The Supreme Public Event #1

For these dark Lenten days, a few words from Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermon, “Gethsemane: The Place of Victory.”

Calvary is looked upon as the place of our Lord’s great victory, the overcoming point in the struggle for God’s supremacy and human redemption and deliverance in the earth.  Calvary, said the old preachers, was the place where God in Christ took on himself our sins before a sorrowing heaven and a sinning earth.  Calvary represents the central event in our Christian gospel, the focus of all divine history as far as the sons of men can see.  There the Lord Christ lured the powers of hell into a fatal misstep and an overreaching of their evil designs and ways.  Calvary is the supreme public event in the divine purpose.

I am suggesting this morning that that great pubic victory, that unspeakably enormous event which we call Calvary, has its source immediately in a private and solitary act in a garden called Gethsemane, where the seed, the essence of the public victory was won in a lonely, secret struggle in prayer.  The supper we now call the Lord’s Supper is just past.  That will be the last tender, serene occasion in our Lord’s life until the glories of resurrection morning.  As the disciples and their Master file out of the upper room, the last golden rays of pleasant sunshine depart from the skies of our Lord’s soul.  All beyond that is composed of gathering, deepening, threatening clouds and darkening skies, except perhaps for a bright moment in Gethsemane where Jesus prayed for strength and resolve and final commitment to the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrow, which lay before him unto death.  In Gethsemane that prayer was answered, and the Savior moved on his appointed way.

As they leave the upper room we follow the little band, already looked upon as outlaws, as they walk slowly through the streets of Jerusalem.  Now the disciples pass likely out of the fountain gate in the east wall of the city of Jerusalem, and then across Kedron Brook they make their way.  Once among the gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane garden, the Master stops a moment and then bids three of his followers, those closest to him, the inner circle, Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, to go on a little farther into the garden.  I seem to hear in the Master’s next words a strangely tender, pathetic, almost pleading note.  He unburdens his soul a little to them.  How slow many of us are to reach out to others for fear that they will not understand or accept or appreciate our need.  How the Master must have felt that if any of these twelve, no, now reduced by one, these eleven, could sympathize with the great secret spiritual issues which confronted him, surely these three would understand.  He said to them, opening the hurt and anguish he felt in these hours, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.”

Season of Lent, pt. 7, Easter

Today ends the Season of Lent and begins the Season of Easter.  Easter is the day we celebrate what one of my favorite pastors called “that great public victory,” when Jesus Christ rose from the grave and changed everything.  I imagine a lot of my colleagues across the world will be sensitive to, thinking about, listening to, and preaching from the Gospels.  A few will look back to Isaiah 53 as this time closes.

Certainly the themes in Isaiah have returned to Christians and other interested people over the last days of the Lenten Season.  This is one of those chapters in the Scriptures that should come back over and over in one way or another.  There are others, perhaps more triumphant verses as well, of course. Here is Eugene Peterson’s translation of the prophet’s words.

Isaiah 53 (The Message)

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen? Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?  The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look.  He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.  One look at him and people turned away.  We looked down on him, thought he was scum.  But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.  We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures.  But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!  He took the punishment, and that made us whole.  Through his bruises we get healed.  We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.  We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.  And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.  He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word.  Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence.  Justice miscarried, and he was led off—and did anyone really know what was happening?  He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people.  They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, Even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.  Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain.  The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.  And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.  Out of that terrible travail of soul, he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.  Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant, will make many “righteous ones,” as he himself carries the burden of their sins.  Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—the best of everything, the highest honors—Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest.  He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many, he took up the cause of all the black sheep.

Season of Lent, pt. 6

As we enter into the week that Christians have called holy–or terrible or amazing or horrifying or passion–I’d like to start these next days leading to Easter by thinking about the words of Howard Thurman.  Thurman was a pastor-scholar who, among his many accomplishments, taught at Howard University and Boston University and started the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.  I encourage you to ponder his words.  As a pastor, theologian, and teacher, Thurman pushed people to think of Jesus and his ministry to the disinherited.  You can read more about him by clicking here.  This meditation comes from Deep Is The Hunger, and every sentence is thick to me.  I hope you find it penetrating.  

One of the great gifts of God to man is the sense of concern that one individual may develop for another, the impulse toward self-giving that finds its ultimate fulfillment in laying down one’s life for his friend.  It is difficult to keep the sense of concern free from those subtle desires to place another under obligation, and thereby stifle and strangle that which one wishes to bless and heal.  When I ask myself why I try to help others, what reply do I get?  Is it merely an effort on my part to build up my own sense of significance?  Am I trying to prove my own superiority?  When I do something for another which involves a clear definitive act of concern on my part, do I spoil it by saying to myself or to another, “Look what I did for him.  And now he treats me as he does”?  Or do we say, “After all I have done for him, he should do anything I ask of him”?  Is our sense of concern used as a means for gaining power over others?  To be able to give oneself without expecting to be paid back, to love disinterestedly but with warmth and understanding, is to be spiritually mature and godlike and to lay hold on the most precious possessions vouchsafed to the human race.

Season of Lent, pt 2

I mentioned on the first Sunday of Lent that the season is recognized by Christians as a time of confession, repentance, and mourning.  As people who believe similar and different things than I do, Christians look forward to Easter, the highest of holidays in our Tradition, and we mark time and experience in that anticipation.

Brent, a brother in our Bronzeville congregation, sent me a link to this CNN blog post about the relationships of the people of Japan and religion in the context of crisis.

As I consider the layers of crisis and tragedy happening in and around Japan, I think the Church’s response should include these things during Lent.  I’d love to know what you think:

  1. The Church has a response to death called the resurrection.  I debated whether this should be my first thought, whether I should push myself to think about tragedy first, about hardship first.  But I’m so training myself in this direction, to consider all of life in view of the triumph that Jesus Christ won.  Any local assembly or community that claims Christianity starts from the resurrection.  Jesus suffered death.  He was executed by really powerful people and systems when he preached and embodied and ushered people into what he called the kingdom of God.  The consequences of his coming, including the reasons for it, were tragic, excessively tragic.  But the story of Christianity includes death and loss without ending with them.  Christians believe, promote, and declare the resurrection in the face of tragedy because essentially that’s all we have.
  2. The Church needs to be a place for people to grieve, sit with, and move through great loss.  When you lose someone or something, you grieve.  You may not do so consciously, but our bodies and minds are made to attach to people and things; we are also made to respond when the people and things we love are pulled from us.  I can only imagine what people are feeling in Japan, in the islands of the Pacific, even on our west coast as the shocking discoveries of pain, anguish, and death settle in–to say nothing of the still current threat of nuclear-related fatalities.  I can only imagine.  My mind goes to other recent natural disasters, earthquakes and hurricanes, other storms and calamities which go noticed only for a month or two.  I’d love to be a part of a universal Church that knows how to acknowledge and honor these terrible events.  I’d love to hear of men and women and children arguing with God about the unfairness of it all, effectively praying the only way we are ever called to pray, honestly and openly and truly.  I’d love for my church and your church to offer love to folks from (and related to other folks in) Japan, even if love looks like streams of tears slipping down our cheeks.  I’d love to know of pastors and leaders who are really struck, and even to silence, in the face of these things, because sometimes words are worthless.
  3. The Church should revisit again and again the implications of our dogmas and doctrines.  I’m one of those strange pastors who much more enjoys leading funerals than weddings.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love weddings.  I have 5 or 6 to officiate in the next few months!  But nobody’s listening to me at a wedding.  And you know pastors like to be heard, don’t you?  I’m half-joking here, but my experience of funerals is that they are much better times for people to hear something.  They expect you to say something worth hearing because they’re pained.  Tragedy gives us an invitation to restate what we believe about “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” in the words of one of our oldest affirmations.  Dogma is a word for a Church’s official teaching.  Episcopal churches (i.e., Roman Catholic, Anglican, UMC) have official dogmas on matters.  Doctrine is a smaller word, but it captures a similar meaning–particular teaching on a matter.  Usually non-creedal denominations like my own, the Evangelical Covenant Church, prefers to teach with that smaller word.  When people hurt–as we move through Lent and listen to news reports about Libya, North Africa, the Middle East, and Japan with its nuclear catastrophes–I’m looking forward to those moments where I can be reminded of my Tradition’s response to death, loss, and grief.

I have a feeling I could go on…. Incidentally, one of the best related books I’ve encounted on how Christianity has discussed death, and life after death, is Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright.

Any thoughts?

Season of Lent

The word Lent comes from a word related to the lengthening of days in the movement from winter to spring.  The season begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts for forty days, excluding Sundays.  While Lent is thought of as a time for Christians to give up something or to sacrifice something, it is more than that.  Lent is a time for us to stretch our lives before God as we stretch from one season to another.  We move toward Easter, the time where we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Lent comes before that monumental time in the Church’s life.  It is a marker in the liturgical year where we welcome not the highlights but the sufferings of the world and of its people.  Lent is another opportunity for us to remember that the follower of Jesus is a person walking the path of personal suffering and suffering endured for the sake of others.

Lent is a time of reflection and consideration.  This is a reflective and penitential season, when Christians are called to examine ourselves as we remember the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf and on behalf of the world God created.  It is a time to consider how we are following the Suffering Servant who is Jesus or, perhaps, how we aren’t.  We mourn our lack of faithfulness.  We reflect upon it.  And we, by God’s grace, change.

When I was a boy at St. John De La Salle, I got convinced that Lent was about giving up something.  Meat.  Chocolate.  Commercials.  In some ways the season is about giving something up, but that something is harder than the temporary offering of something like cartoons or food or phone calls.  Lent is a time of repentance.  Like a good gardener clipping weeds or yanking decayed roots, during this season, we pull up sinful roots that have wrapped our feet.  The Spirit enables us to cut away at our old selves and things which bind us so that we can turn toward God who gives us new life.

Finally, Lent is a time of both daily and delayed celebration.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to say that we are unconditionally accepted and loved by a God who is more powerful than sin and suffering and death.  As much as Lent is a time of suffering or repentance, it is also a time where we say over and over what God already knows—that people suffer daily and outside the bounds of a particular season.  People suffer in Japan.  People suffer in Haiti.  People suffer in the Congo.  We could write a long list. 

The church says to itself and to the world around it that God is concerned about the suffering of people, that God has done something about that suffering.  We celebrate God’s acts.  We do so while we continue to trust that God who has acted will continue to act.  We celebrate now for all God in Christ, and through the Church, has done.  And we celebrate for what God will do as we look toward the next big, holy season.