Monday, April 20, 2009
Our Great and Gracious God,
We gather on the spot that has become holy ground. It is a place of remembrance, a place of solitude, and a place of reflection. Fourteen years ago an act of unspeakable evil shattered the lives of families and the heart of this community. Join us, O God, as we remember. But help us to also remember that born in the pain of that moment a promise of hope and faith emerged. We were wounded, but not broken. We grieved, but we did not grieve alone. Our families and our community have found the promise of new life.
We come to this place representing the religious and social breadth of our community. In claiming faith we found comfort. In our faith we found hope. In our faith we found the capacity to love each other and to be community with and for each other. Our city has become a great city. Our city and our spirits have been renewed. Our community has become a symbol of faith and encouragement to others who face violence and pain. We thank you for faith that sustained us then and leads us forward now. We thank you for the power of the faith and the memories that call us back to this place and then sends us out again. AMEN
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Jeremiah’s vision carries him to the potter’s house. Jeremiah hears; "Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. The potter’s house was a vital part of every community. The products from his wheel would hold the water, store the food, act as plates and cups, and even store the treasures of the house. The hearers of the vision would have understood how pottery was made and had probably stood and watched the potter at work before.[i] While the place of pottery has changed dramatically over the centuries, the core process has changed little. The clay lays on a spinning wheel and the potter’s hands reaches in. With a slow and steady movement the potter begins to shape the clay. The clay rises as the hands of the potter. His finger tips molds it, guides it. There are times when the clay gets out of perfect round or when a small grain of sand disrupts its purity and the potter- in a quick motion flattens it - and begins again. I remember one of the first times I watched a potter at work. When he flattened the clay my heart leaped. The bowl he was working on was almost complete. He saw something I did not see. It looked good enough to me. Apparently good enough was not good enough. This seems to be true of God as well.
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. How do you know what God’s will is for your life? Where does God’s will and your life come together? This is the core question of Week One in the Experiencing God study our church is claiming together over the next twelve weeks. This passage draws us into the heart of the question.
Jeremiah’s vision from God was took him to the potter’s wheel. In Chapter 19 Jeremiah will go back to the potter’s house and buy some well baked pots that will come to symbolize the destruction of the city and the nation. That is another image for another day, but it is important because this first vision was not the finished product, baked and fired. It summons us to the wheel when the clay is fresh and wet, ready to be shaped, ready to be molded by the hand and eye of the potter. God wanted Jeremiah to communicate with His people that they needed to be malleable – shapeable – by God’s will and God’s way. The problem was that they were so focused on doing things their way that they resisted being guided –shaped – molded by God. They lost their connection to the potter. Their problem is our problem. We can become so focused on our own path – our own way – so driven by our own plans and desires – that we stiffen up and find it hard to be shaped by the will and way of God.
We stand in the shadows of the Easter pronouncement of resurrection. This is good news! But, in my heart of hearts I have to wonder if it sounded like good news to Peter. I imagine that his three denials of Jesus – the one that he called the Christ – and his friend – must have still echoed in his ears. Jesus had told him that he would build his church on him, but in the moments he must of have felt far from God and far from the will of God. In an act of fear and perceived self-preservation, he failed himself and failed Jesus. The vision that Jesus had projected as His will for Peter must has seemed very distant – even impossible. Then, on a lakeside in Galilee, the same lakeside where he had called Peter, Jesus restored him – redeemed him – reclaimed him for his will. Peter would play a vital role in the birth of the church. Other names would join him; Barnabas, Paul, John Mark, Timothy and the list goes on.
Peter is not alone in his story. In our own congregational history Jack Thrower wondered how God might use him after his divorce demanded his resignation as a missionary. God moved. Jack and Betty were married and began a life together. Jack spent the rest of his career with the State Department, serving in settings across the globe. Missions leaders will tell you that Jack and Betty accomplished more from that setting than he ever would have as a missionary in a single location. He opened the door for new mission opportunities everywhere he went. Jack was obedient. God shaped and reshaped his life for the good of the Kingdom.
If we want to find God’s will it requires us to become so obedient to the way of God, so focused on the voice of God, so securely in the hands of God that we can be shaped for God’s purposes. It means we remain connected to the Potter. We sometimes speak of God’s will in monolithic terms – a singular plan where if we vary a single step, make any decisions contrary to the singular plan then we live our lives forever out of step with God’s will. Peter’s story reminds us powerfully that God is in the redemption business – reclaiming his children – redefining them for His will and way. God’s will is more than a railroad track that we chug along from Point A to Point B. It is about living the kind of life that keeps us malleable in God’s hands; it is about allowing God to continue to shape us and mold us for each unique moment, in every decision, and in every relationship. It means that we believe in God enough to entrust our lives into God’s hands believing that God’s way is better than the way we would build for ourselves. It is about allowing God to redeem us – renew us – and redirect us when we falter and fall.
Our journey together over these next twelve weeks will help us to listen more closely for God’s voice, to seek more passionately God’s way. Each of us will have to determine what that means in our lives. We will be asked to soften our hearts and be willing to make the adjustments necessary in our lives to act in obedience to God’s way. We will discover that the Biblical mandate is that God’s will and our lives should become one and the same thing. We will find the power of redemption that will lift us when we falter and redirect our steps. "Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. May we be shaped by the will and way of God.
[i] Frethem, Terence E., “Pottery Making” in Jeremiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth & Helwys Publishing: Macon, GA, 2002), p.270
Sunday, April 12, 2009
The dilemma of this moment is that we are looking at a familiar story. In fact, many years ago in a church where I served as Associate Pastor a man named Bill Anyway, Bill came to me in the minutes just before we were to begin our Easter service with a bit of a whine. He asked, “Why do I seem to hear the same sermon and the same songs every time I come to church?” I wanted to tell him that if he would show up more than once a year he might hear something different. But, I took a different path. I was glad he was there and willing to hear the story. I told him something in the order of “we have to tell this story on Easter morning. It is not just a story – it’s our story.” It is the story who makes us who we are as Christians. We are an Easter people – a resurrection people – claiming life and faith through the one who was dead and is now alive. So, here I am this morning. Reclaiming the same story retold every Easter for two thousand years. It is our story.
Kwame read the story earlier in our worship service. It tells the amazing morning when the women went to anoint the body of Jesus with burial spices and perfumes. They had witnessed his brutal death. They had seen his limp body. This was not pretend. They were witnesses that Jesus was dead. They came out of love and they came to morn. For them, the story had ended and there was nothing left but to grieve. So, just after sunrise they headed out. They did have one logistical concern. The tomb of Jesus was sealed with a giant stone. As they approached they the place where Jesus was buried they were trying to figure how to get that big stone moved so that they could do what they had come to do – to pour perfumes and spices over his body as symbols of love and respect. But in a moment, everything changed for them – and for us.
When they got to the place where Jesus was born the stone had been rolled away. John’s Gospel tells us that there immediate reaction was fear that the Romans or the Jewish leaders had taken his body away. They entered the tomb and saw a man in white robe sitting where the body of Jesus was suppose to by lying. Then they heard those words; “Don’t, be alarmed….You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” The angel sends them off to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee and that they would see him just as he had told them. It was more than the women could take in. I think it would have been more that I could have taken in. They hurry back to the disciples. It is interesting to note that Scripture says that they don’t say anything to each other or anyone else. I can imagine that they were scared to even say out loud what must have been racing through their minds. Other passages tell us that even when the women tell their story it was hard for the others to comprehend. Peter and John run back to the tomb to see it for themselves. The emotions of that first Easter morning were confusion, chaos, and confirmation. The picture from scripture invites us to hear them wondering to themselves; “Could it be?” they head themselves asking. “Could it be he has risen? Could it be just like he said? In the chaos and confusion – in the quiet place where death was supposed to be the final answer – in the shadows of the cross that was supposed to be the end of this one named Jesus – God steps in and changes everything.
I will always remember my first trip to Moscow. As a part of the trip my friends took me to the city’s center. When I walked along the Kremlin wall I mentally replayed the Cold War era television images of the May Day parades flush with Russian soldiers and frightening looking missiles rolling down the same street. When I walked through St. Basil’s Cathedral I was impressed by its architecture and amazed by its beauty. But, the moment that most profoundly impacted me was the visit to famed Russian leader’s tomb. I waited my turn in a long line and then saw the body of Vladimir Lenin, who had been on public display since his death in 1924. I was amazed how much energy and how many dollars had been expended in an effort to keep the body of a dead leader intact. There is no promise of life – no hope for power – just a monument to death. As I stood there in front of this lifeless body I could not help but think of picture of the empty tomb. Lenin’s place of power on the world stage has long since faded. In sharp contrast, an empty cave on the hillside outside of Jerusalem changed history and changes us even now.
We are tempted to linger at the cross, both with its brutality and beauty. The cross is the testimony of God love and grace. It is critical that we remember that the cross is first and foremost and always an act of God - a choice of God. Forgiveness rains down not because it is deserved or claimed, but because it is founded in the very nature of God. God makes the way for forgiveness. Instead of a symbol of Roman cruelty it becomes the means of grace. When we hear Jesus cry, “It is finished” on cross it is not an ending but a beginning. One of my favorite theologians is Stanley Hauerwas at Duke Divinity School. He sees it this way: "'It is finished is not a death gurgle. 'It is finished 'is not 'I'm done for….'It is finished' is a cry of victory. 'It is finished' is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work."(p83-84)..."God has finished only what God could finish. Christ's sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making it possible lives that flow with the beauty of God's Spirit. What wonderful news: 'It is finished." But it is not over." (p90) He is right. The story does not end at the cross. We do not claim a monument to death. (from the Cross-Shattered Christ)
Instead, we cling to the words, “He is Risen!” Resurrection is the moment that God rewrites history and creates the means of life and eternal life in and through Christ. Resurrection is the Easter story of life – of a living and loving God. It is the ultimate declaration that God is faithful and has fulfilled His promises – that forgiveness awaits – that grace reigns down. The cross has given way to the empty tomb. We who were destined for death now find life. We who were held captive by sin now find freedom. We who were separated from God are now drawn close. Come to the party and find new life. Come to the party and become the people of the resurrection. He is Risen! He is Risen, indeed! Thanks be to God!
Friday, April 10, 2009
These words draw us into the silence of Friday evening, and the morning and evening of Saturday. They leave us facing the hard reality of a crucified Christ. They leave us with Jesus in the tomb. They leave us claiming our responsibility for the sins that demanded a cross. They leave us waiting in silence to see what God will do next. The leave us waiting. As Tony Campolo preaches out; "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming."
Let us be still in the darkness. Let us wait at the tomb. Let us watch and wait for the next grand act of love by God. See you on Easter morning.
Grace and Peace, Tom
Thanks be to God for doing only what God could do to renew and redeem us. Thanks be to God!
Grace and Peace, Tom
Thursday, April 9, 2009
But, the cry of isolation of Jesus does not stand alone. It is critical to remember was we hear Jesus claim the beginning words of despair from Psalm 22 that we also hear the same Psalm ends with remarkable words of assurance and strength. The echoes of isolation give way to the song of praise. The cry gives way to rejoicing in a promise fulfilled and a people restored. Hear again from Hauerwas; "Cyril of Jerusalem observes that by calling on his Father as 'my God," Christ does so on our behalf and in our place. Hear these words, 'My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?' and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by this cross." (p65)
May we claim a grace so powerful that it bridges the abyss of abandonment so that we may be restored to a right relationship with God.
Grace and Peace, Tom
As Hauerwas notes, many have speculated that his call to Mary and in invitation of the beloved disciple to see Mary, was an act of care and compassion on his part. They argue that Jesus wants to insure the ongoing care of his mother. While this position has merit, I was taken by Hauerwas' view. It is compelling. "Jesus' 'behold your son' asked Mary to witness the immolation of the Son, to enter the darkness of the cross, yet to hold fast to the promises she had received from the Spirit that this is the one who will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, fill the hungry with good things, and fulfill the promises may to Abraham and his descendants. Her son, the Messiah, will do all of this from the cross." (p52-53)
Mary comes as one who has been faithful to the call of God. Mary comes as a vital part of the story of Jesus. Mary also embraced Jesus' fulfilment His call and stood at the foot of the cross as a witness of this grand grace act of God. Mary comes as a member of the family of faith born in the resurrection. We too find our place in that family of faith. May we gaze at the cross and see the fulfillment of God's promises and an act of redemption that would change history - and change all of us who call him Savior.
Grace and Peace, Tom
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
As we come to this journey through the streets of Jerusalem - through the streets of our cities - and wander our way to the cross that we miss the reality of Good Friday. It is essential that we are not so captivated by the pageantry of Holy Week found in the traditional church, so moved by the singing the classic Easter hymns and current choruses, that we do not see the power of God incarnate claiming humanity and choosing a cross as the grace gift of redemption. The cross is not something that happened to Jesus. He knew where and how the week in Jerusalem would end. He knew that cross awaited him. He willingly claimed entered the streets. He willing walked toward the cross. He willingly claimed the cross for those for who he would cry out; "forgive them for they know not what they are doing."
I encourage you to find time each day this week to prepare yourselves for the facing of Good Friday. The journey can transform our Easter celebrations. The journey can transform our faith.
Grace and Peace, Tom O
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Philippians 2:5-11 will be read in the first movement of worship. The focal scripture passage is to be read in English and Burmese just before the sermon. John 16:17-22 reads: 17Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" 18They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying."
19Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, "Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me'? 20I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
What an incredible beginning to our Holy Week services. With banners waving, the choir processing, and the voices of children ringing out in song we are summoned from the pages of Scripture into the streets of Jerusalem. The passage we heard from Philippians in the first movement of this worship service reminds those of this side of the Easter story how the story ends. The writer Clarence W. Hall puts it this way; “Easter says you can put truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there.” We get to come to the streets of Jerusalem knowing that the cry of the crowd and the agony of the cross will soon be replaced with the miracle of the empty tomb of Easter morning. Even as we gather here on Palm Sunday we know where we are heading and that Easter morn is just a week away.
But for those standing with Jesus, the streets of Jerusalem became the journey into chaos. From almost the moment he called them, Jesus had been trying to prepare his disciples for this week that would change everything. No matter how he tried to explain it to them it seemed to they simply could not hear it. In the last few days they had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, seen Jesus anointed in Bethany, and hear the “hosannas” of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry echoing in the streets. They could believe that this was the moment of Jesus’ glory, but they could not hear that grief awaited them.
Our focal passage begins with quiet whispers among the disciples. One looked at another; “what is he talking about leaving us and coming back to us –because he is going to the Father? Do you understand? Did he tell you more? What do you think?” Jesus heard them and tried to help them understand. He told them that they would grieve, but that their grief would turn to joy. He used the image of a woman in child birth. He wanted them to understand that their pain would be intense, but that something amazing, something wonderful, something joyful awaited them. The disciples were ill prepared for the angry crowds, the hostility of the Jewish leadership, the apathy of the Roman leadership, and the brutal walked to the cross that would claim Jesus. In the tenderness of their roadside conversation with Jesus they could not imagine that only a few days in the future they would be huddled in the Upper Room quaking in fear; broken and fearful; shattered and sullen. They were so captured by the “hosannas” that they could not conceive of the tears of grief that would define them by week’s end. Jesus tried to prepare them for their journey into chaos. They simply could not hear.
To be honest, their experience of confusion is echoed by many who worship across our nation this morning. They will claim tendency and temptation is to worship on one Sunday and hear the “hosannas” of Palm Sunday and to return a week later and listen to the “hallelujahs” of Easter morning. They will miss the chaos of the week that shapes the story of Jesus and his disciples and shapes what it means for us to be followers of Jesus even now. Our faith is born in a crucible of pain.
It seems all too often when people experience pain or grief they cry out, “where is God” or “why is this happening to me?” We have bought the myth that our life through faith us just “hosannas” and “hallelujahs.” Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that pain and grief would be a part of their story. Likewise pain is part of the reality of our experience. The disciples would know the agony of the chaos and the cruelty of others. They would experience the agony of Judas’ betrayal and the bitterness of Peter’s denials. They would be forced to witness to destruction of the future they anticipated. They would know the tears of pain rising from their broken hearts. But, the season of pain would not define them. It does not define us.
Our first passage found in Philippians calls us to celebrate the joy we find in Christ. It is a passage of promise; a picture of God’s glory. It shows that God will go to the extreme of claiming humanity to make a way for redemption. Our passage in John draws us close to remind us that the joy is born in pain; the celebration is born in grief. During an Easter message, Pope John Paul II, proclaimed “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” In moments of uncertainty, in seasons of grief, and in times of pain these words are worthy of letting resonate with the depths of our souls. But, we cannot forget that the hallelujahs are born in the midst of the grief of Holy Week.
As a church we will offer a wide range of experiences this week to help you better understand what happened in the midst of this dramatic week. On Wednesday we will share a simple dinner together and wander through some selected scenes and hear some of the Easter week voices. On Thursday we will hold a Maundy Thursday service that will celebrate servanthood and remember the moments in the Upper Room. On Friday noon the doors of the Chapel will be opened and we will hear the passages of crucifixion together. I also encourage you to dive into Scripture; to read the Easter week passages; and to pray that God will talk you into the streets and draw you to the empty tomb.
I invite you to join me in a journey into chaos; to follow Jesus and his disciples through the streets of Jerusalem. Some of the moments will break your heart. But know that on the other side of the grief of this week that joy awaits us. Betrayal will give way to community; hatred will give way to peace; violence will give way to redemption; a brutal cross will give way to Easter hallelujahs. 22So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.