same thing. They arrested them and then brought them to stand before the high priest and the high-priestly family. When they were asked how they healed the man, Peter told them it was by the power of this Jesus whom they had killed. He reminded them of the psalmist who said that the “stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”
Cornerstones are fascinating to me. They were the most critical part of early building where there were no instruments to measure or level surfaces. The cornerstone had to be a perfect cube. Each of its corners had to be perfect 90 degree corners. Each of its sides had to be perfectly level planes. If the cornerstone wasn’t perfect, there would be structural flaws in the building. Corners would not meet. The building would not be level. Walls could fall in. So the builders took extra time in choosing, crafting, and setting the cornerstone.
The psalmist says in Psalm 118 that the chosen of God is rejected, but that God sees what the builders could not see. The stone is rejected because it doesn’t suit the purpose of the builders … or because it is not what the builders expected. In the case of Jesus, he was not the militant messiah that people expected. He went to the poor and disenfranchised … not the powerful and privileged. He courageously and non-violently spoke truth to power. And he was rejected.
I wonder how we reject Jesus today. We still hear people talk about the militant messiah as if, just maybe this time, he will get it right and come according to our expectations. I fear the cornerstone will be rejected again. But this week, I believe we can get it right … if we will just let God place the cornerstone!
Christ the Cornerstone, may we align our lives with you. Amen.
Monday, April 6, 2020
As we take our first steps into Holy Week, we are in the temple with Peter and John. As they make their way into the temple through the Beautiful Gate, there is a man who has been carried there every day so he might beg alms from the passersby. He has been unable to walk his whole life. Both Peter and John look intently at him and then Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he walks … he dances … into the temple. The people in the temple are amazed at what they see.
Peter addresses the people and challenges them to see what they have missed in their disregard for Jesus, for Jesus came to people just like this. Peter advocated for the poor and healed those with infirmities. His was a healing that happened at a deeply spiritual level, but it also had a deeply relational quality about it, as well. This man, as I have noted before, is one of the invisible ones. He sat there waiting to be seen as human. Peter addressed him as a child of God and offered him the gift that was more valuable than silver or gold. It was the gift to stand up … to walk … to dance. He was no longer invisible, but he was healed.
So now Peter addresses the crowd. They have had the chance to know the real Jesus … the one who came as God’s anointed. They instead participated in his death by denying him the solidarity Jesus himself had offered them. They chose the criminal to be released. They stood by and watched Jesus die without so much as a word. Further, Peter tells them that the healing they are witnessing is a healing that comes only through the name of Jesus.
It is interesting that they would have been standing in the very temple where Jesus himself taught … where he offered a new way to see God … where he had offered healing and hope. So this week, we are told this is not the last word on the life of Jesus. It is just the beginning!
May we see Christ, O Lord, as he heals us and offers us hope. Amen.
Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020
I had a professor who once pointed out the humor in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem based on the authors misreading of Zechariah 9:9. Matthew adds the word “and” in Greek where the Hebrew in Zechariah did not have a symbol or word indicating as such. My professor pointed out that Jesus is portrayed here as a circus act coming in “mounted on a donkey, and on the foal of a donkey” (emphasis mine).
In this telling, the “Triumphal Entry” doesn’t seem very triumphant, does it. I think, however, this more than makes the point of the story. Jesus has not come as a ruler or king in that way. He comes in with the poor on a beast of burden. He is found among the people, and he will not be identified easily with the mighty warrior king we continue to insist that he is.
As we embark here upon Holy Week, my invitation to us is to seek out ways to follow Jesus … not into the palace … into the streets. How will we experience holiness this week? Where will I look for Jesus?
I think perhaps this is the time to be among the people who suffer. It is a time to be with people for whom grief and death are all too real. It is a time to stand with the powerless and the homeless. It is a time to commit ourselves to this God who comes into the midst of our suffering humanity and offers a future filled with hope.
But first the cross. We can’t get there without the cross. It is the cross of suffering. It is the cross of hopelessness. It is the cross of death. It is the cross that calls us to stand and watch as our God enjoins our suffering and, even there, speaks a word of forgiveness to those who inflict the suffering. It is a cross that transforms us and readies us for life.
Christ, we come to you as the one who teaches us triumph from the perspective of suffering and death. Teach us of your mercy and grace. Teach us how to follow you into the streets. Amen.
Saturday, April 4, 2020
Paul is sharing with us an ancient hymn of the church. We don’t know the original tune, but we know the words.
Christ, who was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to exploit, so Christ carried out what God desires to do … to be emptied … poured out … walking in our shoes and dying our death. Not as penal substitutionary atonement, as many want to believe, but as us … standing with us in human form and teaching us how to hold our suffering without retribution or looking back, but looking forward to a world without fear or scarcity or harm.
We are called to have the mind of Christ … to stand in the same way in the world today. Paul challenges us, as the body of Christ … Christ within us, to stand with those who are separated at our borders, who are killed in our streets, who are suffering in our prisons, who are marginalized and cut off just for being who they are. We are called to both sides of the battle field as a symbol of peace … even when it kills us to do so.
Every Sunday, I ask the same question: “How about it, Church?” Tomorrow we enter this week called holy, and my question is changed a bit: “How about it, Jeff?” What changes for me this week? Where am I called to seek healing and wholeness? Where am I called to offer healing and wholeness? Where am I called to have the mind of Christ?
I am convinced that, when I follow Jesus in this way, I will glorify God and exalt Christ. It starts with humility and solidarity. It leads to death, but our claim is that death isn’t strong enough to keep God down. We are people who know the end of the story!
May we have the mind of Christ, O Lord, and may we have the strength to walk with you through suffering to the place of hope and life. Amen.
Friday, April 3, 2020
I never really thought about it before. The best teachers I have had have done more than verbally teach me. They have done two things: they have listened and they have been exemplars. This passage carries within it the theme of integrated solidarity … God standing with us in the midst of suffering.
The two teachers who come to mind for me are the two faculty members who served as my faculty advisors throughout my doctoral work at St. Paul School of Theology: Dr. Tex Sample and Dr. Emilie Townes. Both were professors of Church and Society (think social justice), and God knew I needed them for that time in my life. I was lost somewhere between privilege and brokenness, and I didn’t know how to find my way or my voice.
Tex’s area of focus was what he called “Blue Collar Ministry.” He has a capacity to hear the cries from people who spent their lives working hard and living hard. He knows how to speak to their cries with compassion.
Emilie is an African-American clergywoman who spent her years researching and teaching from a “womanist” perspective (combining both feminist and black theological perspectives). I learned from Emilie to listen to the strong voice of African-American women who have, in so many ways, been the hidden skeletal structure, not only within the black church, but within the larger community.
From them I learned to see God standing with those who have been struck in the back and have endured insults and spitting. From them I learned how to practice this integrated solidarity with those who do not have the privilege and power granted to me by the color of my skin or my relative wealth. From them I learned that the face of Christ is found in the least of these.
I learned from those who teach … who listen … who act!
Teach me, God, to find you in the face of those who suffer. Teach me to see where you stand with us in our suffering. Amen.
Thursday, April 2, 2020
The school district had adopted a mandated policy that special education students who could function in normal classrooms, would be mainstreamed. Cheryl had down syndrome, and she was bashful. She had some classes tailored just to her in special education, but some of her classes were with all the other kids.
Because of her looks and her naturally withdrawn personality, she soon became the victim of taunting and outright bullying. When teachers would catch it happening, they would call out and punish the perpetrators, but they could never catch all the bullying all the time.
This went on for awhile, but then Cheryl found her voice. One day when Cheryl was being taunted by a girl, Cheryl asked her why he was doing what he was doing. When she didn’t answer, Cheryl said, “I know I look funny to you. I know it is harder for me to talk and think like you. But I also know that Jesus loves me just like Jesus loves you. Because of Jesus, we are more alike than different.” The girl started to walk away, but something was moved deep within, and the girl asked if she could walk with her.
Things began to change in that school. What started as a small crossing of the boundaries became a way of life for many of those students. Cheryl served as an officer of her student body in high school. She was the mascot one year. When she graduated, the entire student body stood and cheered for her. It all started with a statement: “Because of Jesus, we are more alike than different.”
So this suffering servant in Isaiah’s prophecy is not the best looking. This suffering servant has borne our sorrows and suffered our human living. But this suffering servant has come to make us whole. That, my friends, is the gift of solidarity. One who lives our life, carries our wounds, dies our death, and offers hope!
Remind us, Lord, that we are more alike than different when we have you. Amen.
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:3-17
Our upside down God. I have used that term throughout my ministry because so much of what we know about God stands in sharp contrast to how we think in human terms. Jesus often distinguishes between our ways and God’s ways.
This is a passage that Paul uses to describe how the gospel is upside down to what we think. The Corinthian church is struggling. The people have begun to divide themselves along the lines of who baptized them … in ways oddly reminiscent of how we align ourselves with our favorite sports teams based on location, where we went to college, or who we like playing on these teams. And Paul will have none of it.
He reminds them that the baptism all share is the baptism of Christ. More importantly, says Paul, is not who baptized whom, but how Christ was proclaimed. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
Speaking for God is hard when people confuse the message with the messenger. Paul is clear that the only message proclaimed is the power of the cross … God’s act of solidarity with creation … and the power of the cross is the power to transform our world. God is made vulnerable in the cross as God, through Jesus, holds our suffering, dies our death, and invites us to the power of the resurrection that has overcome death. It is a message of weakness that confounds the powerful, and it is a symbol of poverty that supplants the greatest riches.
The pathway to a greater unity is counterintuitive. It requires that we speak the truth of the gospel … in love … and that we use, not our strength, but our weakness, as we proclaim the message of the cross to a world desperate for unity and hope.
In our vulnerability and weakness, O God, we proclaim the message of the cross. Restore the power of the cross in us today. Amen.
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
1 Peter 2:21-25
We get to the heart of non-violence in this text. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an advocate for non-violent social change. Such a proclamation doesn’t fit with our cultural tendency toward violence. As we continue this Lenten journey, I think here it is best to let Dr. King speak on the six principles of non-violence.
- Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
- Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
- Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.
- Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
- Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
- Nonviolence believes the universe is on the side of justice.
When Jesus chose this path, he was choosing an integrated path. He knew there were people who were in very different places, but Jesus was one who valued (Fr. Richard Rohr would say “saw the Christ”) in others, no matter who they were. Jesus was connected to the poor, tax collectors, Zealots, Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin.
Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were people who had every right to take a stand. The people who had suffered at the hands of the tyrannical reign of apartheid in South Africa could have overthrown the government violently, and many would have considered it justified. But Bishop Tutu and the soon-to-be-president Mandela wanted something different for their country. They wanted nonviolence to be the standard, and from that was formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The epistle of Peter makes it clear that this is the image of Christ. It is the image that is foundational to Dr. King’s principles. If we listen closely, it might be the call for us today. Can we effect justice and righteousness by these same principles.
If we are followers of Jesus, yes … yes, we can!
Lord, teach us of revolutionary change and transformation that we might restore your creation and its inhabitants to you. Amen.
Monday, March 30, 2020
Paul and Barnabas understood the dangers of spreading the gospel of Christ. In Acts 14:1-18, we are told of the challenges Paul and Barnabas faced … from being thought to be gods to being stoned by the overzealous Jews who followed them and convinced the crowds that they were less than human and tried to kill them. Establishing the church was deadly.
The message of this Christ, however, was powerful. It was transformative. Paul continued to call people away from worthless offerings and sacrifices to following this living Christ. Many gave up idolatry and heard the call of Christ.
As I hear the stories of Paul and the beatings, the shipwrecks, the imprisonment, and the treachery he experienced, I am in awe. And he didn’t do it just by preaching and exhorting people to come to Christ. Paul witnessed by the way he lived. He witnessed by his non-violent resistance to power. He witnessed by his willingness to stay on message even when being threatened with death if he did so. He witnessed by offering healing and grace to any who were suffering.
As I think of the season in which we find ourselves in our world, I see so many people … many who use the name Christian … who perpetuate systems of injustice. Issues of race, culture, gender and sexuality continue to arise with people in power marginalizing and harming others. When we have refugee and immigrant children being separated from their families and put in cages at our borders, there is no doubt in my mind that we are in a season that calls for courage. The courage to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King.
Following Christ … really following Christ … will cost us. I wonder what our world will be when we focus less on reining in Christ and learning to let Christ reign.
Call us, Lord, to the place where Christ truly reigns … even when it is hard and where we are called to courage. Amen.