Monday, March 31, 2008

What's the Point? 31 March 2008

1 Peter 1:1-12
Monday, 31 March 2008

Some people like to hear all of the details and then the punchline of a story. I'm not one of those people. Tell me the diagnosis, the outcome, the bottomline, and then I can ask for the details I find most relevant. This doesn't mean I'm not interested in the story or in the telling of it. On the contrary, I am both engaged by and concerned about it, so much so that I can't wait to hear the point. I'm anxious to know how it turns out.

Today, we transition out of the Gospels and into the Epistle of Peter. This represents a movement from simply telling the story of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection to understanding how that story is to be lived out in those of us who call ourselves believers. The introduction to the epistle succinctly documents God's intention for us. God has given us birth into a living hope through Christ's resurrection and has laid up an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance for us. In contemporary terms, God has brought us into the family and set up a trust fund for us. When we see our lives in these terms, we recognize that just as Jesus' suffering had a purpose, the Christian's trials also lead to a larger point : a saved life of unfettered, unspeakable joy here and glory ahead.

To be sure, suffering and trial meant something different for the earliest Christians than it does for us today. Most of us do not face the constant threat of execution because of our testimony and witness. But even while the circumstances differ from age to age, and even from individual to individual, everyone who seeks to do what's right faces tribulation and trial sometimes. Yet believers also share the common experience of being kept by God's power, a power the keeps us secure in our trial and inspires and emboldens our praise. The details may have changed but the point has not. In Christ, Christians of all ages are ultimate overcomers and more than conquerors.

Sing "Joy Unspeakable"

Let us pray:
Generous God, we ourselves sometimes wonder how we can experience such fullness of joy in a world so confused and tumultuous. Then we are reminded that the joy you have given did not come from the world or its circumstances; it came with the love and the life we know in Christ. Thank you for the salvation of our souls, the transformation of our minds, the uplifting of our spirits, and even the regulation of our emotions. Grant us the grace to endure these temporary trials, even as we look forward to our imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Whatever It Takes 30 March 2008

John 20:19-31Easter 2
Sunday, 30 March 2008

This is the season known as March Madness, when 64 college basketball teams vie for the honor of meeting in the Final Four and then in the national championship game. The excitement of this part of the season exists in the fact that everything is on the line in each game. If you lose, you're out. And nobody wants to be out. Consequently, the players play with exceptional heart and energy, bringing everything they can muster during each individual game,putting their bodies on the line, and doing whatever it takes to bring home the victory.

By now, we know that Jesus' commitment to providing eternal life for humans is limitless. In his Crucifixion he demonstrated that there was nothing he would not do to secure our victory. Having vanquished death by his Resurrection, Jesus appeared his disciples, showed himself alive, and imparted victorious living to them by breathing on them. There was just one problem; Thomas was not in the building. It is unclear where Thomas was, but in his absence he had missed the main event. When told about the time of rejoicing that the disciples had when they saw the Lord, Thomas was unconvinced. He needed to see and experience for himself. The amazing thing is not that Thomas wanted to see for himself, but that Jesus appeared again so that Thomas could get what he needed. It was as if Jesus was saying "Whatever it takes."

Jesus knows us all well enough to know what it takes to bring us to faith and faithfulness in our walk with Christ. Just as he did with Thomas, sometimes Jesus makes return appearances even though we were the absent and/or negligent ones who missed his first performance. How many times has Jesus had to show us again, speak to us again, touch us again, heal us again, deliver us again? From A to Z, Jesus has done and continues to do whatever it takes to bring home our victory. Thanks be to God!

Sing "Victory in Jesus"

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we are amazed at the grace you constantly extend to us. Even when we should have long since been convinced to be believers, you continue to honor our request to show us again, to teach us again. We thank you that just as you did not banish Thomas or give up on him, you do not banish us or give up on us. As you have given your all for us, may we be equally committed to do whatever it takes to live in the reality of the victory that you purchased for us, through Jesus Christ our Risen Savior. Amen

Friday, March 28, 2008

He Moved 28 March 2008

Luke 24:1-12
Friday, 28 March 2008

If you've known me for any length of time, you know that while housekeeping is not my greatest gift, I usually know where I put things. And I have lived alone for so long - since 1993 - that I am used to things remaining where I put them. So when a friend lived with me in Philly for a semester, my hardest adjustment came when I went to the shared areas of the house and discovered that things I had left in a particular place had moved.

Once again in this Easter week, we are considering the first response of Jesus' disciples upon their arrival at the sepulcher. Luke's account resembles Matthew and Mark in focusing on the multiple women who remained at the cross until Jesus died and then followed his body on Friday to its burial site. These same women returned at dawn on Sunday only to discover that the tomb was empty. Luke's Gospel, however, is the only one that makes an issue of their looking for Jesus in the tomb in the first place. "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" the angel asked. Although the women did not answer, mostly because the announcement that Jesus had risen recalled their memory of his promise before his crucifixion, their reasoning for looking for Jesus at the cemetery was that that was where they last had seen him. Usually when you leave the dead if you happen to be looking for their bodies again, you know precisely where to find them - where you left them. But Jesus obviously was no regular corpse. He moved! Note that Peter too felt the need to check out the tomb; it was still empty.

When you are dealing with God, you are always dealing with a moving target. From the very first mention of God in Genesis 1, we see a God who creates and whose Spirit moves. And even in Christ's Passion, God's movement continues. By the time the women get to the tomb, Jesus is already on his way to Galilee. By the time we head back to where we left Jesus, to review the last thing God did or lament what God didn't do, Jesus has already moved ahead of us to set up the next space. So stop looking for where Jesus was (especially a dead Jesus) and look for where Jesus is (alive and at work).

Sing, "He is Lord" (He is Lord 2x, He is risen from the dead and he is Lord. Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.)

Let us pray:
Lord, the example of the first witnesses continues to give us new insights concerning what you require of us. We thank you for the way in which you have allowed us to follow along through this season of suffering and resurrection, to observe the crucifixion and the burial, and now finally to rediscover that you are still moving. Help us to discern where you are, rather than to be frustrated or frightened that we do not see you where you were before. Amen.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Worship and Doubt

Matthew 28:16-20
Thursday, 27 March 2008

I continue to be struck, in my reading of the Gospels, by the human capacity for ambivalence. Perhaps this reflects my own preoccupation of late with my own tendency to vacillate. I am in the midst of several transitions in my life, and I admit that the way I feel changes so quickly that sometimes even I have a hard time keeping up. It's good to know that I'm not the only one whose feelings are in flux.

The women pass along the message to the disciples to meet Jesus in the previously appointed place, the place where he had instructed them. For Matthew, this meeting represents the other disciples' first recorded encounter with the risen Christ. When the women met Jesus, they had fear and great joy, along with their worship. When the 11 remaining close followers saw Jesus, they worshipped but some doubted. More important, whatever uncertainty was in them - and Jesus surely knows what's in them -Jesus still called them and commissioned them to replicate their discipleship in others.

I, for one, rejoice that Jesus sees my fear and my faith, my conviction and my uncertainty, but still calls me close and sends me forth. Last week, I heard a preacher quoting C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. In Lewis's work, Screwtape and Wormwood work for the devil and consider God their Enemy. Here's what Screwtape tells Wormwood, "
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

What I am trying to say to you, sisters and brothers, is that the most important thing that the disciples did was to obey and to worship, in spite of their doubts. And the most important thing for us to do is to obey and worship the Living Christ no matter how we are feeling at a particular moment.

Sing, "Lead Me Guide Me"

Let us pray:
In a world that is in transition and with lives that are in flux, we are thankful to know that in you there is stability. While we wait as you fix our hearts and regulate our minds and emotions, we seek the grace simply to do your will, to obey your word, and to worship you. Make us instruments on the Lord's side in the cosmic battle. Keep us faithful until the end, in Jesus' name.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On Time 26 March 2008

Matthew 28:1-16
Wednesday, 26 March 2008

In my home church, being on time mattered. Although I have been affiliated with many other churches that operated differently, when I was growing up, if service began at 11:30, the core membership arrived no later than 11:15 in order to have time for kneeling prayer at the altar before service began. "It shows respect," my elders asserted. Since God gives us the privilege to set the time for worship, the least we can do is to show up on time for the time that we have set.

They came to see the tomb. In Matthew's account there were no spices to anoint the mangled corpse and thus no questions about gaining entrance to the sepulcher. Mary Magdalene and another Mary simply arrived as soon as it was permissible following the Sabbath, at the dawn of the first day of the week. They were right on time to see the earth quake and the stone roll and the angel appear. They were exactly on time to be the first to see the risen Lord. Notice in the text how words suggest timing and timeliness. "Quickly" and "suddenly" repeat in the narrative. Notice too that while they were still afraid, in Matthew's narrative their fear was mixed with great joy.

I am learning that timeliness in my home church demonstrated more than a legalistic attachment to a set order; it also reflected anticipation that our worship might be filled with great joy. We didn't want to miss anything. And so we developed the habit and practice of arriving promptly. In that same church, I learned that God shows up on time too.

Sing, "He Lives"

Let us pray:
Risen Savior, we desire to approach our time of private and corporate worship with anticipation of your life-giving presence. Whenever we might be found lagging behind, refer us again to the breaking of day on that first Easter morning and to the great joy that we experience in knowing you. Just as you are on time for us, grow us in faithfulness that we might be on time for you. Amen

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Shock of Answered Prayer 24 March 2008

Mark 16:1-8
Monday, 24 March 2008

Answered prayers can be just as scary as unanswered ones. It always seems that God chooses to intervene and turn things around just when you are beginning to accustom yourself to the grief and trauma of a bad situation. When God does that, you don't know what to say; you're shocked silent.

Most scholars regard this section as the Gospel of Mark's original ending. The faithful women who had been following Jesus demonstrated their commitment to their crucified teacher by rising early to perform the last rites and burial preparation for his mangled body. They journeyed with many critical questions, the most pointed of which was "Who will roll the stone away?" But when they arrived, the question was already answered, and more besides. Every time I read this narrative, I am amazed at the women's faithfulness to what they thought was a dead Jesus, especially when I compare it to our sometimes flakiness in serving a Christ we now know is alive. There is no question that their hearts' desire was to have their Lord returned to them and to have his cause, to which they had devoted their lives, vindicated. Still, the announcement that God had disrupted the normal course of human events and had raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead both disturbed and surprised the women. Although the man in white spoke words of peace and told them to go witness to the other disciples, the scene ends not with gleeful witness but with astonished silence. The women have experienced the shock of answered prayer.

Fundamentally, what it means for us to worship and serve God is that we never know how God's purpose will bear fruit, only that it will do so. We never know how our prayers will be answered, only that they will be so. What you can always expect from God is that God's procedures defy human wisdom and logic. Just when you think things are hopeless, God shows up. The funny thing for me is that no matter how many times it happens, I still find myself in shock, speechless, and sometimes even afraid that if I tell it, no one will believe me. The women at the tomb eventually recovered the power of their speech. May we too find the grace and strength to go and tell what great things God has done. Perhaps we might even learn to expect God to do something astonishing.

Sing, "He Rose from the Dead"

Let us pray:
Thank you, Lord, for the faithful witness of the women who ventured to the tomb early on that first Resurrection morning. But thank you even more for the power and even the surprise we ourselves have witnessed in your answers to our prayers. Grant us deliverance from low expectations and from paralyzing fear so that we may fulfill the command to proclaim the good news to our associates and the world, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's a New Day - Easter, 23 March 2008

John 20:1-18
Psalm 118:22-24
23 March 2008

There are several phrases which always get a response in the African American church. Some of them are snippets from hymns: Father, I stretch my hands to thee; none other help I know. Some of them are pithy sayings from our culture. Still others are scriptural. Now that the Easter season has official begun this year, I cannot help but be reminded that "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene ventured to the tomb before daybreak. Little did she know that a fresh, new morning had broken before the sun had even risen. The Lord whose death she had been mourning since Friday had been resurrected. In the other Gospels, the women traveled wondering who would roll the stone away. In this Gospel Mary's inner thoughts turned more toward the question of what happened to Jesus when she discovered that the stone was gone. Even though Jesus had told her that God was about to make a new day for all of God's people, we should not be surprised that Mary came to a natural rather than supernatural conclusion about Jesus' absence from the tomb. Jesus, after all, had sworn enemies who crucified him and who would have liked nothing better than to remove and maybe even desecrate his corpse. Mercifully, Jesus saw her confusion and appeared to her with an explanation (I'm alive!) and instructions (Go tell it!).

This message of the Resurrection is for us, brothers and sisters. It reminds us that that human night cannot overwhelm God's light. In rejecting the one that God anointed - first, David and then Jesus - people set themselves up for the weariness and sorrow of a long night. But God did not abandon them, and God does not abandon us. God knows how to bring life out of death, to bring peace out of confusion, to make a new day after a seemingly endless night. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Sing, "This is the Day that the Lord Has Made" and "Praise Him, Praise Him"

Let us pray:

Alleluia. Christ is risen! Alleluia. He is risen, indeed! We praise you, Living God, for the joy that comes in the resurrection morning. Not everything in our lives is worked out yet. But in you everything important is settled. In Jesus Christ, we have life, love, joy, hope, strength, and victory. Thank you for the dawn of our new day, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord! Amen

Friday, March 21, 2008

Now What? 21 March 2008

John 19:38-42
Good Friday
21 March 2008

There is always that moment. What moment?, you ask. The moment after you've notified all of the family and friends, after the funeral director has completed his/her work, after the pastor has prayed and preached, after the choir has sung, after the funeral is over, the burial completed, the repast eaten, after the limousine has dropped you off, after your relatives have come and gone, after the house is empty, after you have changed your clothes. There is always that moment when there is nothing left to do.

The disciples must be exhausted after their whirlwind week of activity. There were already signs that their bodies were fading just after the Passover meal, when they were supposed to keep watch while Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane but they fell asleep instead. In all likelihood, that's the last time they've slept. Thursday night they followed the proceedings - to Herod's palace, to Pilate's court, to the place of scourging, from judgment hall to judgment hall. Friday, though standing afar off, they observed Jesus' tortuous journey toward Golgotha, the place of the Skull, and up Calvary, the mountain of crucifixion. As the life ebbed out of the beloved but broken body of their teacher and friend, the hope ebbed out of them. They must be exhausted. Now a virtual stranger has claimed the body of their Christ and placed him in a garden in a tomb. And there is nothing left for anyone to do, at least not until after the Sabbath has ended.

I came to the Lenten season with an agenda, and I bet you did too. I had a list of issues that I wanted God to deal with. And I'll confess to you that in the darkness of Good Friday I am struck by how little has worked out. The heavens have not opened up with a miraculous answer to all of the questions I had/have. Like the woman who anointed Jesus' body, I believe that I have done what I could. And on this evening after all of the arrangements, commemorations, and reflections, I am left to ask "Now what?" The answer I was not quite prepared for, but it came to me even as I was writing: GRIEVE. Grieve the disappointments, the losses, the failures. Grieve the dreams deferred and the hopes unrealized. That must have been what the disciples did after the burial of Jesus. By Friday evening they must be baptized in grief.

Painful as it is, sisters and brothers, face it and grieve. At least until Sunday.

Sing, "The Old Rugged Cross"

Let us pray:
Lord, I pray for those who read this meditation to face their grief. Give us courage to speak to you of our disappointments and losses. Turn our anger and mourning into greater trust in you. Make our sorrow good grief, healing grief. And come Sunday when the morning dawns, may we be filled all the more with joy for having faced our sadness today. Amen

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Well Prepared 20 March 2008

Mark 14:12-25
Maundy Thursday
20 March 2008

Another childhood memory: Easter shopping. Head to toe I would be outfitted so that I looked my best and crispest for the holiest day of the year. The thing is that it always seemed that Easter sneaked up on us and we would be out on the day before buying something that had been left out. But we couldn't wait; we had to be ready for the DAY!

The disciples finally ask the right question. Where do you want us to go and make preparations? It is Passover, the celebration that frames Jewish identity and reminds them of God's intervention in human circumstances. In one sense they are a little late if their goal is to make preparations, since the day has already arrived. On the other hand, their commitment in the midst of the whirlwind of events is admirable. They may be clueless but they have not forgotten the most important season of the Jewish year.

Jesus' response is telling, as he gives them specific instructions about the person they should look for in the city - a man carrying water. The reason Jesus did not need to give a fuller description is that it was woman's work to carry water in that community. A man carrying water would stand out. Then Jesus lets them know that the gathering place for their meal together has already been furnished and made ready.

That evening following the Passover ritual meal, Jesus shows them that the real preparations go far beyond their work or that of the man carrying water. Things are already in motion that will bring about the events he has been describing to them on the way. One of them is a traitor who already is in contact with Jesus' enemies. More importantly, the memory of the first covenant that they share in the Passover prefigures the establishment of the new covenant in his own broken body and blood. Another ritual meal emerges. All things, indeed, are made ready.

Nearing the end of Holy Week, we may be a step behind when we ask Jesus about the preparations. But thank God this season has come around so that even the densest Christians will think of Christ's passion and resurrection this week. You'd have to be living under a rock not to realize that this is a holy season. So, again we have the opportunity to catch up. We get to ask Christ again, "What would you like for us to do to prepare ourselves for the meal that you already prepared?" Go ahead and ask him. Listen for his answer. We're running out of time.

Sing: "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling"

Let us pray:
Loving God, even if we were in danger of forgetting before, the season has reminded us again of the gracious opening you prepared for us to be your children. As we ingest the symbols of our faith, the broken body and blood of Jesus Christ, may we grow thereby into greater faithfulness and commitment to follow in his steps. May our hearts and lives be places furnished and ready, well prepared for your residence and use. Let your will be done in us. Amen

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Too Greedy to Live 19 March 2008

Mark 12:1-11
Wednesday, 19 March 2008

I appreciate a lot about my upbringing. I was raised by people who got along with one another in the home and who were well-respected in our community. Both of my parents were known in their respective venues as people of great generosity of spirit and liberality in their giving and service. There wasn't a greedy tendency in either of them. I hope I inherited their spirit.

During this last week of his ministry Jesus seems more inclined to initiate conflict and not simply to let the conflict come to him. First, he enters the city riding a colt thereby identifying himself as the messiah. Then, he tears up things in the temple. Now he offers a parable that clearly condemns the bystanders who constantly eavesdrop in an effort to entrap him. The tale he tells is of a landowner who lovingly and diligently sets in motion everything that is necessary for a plentiful harvest. Although the landowner is away, he certainly has an expectation that the tenants he has placed over his land will give him his share of the produce. But they don't. They abuse and kill his messengers and even murder his son rather than to give him what is his due. Basically, their greed overrules both their sense of fairness and their good sense period. And in the end, when the landowner executes justice, their greed will cost them their lives.

Sit for a moment with the story, not as an occasion to think about all of the other people you know in the world who have refused to give God what rightfully is God's due. Don't think about the people who tried to kill you when you told them what God requires. Rather, ask yourself whether and when you too have been like the greedy tenants. Confront yourself. When have you refused the word of God or even attacked the messenger? Ouch. I just thought of a few occasions. No, I have never killed anybody. But I have used cutting words. Did you notice how many chances the landowner gave the tenants before lowering the boom? Hallelujah. Thank God for mercy.

Sing, "Just As I Am"

Let us pray:
Merciful God, since the earth and all its inhabitants rightfully belong to you, each of us needs to repent for the moments when we have been the tenants who have misused your property. We have resisted the messengers you have sent. We have even occasionally refused the Son. Thank you for not giving up on us, for not lowering the boom before we had this opportunity to see ourselves and our error and turn back to you. Thank you for redemption. Thank you for mercy. Thank you for your generosity in giving your Son. Help us to appreciate and praise you for your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Who Authorized That? 18 March 2008

Mark 11:27-33
Tuesday, 18 March 2008

As a child, I was precocious; as an adult, I am audacious. What that means practically is that I often do not ask permission to do what I think needs doing. Occasionally, I am astute and wise as well. Not everybody finds these characteristics or the combination of them endearing. Who told you, my detractors ask, that you were allowed to do or say or be that?

Every moment for Jesus is significant, but his Holy Week activities are especially so. His critics are even more focused on him, seeking a way of tripping him up and ridding themselves of him permanently. I don't know how long the elders had been planning to corner him with the question of his authority. Perhaps they are tired of hearing reports about how powerfully he speaks. Their question is inherently dangerous for a person to answer, particularly in a society and culture that is honor-driven, stratified, and hierarchical. Tooting one's own horn always harbors the danger of sounding presumptuous and conceited. Further,anyone who fails to recognize that his teaching and miracles come from God is unlikely to be swayed by his testimony. So, he turns the tables back on them. "Who authorized John the Baptist?" It turns out that it's just as dangerous to answer the question about someone else's authority as it is to answer about one's own. The "experts" agree to remain neutral.

I think the lesson from Jesus today is simply that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, just because someone else pitches the ball doesn't mean we have to swing at it. When we exercise our God-given gifts and live out our God-ordained purpose, even church people will sometimes criticize. But if we do what is right and we are authorized by and accepted of God, the "experts'" opinions and criticisms are immaterial. As always, we must focus on pleasing God not people.

Sing, "This Little Light of Mine" (and sing it with attitude, especially the part about "Jesus gave it to me")

Let us pray:
Almighty God, you have called, anointed, ordained, appointed, and gifted us as your people. You have commissioned us to spread your message with our words and with our lives. You gave us this light, this love, this joy, this hope, this peace, and this assignment. Help us remember that our authority emerges not from within ourselves but through the grace of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in whose name we pray and act. Amen

Monday, March 17, 2008

Off the Chain

Mark 11:12-25
Monday, 17 March 2008

Have you ever known a person in one context and then struggled to reconcile yourself to seeing a different side of him or her? I remember when I was a child how strange I felt whenever I saw my teachers outside of the classroom. When I ran into them at the grocery store or at the gas station or even sometimes in church, I was always startled. I had my teachers in a box and I couldn't imagine them outside of it, even when I witnessed it.

Jesus' behavior throughout the Gospel of Mark has been utterly consistent. He teaches with authority; crowds follow him; detractors criticize him; disciples misunderstand him. But he always behaves with equanimity. Having grown used to Jesus as we have seen him, this passage takes us by surprise. He curses a fig tree for lacking fruit, even though it is not the season for figs. Then he enters the temple and wreaks havoc, turning over tables and blocking the passage of merchants and customers. "My house shall be a house of prayer." This is not Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus off the chain, outside of the box. His critics boil with hatred. The fig tree withers under his curse. His disciples are agape. This is the first sign that all is not well, even after Palm Sunday's celebration.

We have to acknowledge that the Jesus we see in this text is not the Jesus we are used to. He's way too forceful, not nearly peaceable enough. And then there's the problem of all of the merchandise he destroyed. Yet occurring on Monday of Holy Week, this scene reminds us that all is not sweetness. Judgment too is on Christ's agenda. God will not excuse our fruitlessness or unforgiveness. We cannot misuse the gifts of God or the people of God. Still, we needn't be afraid. We need only to believe.

Sing, "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"

Let us pray:
Loving God, we approach you with thanksgiving for your mercy, for the provision you have made for our escape from your wrath. Forgive us, Lord, for the ways in which we sometimes forget why we are here and what church (your house) is for. Restore us to faithfulness and fruitfulness, so that we might be pleasing to you and a blessing to your people, in Jesus' name. Amen

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Don't Let This Moment Pass You By 15 March 2008

Mark 10:46-52
Saturday, 15 March 2008

Timing is everything. Strike while the iron is hot. Seize the day. Tomorrow is not promised. I am sure there are a hundred other common sayings in the English language that remind a person that opportunity does not always knock twice. And each of us has a testimony of chances that we missed that never came around again.

Jesus has passed through Jericho, a city just fifteen miles, less than a day's walk from his destination Jerusalem. His miracles and teaching continue to attract followers and a crowd accompanies him and listens to his teaching. Murmurings in the crowd indicate to Bartimaeus that the source of the commotion is the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. Bartimaeus recognizes that opportunities for him are a few and far between. He cries out. "Jesus Son of David have mercy on me." Bystanders seek to quiet him, but he does not relent. He grows even louder. Jesus calls for him. He leaves behind what is likely his only possession, his cloak. When Jesus asks what he wants, Bartimaeus is specific. "I want to see again."

Talking about the ascension of a legally blind man David Paterson to office of governor of New York, Stephen Kuusisto wrote how perceptive blind people are by necessity. They are especially known for listening well. Like Bartimaeus we are sometimes sitting at the crossroads waiting for our chance to see significant change in our circumstances. Unfortunately, we are not always perceptive enough to make the most of the chances that we do have. Jesus by his Spirit is passing through our midst even now. I pray that we will not miss hearing what he has to say or experiencing his transformative power.

Sing, "Amazing Grace"

Let us pray:
Thank you Jesus, for coming by again. Forgive us, Lord, for the ways in which we are prone to take your presence in our neighborhood for granted and for all of the opportunities we squandered in consequence of that negligence. Help us now to redeem the time. Open our hearts and make us relentless and unwavering in our determination not to miss another chance to see you and to have you heal and remake us. Thank you, Jesus, for coming by again. Amen.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Shotgun Seat 14 March 2008

Mark 10:32-45
Friday, 14 March 2008

Remember the days before airbags when it was safe for children to sit in the front seat? If you recall those days, then you probably also remember the wrangling, haggling, and downright fighting for the privilege of riding shotgun. In many families, the first one to ask for the spot got it, a circumstance that occasioned the strategic placement of the request. "I want to sit upfront." "Well, I already asked and Mom said I could."

It turns out that Jesus' journey is taking him to Jerusalem for the last time. Once he enters Jerusalem, events will proceed quickly; he wants his closest followers to understand what is ahead. All of the disciples have been debating who is greatest. The Zebedee sons seize the chance to put their bid in for the best seats. They perceive that the closer one sits to Jesus the more power one will have in the kingdom. "Let one of us sit on your right hand and the other on the left in your glory." (One can only imagine the next level of haggling that would have ensued between the brothers about which of them sat on the right if Jesus had granted their request.) Jesus presses them about the self-denial and suffering that precede elevation and promotion in the kingdom: "Can you drink the cup? Can you endure the baptism?" Participation in God's glory comes not by ambition or strategy but rather by service and humility.

It is important for us not to judge James and John too harshly but rather to learn the lesson that Jesus taught them. The one thing we have to know if we are going to ride with Jesus is that the way he travels is unlike any journey we have experienced before. The rules here are different. Neither the loudest, the fastest, the smartest, the cutest, the richest, nor the best connected advance in his administration. To move forward and upward with him, we have to be humble and helpful with one another.

Sing, "Are ye Able?"

Let us pray:
Good Teacher, we see ourselves in the rich man who could not leave his stuff. We see ourselves in the disciples who want to be regarded more highly than one another. And when the question arises about whether we are able to pay the price that discipleship requires, our hearts cry "Yes," not because we are confident in ourselves, but because we trust that if you have called us then you will make us able. We trust you not ourselves. When we come to the end, give us a seat somewhere in your kingdom we pray through Jesus Christ. Amen

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Since You Asked

Mark 10:17-31
Thursday, 13 March 2008

I had occasion today to talk with a young woman who had called me asking for my advice. As soon as she began her story, I knew that what I was going to say was not going to be what she wanted to hear. She called me because she wanted me to tell her something deep and spiritual. I told her that she needed to confront the dysfunctional situation directly and get rid of the baggage.

Jesus is in motion beginning another journey when a young man intercepts him. The young man asks a question that is in many ways perceptive. He knows enough about Jesus to consider him an authority on spiritual and eternal matters. He even knows enough to ask on his knees. Basically, he asks "How do I make it in?" Jesus' initial answer reinforces what he already knows and confirms what he expects. Obeying the commandments? Check. And in truth the young man does do well. He is honorable and observant, kind to parents and aboveboard in his approach to others. "One thing you still lack," Jesus says, for Jesus knows the deepest failure and the deepest need of the young man's life. He has a lot of stuff. And the stuff he has tethers him to the world. He walks away downcast.

We often approach Jesus with perceptive questions, hoping that Jesus will either tell us that all of our ducks are in order and our ticket is properly punched or that what little we lack is either not that important or something we are apt to do. Most of the time when we open ourselves enough to hear Christ's answer, we are disappointed as he shines his light on the remaining idols of our lives, the stuff that we love in competition with our love for right and light. But since we asked him, the ball is now in our court. Will we walk away and die in sorrow or we will unload our baggage and rise into blessed light?

Sing "Jesus is all the World to Me"
Let us pray:

God who searches the heart, although the lesson of the rich young man teaches us to do so with fear and trembling, we come today to ask you the relevant question. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Are there areas of our hearts, minds, spirits that are uncommitted to you? Are there persons, places, or things that we set as idols? Shine the light of truth upon us. Help us to walk away from idols and walk in that light, through Jesus who gave up everything first. Amen

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

God's Baby 12 March 2008

Mark 10:1-16
Wednesday, 12 March 2008

If you know me well, then you know that I relish being the baby in my family. In fact, I have been known to announce that I am The Baby (period). One of the hardest things about the loss of my mother was figuring out whose baby I would be once she was no longer among us.

The scene in the gospel is a familiar one. Once again the crowds have gathered; Jesus is teaching them. As usual, the religious leaders of the community are
creating doctrinal disputations trying to trap Jesus and discredit him. Yet again his disciples act rashly and wrongly, as they speak sternly to parents who are bringing their children for Jesus' touch. But Jesus does not just touch the children in passing. He takes them into his arms. Imagine that. The children are held; they are babied in Jesus' arms. The kingdom belongs to the children. And whoever receives the kingdom must receive it as a little child.

Beloved, today we are not hard at work. We are not troubled by a world around us gone mad. We are not even dwelling on our own frailties and faults. We are enfolded in the love of Christ. The Lord's hand is upon us. And we are blessed. Today it is enough for us simply to be God's baby.

Sing, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus" or "He Hideth My Soul"

Let us pray:
For the grace of being held and for the knowledge that we are loved, we thank you, Lord. All that is around us remains the same, but our vantage point is different when we remember that we are safe in your arms. Even as we thank you, we pray for the children of the world, many of whom are forced to grow up too quickly. Teach us by your own love to love all of God's babies. Amen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tripped Up 11 March 2008

Mark 9:42-50
Tuesday, 11 March 2008

I have had occasion to think again today of how blessed and favored I generally have been. God has marvelously opened doors and made ways for me all of my life. Although I have had occasion to stumble along the way, I haven't had many circumstances in which I felt that others intentionally placed a stumbling block in my way. I may have tripped up, but not because someone else stuck out a foot.

In the text, Jesus turns the spotlight onto the disciples as individuals. Watch out, he says, lest your own intrinsic parts - your own hands, feet, and eyes - become potential culprits in an incident of stumbling all the way the hell. Not only must the disciples tread carefully around the "least of these" or face the wrath of a God who loves "the least", they must also examine themselves to make sure that their own character conforms to the "salty" flavor that befits Jesus' followers. Worthless indeed is the salt that has lost its flavor. Jesus concludes, Act like salt and get along with one another.

This is a timely message as we prepare for Holy Week. Even when we see ourselves as a part of the inner group of Jesus' followers, we must always be on guard lest we either cause others to stumble or, more likely, we allow an occasion of stumbling to persist in ourselves. I think the big point that Jesus makes here is that our ability to walk without tripping up does not happen by accident. It comes as a result both of God's grace and of our vigilance. And we should know, further, that when we trip we ourselves can become a stumbling block that causes someone else to fall.

Sing, "Grace Greater than All our Sin"

Let us pray:
Here we are again, Lord, forced to examine ourselves and confront the reality that we are most often the culprits in our own downfall. While devilment abounds in the world around us, it is usually our own hands, feet, and eyes that lead us to destruction. Again, we know that we stand in the need of your grace. Forgive our sins. And while you are remaking us, please preserve those who look to us for guidance from the pitfalls our failings may create for them. Make us salty again as we learn to live at peace with one another. We pray, through our Crucified Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Honor the Children 10 March 2008

Mark 9:30-41
Monday, 10 March 2008

When I was a child, I used to like it when Elder Griffith, one of our associate ministers, would preach. It wasn't so much that I was moved by Eld. Griffith's homiletical skills as the fact that Elder Griffith had a way of making me feel noticed and important as a child. You see, whenever he began his sermons, in addition to "giving honor" to God, the pastor, the ministers, the saints, and the friends, he always made sure to mention the children too. Nobody else ever gave honor to the children.

Jesus has been eavesdropping on the conversation of his disciples, or more aptly reading their hearts, as they argue among themselves about who is the greatest. Their conversation is ironic since they have just experienced the embarrassment of being unable to heal the tormented young son of a man who had come to them for help. Rather than wondering how to hone their healing and exorcism skills, they are comparing themselves against one another. Jesus surprises them by presenting the lowest and least honored person in the community - a child. Most likely the disciples would never even have noticed the child in their midst if Jesus had not called their attention to him. "When you welcome the child, you welcome me."

In the kingdom of God, we should always remember that conventional wisdom is upended. The greatest is the servant. The last are first. Whoever is not against us is for us. The children are honored. This reversal of fortune was hard for the disciples to accept and remains hard for us to believe. For them, the biggest welcome should be reserved for the most important people, those who have something to offer or some perk to bestow. But if we can't honor the child, then we are unlikely to recognize the Crucified One as Lord. And if we miss the Crucified One, we cut ourselves off from the reign and glory of God. Elder Griffith had the right idea.

Sing, "I Think When I Read"

Call in prayer the names of the children in your life. Give thanks for them, and ask for the wisdom to know how to honor and welcome them and thus to welcome the kingdom of God.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Listen 7 March 2008

Mark 9:2-13
Friday, 7 March 2008

I don't even remember the product as much as I remember the commercial: "If you want to capture someone's attention, whisper." Whether one was inclined to purchase the perfume for sale or not, the tag line for the commercial stood out as it appealed to that part of each of us that wants to know how to get the important people in our lives to listen to what we have to say. We all want to experience the focus on us from time to time. And we all know just as well that there will always be other noises that threaten to distract the attention.

With each day, the intensity increases in the message of Jesus. His identity as the Messiah is established. The general contours of the coming suffering are being made known to his disciples. But there are still a lot of distractions. Just a few days after Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus carries his three closest followers to a mountain, away from all the competition for their attention. Imagine their astonishment as a powerful light shines out of Christ's visage. Even more astounding is the presence of the two great ancestors Moses and Elijah, embodying the Law and the Prophets. There is no question that God has their attention, but the ability of people to miss the point should never be underestimated. Peter has a bright idea for a building program. God's voice speaks and brings the focus to Jesus alone: Listen to him!

It is so easy for us to be distracted, so difficult for us to maintain focus over the long haul. We are now in the routine of Lent and therefore are poised to lose focus or to come to the wrong conclusion. Even when God does great things in our midst, we are inclined to look more at the miracle and miss the message. Pause now and quiet yourself. Don't think. Just listen. You have confessed that Jesus is the Christ the Savior of the world. Now listen to him and be saved.

Sing, "Open My Eyes that I May See"

Let us pray:
Merciful God, we thank you for the privilege of being the people whom you have called to the mountain to witness your glory. We rejoice that we have come this far and have been privy to the revelation of your identity. Help us in this waning Lenten season not to miss the message. Attune us to your voice. Grant us the grace of focus on Jesus the Christ. Amen

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Do you Get It? 6 March 2008

Mark 8:27-9:1
Thursday, 6 March 2008

On the airplane, I like to do the crossword puzzles in the airline's magazine. I prefer them to the puzzles in the newspaper because with the newspaper puzzles, I have to wait until the next day (or solve the whole puzzle) to see whether my guess was correct, rather than just flipping to the answer at the back of the magazine. I guess I am not known for my patience. I have to know sooner whether I got it.

As evinced in the earlier part of the chapter through the gradual healing of the blind man, Jesus is giving his disciples multiple opportunities to come to the right conclusion. The answer is before them. The question is whether they've got it or not. "Who do people say that I am?" Jesus asks. That's an easy question; one only has to repeat what one has heard. Here comes the hard ball: "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answers, "You're the Messiah." At first glance, it seems that Peter has it. Jesus begins to reveal the rest of the plan to the disciples: great suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. At this point, Peter's certainty gets the better of him, as he takes Jesus aside to explain to him what his Messiahship does and does not mean. Peter doesn't get it after all. His mind is on the wrong thing.

Today, I get the sense that we should be careful lest we rush ahead too quickly with our answers. Like Peter, we may grasp the most significant information without understanding all of the details about what that knowledge requires of us. Just knowing who Jesus is is not enough. Following him means laying aside all of our preconceived notions and plans and taking up our cross. Suffering, rejection, and death lead to resurrection and eternal life. Do you get it?

Sing, "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone"

Let us pray:
Crucified One, it is so easy to rush forward to Easter without accounting for the suffering, rejection, and death of Good Friday. It is so easy to leap forward with the knowledge of discipleship and eternal life without responding to the call of taking up our cross. Reminds us today, Lord, that there can be no resurrection without the cross; no victory without suffering. Help us to deny ourselves and therefore to embrace and follow you. Amen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Taking Shape 5 March 2008

Mark 8:11-26
Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Now that we are two weeks away from Holy Week, a mere 18 days from the celebration of Resurrection Day, I for one am put in mind again of all that I hoped to accomplish spiritually during the Lenten season. The end of Lent is near, but how about all of those issues and needs I placed on the altar. Is anything taking shape?

The disciples in the text are their usual clueless selves. Jesus issues a blanket warning to avoid the contaminating influcence of the Pharisees and Herod, but they think he's talking about literal yeast and fear that he is angry because they forgot to bring bread with them. After reminding them that they have recently witnessed the feeding of multitudes with little or no resources, he asks them a question "Do you still not understand?" The disciples seem to be as blind as ever.

Enter a real blind man whom Jesus touches. Can you see now? Unlike other healing stories, for this blind man, things only gradually come into focus. He sees people but they look like trees. And while seeing people looking like walking trees represents a significant improvement over not seeing anything at all, it's not as good as seeing things as they really are. How does Jesus fix things? He touches the man again. The man looks intently and his sight is restored clearly.

I can say honestly that I am glad that the Lenten season is not quite over because I feel like that blind person in the story who sees some things taking shape but not clearly. I am grateful, then, that I have time to ask Jesus to touch me again.

Sing, "He Touched Me"

Let us pray:
Dear Lord, for the gift of growing focus and clarifying sight, we give you thanks. At the same time, we confess that we, like the disciples, still suffer from chronic cluelessness. Our only recourse is to ask that you in your mercy would touch us again. Apply the salve of your Spirit and anoint our minds, hearts, and spirits. Preserve us against the errors of religious and social arrogance. Deliver us into the next season of greater awareness, in Jesus' name. Amen

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Enough to Get Home 4 March 2008

Mark 8:1-10
Tuesday, 4 March 2008

I have been a bit under the weather the last few days, but of course my responsibilities have not diminished. I have been able to cancel or postpone a few things. For the things I absolutely could not postpone, I prayed that God would give me just enough strength to get through them.

Today's text reminds us again of the sure footing we are on when we ask for enough to get us home. Jesus has been feeding the crowds all that they can handle of the gospel message. For three days, they have dined sumptuously on his teaching, replete with miracles. The most important aspects of life are covered. Life indeed is more than food; everything that proceeds from Jesus' mouth satisfies the hungry and thirsty soul. But Jesus sees something more. His compassion extends beyond the spiritual. The people need to eat, otherwise they will not survive the journey back to their residences. What follows Jesus' astute observation is the disciples' lesson about God's abundant provision even with scarce resources. The people are seated. Jesus provides, not simply enough to get the people home but more than enough. Jesus uses the provisions and the hands of the disciples to fill up the people. Extra is left over.

As we come to the end of our resources - physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual - we have the opportunity to see Jesus' compassion and surpassing greatness in action yet again. There is no such thing as just enough in Jesus. We are ourselves, along with all of our substance and our need, in the hands and in the heart of the all sufficient one. We have cause to rejoice.

Sing "All I Need"

Let us pray:
You alone know, O Lord, where the middle of this Lenten season finds us. You know our weariness, our worry; you know how far we have come and how far we've yet to journey. Grant us a glimpse of your compassionate eyes. Seeing you, make us confident of your grace to finish the course with more than enough of what we need to make it home, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Monday, March 3, 2008

All in the Family 3 March 2008

Mark 7:24-37
Monday, 3 March 2008

Parents are frequently asked but loath to admit whether one of their children is their favorite. Because we have a romantic and idealistic notion that goods and services, or at least love ought to be meted out indiscriminately within a family, we certainly don't want to admit that favoritism is a natural part of being human. Even within our families some relatives are our favorites and others not so much.

Today's text includes one of the most difficult scenes in all of the scriptures. Here we see Jesus initially refusing the request of a woman whose daughter is possessed by demons. No matter how many times I read the happy ending I am still made uncomfortable by the exchange. I read that Jesus is taking a respite, hiding out in Tyre (Gentile territory) away from the crowds that dog him. I see that again his efforts toward solitude are interrupted by the persistence of some needy person(s). The woman's need is real and serious. Her faith and persistence rule the day. And in the end, Jesus' own ministry expands and makes room for a larger family, large enough even for us to participate.

Like the text from Sunday regarding the man born blind, this text points us again toward the question of fairness and suffering. What I like about the gospel writers' inclusion of this scene is that it sets a standard for all of us who claim to follow Jesus. When is the last time we allowed our vision of the family to expand?

Sing, "Jesus Loves the Little Children"

Let us pray:
As always, Lord, we wish to follow your example and walk in your steps. As we consider the needs around us, we pray that you will help us to have a vision of family that includes people like ourselves and those who are radically different. Stretch us in this season, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Blame Game 2 March 2008

John 9:1-41
Lent 4
Sunday, 2 March 2008

We have a need for things to make sense to us. Even when we do not agree with an idea or an outcome, it makes us feel better if we can understand the reason or logic behind it. Even when we confront the difficulties in our own lives, we feel better if we can discern some deeper meaning for our suffering and struggle. We always grasp after a reason for the bad things that happen to good people.

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who was born blind. His disciples see an opportunity to query Jesus about this most difficult issue of who to blame for the bad things that happen. Whose fault is it? Was there some discernible sin in the unborn child? Was there some parental sin? There is no reason to think that they know anything more about the man than that he was blind from birth. They have no more information than that about the man or his parents. Thus, they are really asking a larger question about the cause of suffering and misfortune. If sin is the culprit, then whose sin is it? Jesus answers, Neither the man nor his parents are to blame. He then heals the man to the glory of God.

While the healing of the man certainly glorifies God, Jesus' answer to the disciples' question leaves us without a definitive statement about why bad things happen. The truth is that life does not always make sense to us. Things are not always fair or just. Sometimes the "bad guys" seem to get away with it, and the "good guys" lose or fail. I'm not sure that asking Jesus face to face will yield the answer that we crave. So, we'll simply have to keep trusting. And I guess we will understand it better by and by.

Sing, "We'll Understand it Better By and By"