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a meditation for good friday 2009

a meditation for good friday 2009

On the way they met a man named Simon, who was coming into the city from the country, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was from Cyrene and was the father of Alexander and Rufus.) They took Jesus to a place called Golgotha, which means “The Place of the Skull.”

Wait a minute! Back up! The father of Alexander and Rufus? Who are Alexander and Rufus? And why are they important enough to mention right in the middle of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion? No other gospel writer mentions them.

There is only one reason I can think of for including them in the story: the people for whom this gospel was intended knew them! Alexander and Rufus were members of their community! Alexander and Rufus were Christians!

This story, Jesus’ story, is not about something that happened to some foreigners in some distant land. You know Alexander and Rufus? Their father was there when Jesus was executed! Their father was the one who was made to carry the Roman cross on which he was hung!

This story, Jesus’ story, is not just about other people, not just for other people. It’s about you! It is for you! It is your story too!

They took Jesus to a place called Golgotha, which means “The Place of the Skull.” There they tried to give him wine mixed with a drug called myrrh, but Jesus would not drink it. Then they crucified him and divided his clothes among themselves, throwing dice to see who would get which piece of clothing. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The notice of the accusation against him said: “The King of the Jews.” They also crucified two bandits with Jesus, one on his right and the other on his left.

It seems this execution was no big deal to the Roman authorities. This was no high level display of Roman superiority, no high profile execution of a well-known subversive. He was crucified … among a group of thieves! He was put to death as a petty criminal!

His was not a martyr’s death, but a common death, a death any of us might suffer, deservedly or undeservedly, literally or emotionally, at the hands of those who would judge us.

He was judged unworthy, undesirable, expendable, unwanted, and he paid the ultimate price of rejection by humanity and by God.

So when we are judged unworthy, undesirable, expendable, unwanted, when we are rejected, undeservedly by our peers or deservedly by God, we can know that Jesus has been there too. He shares our lot with us, and we share his lot with him.

With him, we die, and with him … You know the story is not yet finished! Jesus is not a martyr, but a savior!

People passing by shook their heads and hurled insults at Jesus: “Aha! You were going to tear down the Temple and build it up again in three days! Now come down from the cross and save yourself!”

In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the Law made fun of Jesus, saying to one another, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! Let us see the Messiah, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him!”

And the two who were crucified with Jesus insulted him also.

They all insulted him. Even the thieves insulted him! What could possibly prompt a dying criminal to insult a man who shares his fate?

Insecurity. Fear. Threat. Jealousy. They are all threatened by what they do not understand and jealous of what they are unwilling to give up, what even a dying man is unwilling to give up … his pride. To accept what Jesus says, to embrace who Jesus is, we must give up our pride. We must admit what we are, admit what we do not know and what we cannot do. We must admit … we need him.

We need him. We need him. Jesus, our deliverer. Jesus, our savior. Jesus, our Lord!

obama’s choice of rick warren

obama’s choice of rick warren

As reported today by Reuters:

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen a pastor who opposes gay marriage as a speaker at his inauguration, creating a commotion over what inclusiveness will mean for his administration.

Obama chose Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of the southern California megachurch Saddleback, to give the invocation when he takes office in January.

The president-elect on Thursday said that he held views “absolutely contrary” to Warren on gay rights and abortion and described himself as “a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.”

“During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that’s how it should be, because that’s what America is about. That’s part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated,” he said.

Obama’s choice of Warren has raised an outcry among gay rights activists and progressive religious leaders. Chuck Currie, a UCC colleague, expressed his disappointment in this blog post: Rick Warren Wrong Voice For Inauguration.

I am deeply troubled that President-elect Obama has invited Rick Warren to offer the invocation at the inauguration. Warren stands opposed to the progressive agenda and to many of the core values that Barack Obama campaigned on. The symbolism of offering such as prodigious place in history to a figure such as Warren is upsetting.

I am no fan of Rick Warren. Nor am I very enamored of Barack Obama’s decision to invite him to participate in the inauguration ceremonies. However, I can defend the choice and do understand the reasoning behind it.

In my mind, what makes Obama an unusual, and almost unique, candidate, is his willingness to listen and grant respect to his political opponents. He really does believe at his core that we rise and fall together as a people — black and white, blue and read, conservative and liberal. One “side” does not have a monopoly on truth or virtue, and we are great weakened as a nation when we play up and exploit our differences.

Many certainly have hoped that his election will mean a raising of the “liberal” flag, and a renewed opportunity to promote “progressive”causes. And that may well prove to be the case. But Obama, I think, genuinely wants to do something new, something different, not to represent this constituency or that advocacy group, but to work hard at getting people talking with each other, not just at each other.

Our nation is bitterly divided over so many issues: gay rights and abortion and health care and environmental stewardship. If we simply “play the game” as we always have, holding hard and fast to the “party line,” and demonizing the opposition, we will get the results we always have, namely a lot of heat and not much light … and not much progress in making people’s lives better and safer and more just.

It strikes me that Jesus managed to upset most of the people at least some of the time. It would be hard to pin him down as a classic conservative or liberal, because he was not the advocate of a cause or a constituency or a philosophy, but an advocate of obedience to the will of God. Conservatives and liberals both have found sufficient ammunition in his sayings to support their causes, but if either would listen to him carefully enough, it would surely give them pause …

I applaud Obama, not for the choice of Warren, but for sticking to his vision of a united America, of a new kind of dialogue.

good questions!

good questions!

At what point do we move past the description of all that we are against and actually take an active stand for something? When do we stop just talking about religion and wishing others would be more like us and instead start doing the things Jesus asked us to do? If over a thousand women could devote an afternoon to high tea and hearing about how we should resist the culture, how awesome would it be if that many women instead took an afternoon to be the hands and feet of Jesus to this hurting world?

Good questions, Julie! Read the rest of Julie Clawson’s post: Questioning the ‘Survivor’ Mentality of Some Christians.

I agree that sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we get it backwards. We want to defend Jesus (which is to defend ourselves and our faith stance), rather than follow him. We want to prove ourselves right, rather than do what is right. They will know we are Christians by our …

on earth as it is in heaven

on earth as it is in heaven

N. T. Wright is right! The separation of religion from “real life,” the separation of faith from politics, from the push and pull of the everyday decisions that impact the lives of persons and communities of persons, is artificial and contrary to the “way” to which Jesus calls his followers. Faith is not just about “then,” but about now, not just about “there,” but about here. Hope is not just about “waiting it out” until we go to “a better place,” but about believing God can and will make this world a better place, with us and through us. The following quote comes from an interview Wright did last year with Christianity Today. You can read the transcript of the entire interview here.
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For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery.

The longer that I’ve gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it’s been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, and how we’ve managed for years to say the Lord’s Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, “Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.” And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That’s ek tou kosmoutoutou. It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.

ucc runs an ad

ucc runs an ad

The national office of the United Church of Christ is raising $120,000 ($82,600 raised as of March 31, 12:00 noon) to run a full-page ad in Wednesday’s edition of the New York Times. The ad is a response to the furor generated by the widely-broadcast video clips of sermons preached at Trinity United Church of Christ by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But more importantly, the ad attempts to use this “moment in the spotlight” to tell the story of the United Church of Christ in our own words.

We are a church of open ideas, extravagant welcome and evangelical courage.

Open ideas require open minds, or at least minds willing to listen, not minds quick to judge or to censure. And an extravagant welcome means that all kinds of different people with all kinds of different ideas and all kinds of different ways of expressing those ideas are going to be a part of our church. And evangelical courage means we will speak out even when it is risky … for the sake of sharing good news with people who need good news.

The ad makes it clear that we in the UCC are not outsiders; our church’s history is inextricably intertwined with our nation’s history.

Our story is this nation’s story. We are the people of the Mayflower. More than 600 of our 5,700 congregations were formed before 1776. Eleven signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of UCC predecessor bodies.

And the ad affirms what it is that holds us together: not any particular theological stance or political ideology, but Jesus, only Jesus! So we embrace Jeremiah Wright as one of us, not because we agree with everything he says or how he says it, but because he too is a servant of Jesus Christ … and we honor one another for the sake of Christ!

Our unity is not dependent upon uniform agreement, but in our shared allegiance to Jesus Christ. Ours is a risk-taking church, because ours is a risk-taking God.

You can see the entire ad here.

a meditation for good friday

a meditation for good friday

When the disciples who were with Jesus saw what was going to happen, they asked, “Shall we use our swords, Lord?” And one of them struck the High Priest’s slave and cut off his right ear.

But Jesus said, “Enough of this!” He touched the man’s ear and healed him

Are you surprised that they were armed? A crowd, led by Judas, arrived at the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus, and his disciples asked him, “Shall we use our swords?”

I can’t imagine that Jesus and his disciples went about the countryside of Galilee — teaching and healing, worshipping in the synagogues and depending on the hospitality of friends and strangers — I can’t imagine that they went about armed with swords!

But, at least on this occasion, in Jerusalem, they had their swords with them. I am sure they were anticipating trouble. They knew what Jesus risked by coming to Jersualem at all, and what they risked by coming with him. They had come with him, probably reluctantly and against their own better judgement, but they weren’t going to be caught unprepared!

So they were armed that night, and when the Temple posse arrived, they asked Jesus, “Shall we use our swords?” One of them didn’t wait for an answer, but raised his hand and struck the High Priest’s slave, cutting off his ear.

A hand is a powerful instrument. It may be used to strike … or to caress, to hurt … or to heal. One of the disciples (another of the gospels says it was Peter) raised his hand to hurt, but Jesus raised his hand to heal.

Luke’s gospel is the only one to mention this detail. All of the gospels include the account of a disciple cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s slave with a sword, but the rest keep the focus of the story on the disciples’ misunderstanding of the situation, on the contrast between their readiness to resist and Jesus’ non-resistance. Only Luke remembers that Jesus raised his hand and touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Luke remembered the High Priest’s slave. Jesus remembered the High Priest’s slave and healed him.

How? Luke’s account doesn’t say. Did Jesus put the detached ear back in place? He certainly could have. He had restored sight to blind people, set lame people walking, cured people of terrible skin diseases, and even brought a widow’s young son back from death.

So he could have. But did he? Luke only says that Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him. He doesn’t say, “healed it.” Did Jesus restore the ear or heal the wound or something else?

The important thing, the thing Luke makes it a point to mention, is that Jesus healed him. Jesus healed the High Priest’s slave, the poor slave of the one who was out to get him … just as Jesus had healed a crippled woman and a leprous Samaritan and a blind beggar and the servant of a Roman soldier and the son of a widow and a woman who pushed her way through a crowd just to touch the edge of his cloak.

These are the people to whom Jesus raised his hand … to heal! Not just “his” people, but people who, like him, were despised and rejected.

A hand is a powerful instrument. Your hand is a powerful instrument. It may be used to strike or to caress, to hurt or to heal.

Will you lift your hand, like Jesus did, to heal the wounds of those who are despised and rejected? By building a house or serving a meal or writing a check? By offering a hand to comfort the one who grieves or offering a hand to welcome the one who is lonely and scorned?

Because, you see, the small things a hand can do are powerful, too. You don’t have to reattach a man’s ear to heal him. Just reach out your hand …

playing it safe?

playing it safe?

We have been studying the parables of Jesus in a Wednesday evening Bible study at church. This week, one of the parables we discussed was the parable of the three servants …

Once there was a man who was about to go on a journey; he called his servants and put them in charge of his property. He gave to each one according to his ability: to one he gave five thousand gold coins, to another he gave two thousand, and to another he gave one thousand. Then he left on his journey. The servant who had received five thousand coins went at once and invested his money and earned another five thousand. In the same way the servant who had received two thousand coins earned another two thousand. But the servant who had received one thousand coins went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The servant who had received five thousand coins came in and handed over the other five thousand. “You gave me five thousand coins, sir,” he said. “Look! Here are another five thousand that I have earned.” “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” said his master. “You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!”

Then the servant who had been given two thousand coins came in and said, “You gave me two thousand coins, sir. Look! Here are another two thousand that I have earned.” “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” said his master. “You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!”

Then the servant who had received one thousand coins came in and said, “Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not sow, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed. I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. Look! Here is what belongs to you.”

“You bad and lazy servant!” his master said. “You knew, did you, that I reap harvests where I did not sow, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed? Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned. Now, take the money away from him and give it to the one who has ten thousand coins. For to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him. As for this useless servant — throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and grind his teeth.”

Jesus’ parable describes servants (folks like us) being entrusted with an enormous amount of wealth (which is true of us). The parable seems to be about what Jesus expects us to do with all that wealth — wealth of money and resources and skills and energy and ideas and passions — with which we have been entrusted.

After listening to Jesus tell this parable, can we possibly think that Jesus means the church to “play it safe?” But isn’t that what we do?