Day 79 – March 25th, 2013 – Matthew 26:17-29

33700144Today we reach the institution of the Lord’s Supper. This is a deeply meaningful scene for me. If you’ve been following along since the beginning of our journey, you may remember day 1 when I referred to an important moment in my life as a child. I was about seven or eight years old and my parents were recently separated or divorced (no one seems to recall the details). My dad remained intimately involved at St. John’s Episcopalian Church on South Minneapolis, where he was a deacon, but my older brother wanted nothing to do with it. Not sure of what to do with me during services, my dad simply put a robe on me and had me sit up front with him and the priest. The picture in my mind is vivid. When the Eucharist time came, my dad would have me hold the tray of wafers for congregants kneeling at the altar, hands held open, waiting for a taste of the Body of Christ. It was this picture that came to mind some 20 plus years later on a staff retreat when God confirmed my call, saying to me, “Paul, as you are you, bring me to them”. From that point on, I have been working toward getting the necessary credentials to consecrate the sacraments.

The first time I ever did consecrate Holy Communion would be September 5th, 2010 at Rosemount United Methodist Church, my current location. It was, I’m sure, for the congregation an entirely common meal, but for me it was anything but common. As the words of the Great Thanksgiving rolled off my tongue, I felt a rush of the Spirit of God flowing through me. I was nervous, invigorated, humbled and fully alive. I get the same sensation every time I speak those words two and a half years later. As United Methodists, we believe that the presence of God is in that sacrament. We believe that she is fully available to us, to work in us, bless us, form us, and call us. The elements on the table are terribly common, but with the Spirit of God blowing through them, the experience becomes anything but common.

The last time I came to the table at St. John’s Episcopalian was in the early 80s in the midst of great familial turmoil and pain… until Christmas Eve of 2012. I had finished up the marathon of Christmas Eve services in Rosemount, and on my way home found myself walking into St. John’s. I was late, so I snuck in the back. It looked, sounded and smelled exactly like it did 30 years ago. When the Christmas Eve eucharist came, I walked up, hands open, received the body and blood of Christ from the priest and I was transformed into a healed, whole, fulfilled 8-year-old boy. She had no idea what was happening when she handed me that wafer. A slow, subtle tear trickled down my cheek, as I walked backed to my pew. When we come to the table, we should approach it with great expectancy and openness, having no idea just how God might show up. How has God shown up for you at the table?

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Day 78, Palm Sunday – March 24th, 2013 – Matthew 26:1-16

And so it begins. Jesus has finished this multi-chapter diatribe wherein he thoroughly exposes the scribes and Pharisees’ hypocrisy and talks of the King’s return, and, in do doing, puts the insiders on the outside and outsiders on the inside. After all that, he says, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” As I read this today, I pictured him saying it like, “and, so, y’know… they’re probably gonna kill me for this”. He is fully aware of what he’s doing and what will come of it.

Then this beautiful scene takes place. Jesus is in the house of leper when a woman anoints him with expensive perfume. And the disciples are upset and call it a waste. Maybe they’re well intentioned, but whenever I read this, I hear self-righteousness coming out of them. It’s as though they say this just to get good marks with Jesus. He doesn’t bite. He affirms the woman’s sacrifice and considers it preparation for his burial. We’ve come full circle. At his birth, back in chapter 2, he was given myrrh, and here he’s given it again. The Greek word for “costly ointment” is “muron” (μυρον) and is an ointment said to contain myrrh. This is a good service to him, but it does seem wasteful, I think. While I hear some self-righteousness in the disciples, I also tend to agree. In light of all Jesus has said, done and preached, they have a point!

The distinction, I wonder, might be this: No one told this woman she had to give Jesus anything, but she comes and gives what she has in the most authentic and pursuant way she can. Think about it: She entered some one’s house. Did she know Simon the leper? Or did she just hear Jesus was in there, had to get to him, and barged in to give him whatever she had. The gift was not so much the oil as it was the heart that gave the oil. Her gift was authentic and pure, and this, I believe, is what Jesus desires of us. Jesus wants our hearts, and whatever gifts we give him, must come authentically from the heart. Jesus’ life began with outsiders, coming from far off lands in the East, who pursued him and gave him gifts from their hearts. And here, Jesus’ life will end with another outsider, who pursues him and gives him a gift from her heart. The kingdom is breaking wide open with people from all walks of life authentically pouring their lives out to him. May we do the same this Holy Week; may we be a people of all walks of life, who pursue Jesus relentlessly and authentically give him our hearts. His body has been prepared, his disciples warned, and his betrayer set in motion. Today is the day. The time is now.

Day 77 – March 23rd, 2013 – Matthew 25:31-46

A few days ago our passage was Jesus telling about all the signs of his return. The overarching point of this passage is “be ready” because you never know when he will come back. Here we are, a mere 3 days later on our journey but only two chapters later as well and Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” I do not think it is a coincidence that talk of Jesus’ return and the ever presence of the “east of these” are this close. Is it possible that we should be ready because Jesus is here. Is it possible that we should not have our heads turned toward to the sky looking for a king on a white horse, but turned towards the ground where those without a home sleep; and turned towards the orphanage in Haiti where the weakest among us starve for contact; and turned towards the nursing home bed where our wisest breathe their last; and turned towards the psych-wards where some of our most brilliant try to find their place in this world. Jesus shows up every day, all around us. He has returned. His Kingdom is at hand. It expands whenever the overlooked are seen, cared for and loved. Let us be Kingdom expanders. Let us turn our gaze away from the clouds and towards the very world in which we live. As I said three days ago, “Friends, Jesus has come back- we just gotta open our ears and eyes a little wider”.

Day 76 – March 22nd, 2013 – Matthew 25:14-30

This is the third passage in a row about the return of the master. In order for the master to return, the master must leave.  It is no coincidence that immediately following his most clear reproach of the religious elite, Jesus is talking about leaving and returning. He knows his time coming. He knows that he will soon, with the power of the Spirit, have to leave this mission into the hands of the disciples. This mission is important, and, not before too long, Jesus will have to let it go.

By itself this passage sounds like a pretty harsh one about making your life worth something. It feels as though we have a mean boss who demands that we make something of ourselves or we will be cast out. Quite honestly, it’s hard to say that that isn’t there. But, again, let’s look at it in context with the Jesus we see throughout the Gospel. This is a Jesus that battles for the outsider, the outcast; this is a Jesus that demands good fruit, that is, he demands a life that doesn’t leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. This passage, I believe, is about grabbing onto the severity and immediacy of Jesus’ mission, more than it is about pleasing your boss. God does not want for us to blindly obey God’s commands. God wants us to grab on to the passion, heart and energy behind God’s mission. This is a passage about helping us see that we are to be stewards of that mission. Justo Gonzalez says it beautifully in Three Months With Matthew. He points out the absence of the master in the parable, and then says, “What we do not always see is that God’s apparent absence turns us into stewards of what God has given us”. This is not a passage about proving your worth. It is a passage about grabbing onto the mission of God and then using whatever it is God has given you to move that mission forward. God believes in us. God entrusts the work of the kingdom to us. Let us get out there and build it, knowing that we have nothing to lose, because the grace of God works with us, picking us up when we fail and covering us when we make mistakes. The question is, “what has God given you to help build God’s Kingdom?”

Day 75 – March 21st, 2013 – Matthew 25:1-13

Today we read the “Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids”, which, like yesterday’s passage, but in a different manner, is about being ready. I find this passage has two sides to it:

On one side, it’s a bit terrifying. It has that “be ready or be missed” sense to it. It’s a frightening notion to think about not “being ready” and consequently missing Jesus’ return. Jesus has been breaking the Kingdom wide open, but he is also clear that some will miss out. But this is nothing new to Matthew’s gospel. Verse 25:12 has the “bridegroom” saying, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you”. In Matthew 7:23 Jesus says, “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me…'” The reality is that it appears that there will be some who end up not in, not with the bridegroom, or not with Jesus. This is a hard message. A couple things that are important to remember about this: The first is that in both of these cases (23:1-13 and 7:23) it is Jesus, the bridegroom, who says “I don’t know you”. No one else says it. It is not our job to determine who the bridegroom knows and who he doesn’t know. Second, in both of these cases, it is about me making me ready. I cannot make any one else ready, nor should I. I think these kinds passages are actually about personal holiness more than they are about heaven and hell. They are about me working on me and my relationship with God and allowing others to work on their relationship with God. I do not place judgement on theirs, nor do they on me.

The second side to this story is in its imagery. While there is a hard message in it, there is also a beautiful one. This relationship with God thing is about the pursuit of a bridegroom for his bride. I believe one of  the primary images for humanity’s relationship with God is one of a passionate romance, not judge and defendant. We need to let the hard message in and work through it, but we also need to remember that we are talking about a God who passionately loves us, relentlessly pursues, sacrificially serves us, and wants nothing more than for us to respond. And in fact, this God even gets jealous when we don’t.

Yes, this passage has a hard message in it, but it is hard because authentic, passionate love is hard. It is risky and people can get hurt. But it is also beautiful. God pursues you, because God loves you. Let that in. God sees in you some one worth pursuing, fighting for and even dying for. May you stay centered in God’s love today and everyday.

Day 74 – March 20th, 2013 – Matthew 24:3-51

I distinctly remember an influential preacher from my early Christian days often saying, “I believe Jesus is coming back in my lifetime.” I remember sitting in that old dusty church, with the paint peeling from the ceiling, thinking, “why are you so certain?”, while shouts of “amen” and “mmhm, c’mon” surrounded me. I remember many other preachers and leaders in my life in those early days saying the same thing. Well, I don’t believe any of those pastors have passed on, but I’m still not so certain. Nor am I certain that Jesus will “come back” in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetime, or even my grandchildren’s lifetime. I wonder if there is more to this passage than the words we read on the page. Let’s look at it in the context of the Gospel of Matthew.

It seems to me that the most common themes throughout this book have been a Jesus preaching about the importance of fruit bearing faith and a faith that works with Jesus to tear down walls. In Chapter 23 he, albeit intentionally, loses his patience as he clearly calls out the hypocrisy and sin of the religious elite. Throughout the Gospel he has also been wary of giving easy answers and formulas about “what I must do to be saved”, the afterlife and the “end times”. The Jesus of Matthew has been, in my view, particularly focused on each person worrying about their own faith and holiness rather than others, and on doing so in a way that judges no one and tears down dividing walls. Here in chapter 24 the disciples ask about the “end times” and Jesus’ return. And Jesus gives them a very thorough answer. Or does he? Why would he suddenly do that, when he has not done so throughout the entire Gospel?

I am no scholar by any means, and even if I were, I wonder if it’s worth it to break down this passage and try to truly understand it. Let’s remember that Jesus is a savvy guy. He knows the power of his words and his instruction. While he keeps it quiet through much of Matthew, he is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. He knows what he’s doing. As we  look back on history, is it any coincidence that it seems that in every generation people have looked at the state of the world, compared it to this passage and surmised that “Jesus must be coming back in my lifetime”. Is it possible that what Jesus is doing here, is painting a picture of the “end times” that could fit in into any point in history? Is it possible that what he’s done here is painted a picture of the “end times” that would call any one who takes these words seriously to wonder, “oh my goodness, I better be ready because this sounds like now”. The picture Jesus paints sounds like today. Just ask the guy on channel 10 on Sunday nights at like 11:00pm. But it also sounds a lot like the poetry I studied that came out of the early 20th century. And it sounds a lot like the times the disciples lived in. And it sounds a lot like the world my children will come of age in.

Jesus, I’m calling your bluff on this one. You don’t seem to appear to be coming back any time soon, even though the picture you paint of that time sounds a lot like right now. Too many generations have been convinced that it’s them. I’m not buying it. Could it be that Jesus’ point is, as it has been throughout the Gospel, “quit worrying about then and work on being a Fruit-of-the-Spirit-of-God bearing human now- not because it will get you into heaven and keep you from gnashing of teeth, but because it is the most fulfilling and world transforming way to live”? And could it be (as we read this in context with not only what comes before it, but also what will soon follow) that Jesus has already come back over and over again? Friends, Jesus has come back- we just gotta open our ears and eyes a little wider.

Day 73 – March 19th, 2013 – Matthew 23:37-24:2

ANGRYBIRDSJust after laying into the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus closes with “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus turns from addressing the scribes, Pharisees, disciples and crowds to addressing Jerusalem. I don’t think it’s too far off to think of Jerusalem from a Jewish/ People of Israel standpoint in the same way we think of Washington DC from an American/ Political standpoint. In the same way that DC is looked at as a sort of parental figure over this nation, Jerusalem was looked at very much like a parent of the People of Israel. It was its center, its capital, in a manner of speaking. So when we see, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…”, it’s very much like when we here criticisms of “washington”. It is not the actual city of Washington DC and its inhabitants that we are criticizing. It is the political structure and the political work that comes out Washington DC that we are criticizing. I believe it is in this same way that Jesus is crying out to Jerusalem. It is almost as though he is saying, “Oh, center of the people of Israel, root of the people…” That being made clear, for what is he crying out to Jerusalem, the core, the center, the heart of the people of Israel?

Unity. Oneness. Yes, as I’ve said a million times, the tearing down of our walls. Jesus is lamenting the division amongst the people. They are scattered and he, the Christ, wants to, among other things, gather the brood back together. For some time now, and even in this text as well, Jesus has spoken in harsh tones and language about the breaking down of barriers, about breaking the Kingdom of God wide open. But then right here he slips in what I believe to be what is really the heart of the matter Jesus: A broken heart. Jesus is angry, and he indeed needs to say harsh words, but it is all done out of a broken heart for what has happened to God’s people. His heart is breaking here. After all the “brood of vipers” kind of talk, he reminds of us what his anger is a response to: a broken heart over the division of God’s people. For a moment he moves from a “brood of vipers” to a “brood under the mother hen’s wing”. The picture reminds me of John’s gospel account where Jesus is the Good Shepherd, gently and kindly leading the flock, holding it together. Here Jesus is the mother hen. She cares for her brood. She wants them to be together under her wing. Earlier in Chapter 13, Jesus said “…and call no one on earth father for you have one father”. Here I think Jesus is saying, among other things, “you have one mother. And her heart is breaking at the division between you. Come home, underneath the wing of your mother. Come one, come all, under her wing”. But the baby hens who have asserted control are not willing. The heart, the core, the center of the people, Jerusalem, is not willing. But while there is some great gentleness in this picture, let us not forget the ferocity with which a Mother hen will protect her brood. She is gentle with her brood, but woe to the one who tries to divide it.

The Body of Christ is essentially the new Israel. Over the centuries it has grown increasingly fractured as evidenced by the birth of denomination after denomination after denomination. I believe that just as Jesus’ heart broke for the division within Israel, so too does God’s heart break for the division within the Body of Christ. There are still great battles among us. The Mother hen is, I believe, working hard to call us back beneath her wing, but we are, in many ways, unwilling. We are letting our views of who the Mother hen is divide us rather than recognize that, while we may all see her differently, we are still seeing the same thing.

At the same time, the Body of Christ has also made great strides in laying down our differences to come back as one brood beneath our Mother’s wing. I saw it in the city of Rosemount earlier this month, as an entire city came together for the common good. We laid aside our doctrines and dogmas and the lack there of to do something that was simply right and good- feed families locally and globally. I see it in many of our rural congregations, where Presbyterian or Lutheran pastors are appointed to United Methodist congregations where there is no pastor to serve, and vice-versa. I saw it in our own congregation on Thanksgiving Eve when multiple congregations, such as Evangelical Free, Untied Methodist and Roman Catholic, came together to worship as one body. There are glimpses of hope for us as a body coming back beneath our Mother’s wing. So, people of God, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right” (Galatians 6:9, NRSV).