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Archive for March, 2012

Difficult Journeys

“It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified [Jesus].”  Mark 15:25

Have you ever had a tough day?  Maybe a rough month?  Or there may have been an entire year when everything seemed to go wrong, be against you, or life was just plain difficult?  I have had my share of difficult journeys, but I don’t think anything I have faced can compare to what Jesus faced the last week of his life.

He was betrayed by someone who was a follower and probably considered a friend.  When he was arrested, most of the disciples disappeared and went into hiding, abandoning him.  Peter, who promised to follow Jesus to the end, made an attempt at being brave, but even he denied his friend and teacher, and in the end, Jesus was crucified alone except for the women in his life.

The women could come and ago as they pleased because women had little or no status in Jesus’ day.  It was a different story for the men.  Those who were known to be followers of Jesus – considered an insurrectionist by Jewish leaders and condemned as one by Rome – would have feared for their lives.  They ran.  They hid.  They trembled with fear.

What would we have done?  I suspect I would have been afraid and run, too.  Most of us don’t stand up for others unless we find some kind of passion about a cause somewhere.  In our Bible study group, most of us admitted that we have difficulty speaking up when we see some injustice or something happening that is harmful to another person.  We are afraid of the consequences and don’t want to become involved.

Jesus always stood up for the poor, the needy, the sick, the outcasts, the women, the children, the “untouchables.”  He healed, fed, welcomed, defended, loved, and touched.  What did he get for it?  His followers left him, abandoned him, disappeared into the night.  Don’t we do the same?  Don’t we abandon, deny, betray Jesus and his ministry?

We approach Holy Week beginning this Sunday, April 1.  We begin the journey with Jesus.  What do we intend to learn?  How will we do something differently because of Jesus’ suffering and death.  After all, he died for us.  He died so that we might have life, so that we might experience God’s love and forgiveness, so that we might reconcile with God and be in full, healthy, loving relationships with God and each other.

It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Human tendencies block us and get in the way.  Fear keeps us from speaking up at racist jokes or derogatory comments about another person who doesn’t “fit” society’s idea of who they should be or how they should look.  Selfishness stops us from giving more of ourselves, and we truly begin to look out for “number one” meaning ourselves.

This is what humanity is all about.  Jesus lived it, understood it, and tried to teach us that it isn’t how God wants us to live our lives.  So what will we do differently this Holy Week that will lead us to live our lives differently forever?  What can we change?  What habit could we break that stops us from being healthier?  What vocabulary words could we remove from our minds and mouths?  What could we give away because we aren’t using it anyway?  How can we make someone else’s life better because of our actions?

This is a throw down – not only for anyone who might end up reading this blog, but also for me.  I have things I want to change in my life, too.  Will you join me?  May God bless you on this journey, whether it’s difficult or smooth at this time in your life.  And when the times are tough, may you know that strength comes from the One who has walked the path of loss, betrayal, abandonment, and rejection.  He understands.  Jesus knows.  Jesus truly understands and walks with us.

Loving Life Too Much

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  John 12:20-33

This is a hard verse.  I love my life.  I wouldn’t trade my life for anything else.  I love my husband, my family, my congregations, my work, where I live, my three cats, my dog, and so many other things.  (Okay, so I don’t love EVERYTHING – like brussels sprouts, black olives, spiders, having to clean, and . . . well, you get the picture.)  So, when I read this verse from this coming Sunday’s gospel lesson, I wonder – I’m I loving my life too much?  (See John 12:20-33)

It’s worth looking deeper into what Jesus was talking about and the circumstances behind his comments.  Jesus had entered Jerusalem in a triumphant parade which immediately ticked off the temple leaders because such a parade was intended for royalty only.  How dare Jesus call himself royalty when they all knew that he was a peasant from Nazareth of all places.  Nazareth didn’t have a very good reputation because it was filled with foreigners who had a bad influence on the population.

So as Jesus entered the last week of his life, his focus was on what was ahead.  He knew that he was in trouble, but he kept his focus on what he needed to do before he was put to death.  Part of that was to do some intense last minute teaching of his disciples who would be taking over for him in sharing the good news of God’s love with the world.  Jesus began speaking about his coming death and resurrection, and of course, the disciples couldn’t understand why he harped on that so much.

In teaching them about what it meant to be a disciple, Jesus insisted that God needed to be their guiding force.  That meant that the “world” couldn’t dictate what they did, who they were, and how they acted.  Their lives were connected to God through Jesus, so they were to live putting God first.  “Loving their lives too much” seems to mean that they let the world take over, and the “things” of the world were far more important than God.  “Losing their lives” then meant that they would “die to self” and dedicate themselves to God and God’s work on earth.

Okay, so how do we do that in the 21st century?  I think it’s helpful to ask, “Do we love our lives because of our material goods?  Are we making gods out of money, wealth, possessions, people, sports, or other things that take the place of God in our lives?”  If we examine ourselves and find that a lot of things are far more important than God, then maybe we can reassess what it would mean to make God the head of our lives.  Loving God and living in Jesus’ ways means that God provides what we need and “things” don’t have a hold on us.

This week at one of the churches I serve, we had some minor vandalism.  Someone “painted” the windows with whipping cream from a can, threw eggs at the front door of the church, and then threw one of the cans up at a window in the steeple.  Our “Little Tikes” playground equipment had been hauled from behind the church to the front, and apparently the back step had been pulled away from the door in spite of a long row of big nails that had been used to hold it there.  It could have been a lot worse!  One of the first things that someone said to me was, “Will we be able to use restorative justice with whoever did this?”  That means that the person or persons responsible will be given a punishment that helps to teach them about respecting other people’s property.  We could insist that they be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but we would like to offer God’s grace.

I reminded the congregation that the building only REPRESENTS the church in the community.  The actual church is us – all the people.  Buildings can be replaced, fixed, cleaned up, but the people are the ones who can make a difference in the lives of others.  Being a disciple of Jesus and loving our life from that perspective means that we already have everything we need, and the other “stuff” is nice but not the most important thing in the world.  When I listened to people being interviewed after the devastating tornadoes in the Midwest, I heard over and over again, “Houses can be replaced; people can’t.”

God is a God of love.  God has chosen to love and to be in relationship with us.  Our calling as disciples is to share that love with others in whatever form that takes and using whatever gifts God has given us.  So, yes, I love my life.  I know that I’m not alone on this journey because the power of God’s Spirit is with me on the journey, and look at all the wonderful companions God has given me and continues to give me as we go!  Thanks be to God!

Lighting the Way

“. . . Those who do what is true come to the light, so taht it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”  John 3:21

The gospel of John talks about light a lot.  In the prologue which is John 1:1-15, the writer of the gospel says that the Light came into the world, meaning Jesus who is the logos or “word” of God.  Jesus tells his followers (including us) that we are the light of the world.  When we think of Jesus as the Light, we think of him lighting the way, leading us forward, helping us to live in God’s ways.  Jesus opens our hearts, minds, and souls to receive the love of God and to share it with others.

That means that we live differently in a world where we are often told that “looking out for number one” is the most important thing.  The world would tell us that it’s all about what we can get for ourselves, to put ourselves first, to get as much as we can so we are important, special, rich.  I once heard a pastor talk about the “lie” of the lottery.  He said that it made people think that they were special, that they were important, that they now had power because of their wealth.  He went on to say that of the previous ten winners of the mega-million dollar lottery in that state, only one still had their phone number listed in the phone book.

The “lie” of the lottery is that we don’t need it to be important, special, or rich.  We are already important – to God.  We are already special – to God (and probably a lot of other people).  We are already rich, not in money necessarily but in love and friends and family.  God lights the way to life, love, and happiness, and that is something that is too good to hold onto for ourselves.  It is intended to be shared.  So when we receive the light from God in Christ Jesus, our next step is to share it.

Interestingly, it isn’t always easy to share it because, as I mentioned, the world tells us that being self-less and self-giving isn’t the way we get ahead in this world.  It seems to me that we actually CAN get ahead, though.  In spite of those who feel they are getting ahead by being in positions of power and having a lot of money, somewhere along the line they fall.  Maybe they fall when the discover that their family has moved ahead without them, that they begin offering little “white lies” that eventually lead into a lot of dishonesty, that they are unkind to their employees, that they lose prestige in their social circles, or whatever the circumstance may be.   Regardless, something usually happens to bring them to a new and sometimes “lower” level than where they were before.

When we consistently are kind, compassionate, caring, and giving, it DOES come back to us.  The saying “nice guys (gals) finish last” is based on social pressure to conform to the world’s standards.  In the long run, those who walk in the light of Christ and who become the ones who live that light in the world are the ones who are loved by many, who are admired and emulated for the long term, and who are richer beyond imagination.  My dad always used to say, “I may not be rich in cash, but I sure am rich in family and friends.”

May the Light of the world – Jesus, the Christ – shine through our words and deeds today and every day!  Amen!

Justified Temper Tantrum

“In the temple, [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!'”  John 2:14-16 (NRSV)

     We don’t often think of Jesus as being angry.  Normally, we see him as patient, kind, gentle, and infinitely unflappable – not so in this passage from John, chapter 2.  Jesus saw his mission in life as teaching and maybe even reforming the teachings of the temple leaders so they would not be so “stuck” on law and following the rules that they missed teaching about the grace of God.  It would seem that they had a rather self-righteous attitude about their position and power.  Clearly, not all the Pharisees and Sadducees were devious and power-hungry; however, this passage about Jesus clearing out the temple and trying to set things right tells us that something was awry in the temple.

What the passage doesn’t tell us is that the temple leaders were behind the sales and often received kick-backs.  In addition, the people were required to offer sacrifices, and only the purest of animals would do, so those being sold in the temple would be acceptable to the priests.  The money changers were there to exchange Roman currency for Jewish currency, and there would have been a charge to make the exchange, just like we have when we exchange U.S. dollars for foreign money.  It seemed to be a pretty big racket, and, as I mentioned above, the temple leaders were benefitting monetarily from the sales.

As is evident, Jesus recognized exploitation and mis-use of the sacrificial animals, and he recognized the false or two-faced greed of those leaders involved in the sales of the animals, the changing of the money, and the ways in which they used their position to become wealthy while most of the population remained poor and continued to be bilked out of what little money they had.  Jesus’ behavior called for justice and restoration of the temple to its original purpose:  to worship God.  Was his anger justified?  I think so.  Was it a temper tantrum?  I don’t believe it was.  I think it was a carefully thought out and prayerfully carried out event that certainly got the attention of those involved.  If it had happened today, Jesus would have been arrested, and the media would have swarmed all over the place to get interviews from everyone who would speak on camera.

I have often wondered if they all went back to selling and changing money after Jesus was there.  Interestingly, too, the gospel of John places this particular story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, so it almost makes sense that he started out by “ticking off” the temple leaders at the outset.  They looked for ways to arrest him.  He had, after all, totally embarrassed them in public.  Who did he think he was, anyway?

When is anger justifed?  How do we know it’s something we should be angry about?  How do we know it’s of God?  Maybe there are words that would help:  exploitation, abuse, lying, cheating, jealousy, stealing, adultery, causing divisions, hurting others intentionally, or any number of possibilities (see Galatians 5:19-21 for more ideas).  Listening to our hearts, prayer, reading the scriptures, learning about and from Jesus’ life, and talking with others who are people of faith help us to gain understanding of what justified anger is.  Most of the time, the anger stems from what someone has done to another person that has hurt or demeaned or harmed them in some way.

On the other hand, a temper tantrum doesn’t really accomplish much.  Jesus got the attention of the temple leaders and merchants because it doesn’t appear that he normally wasn’t angry about things and acted out in a definitive way.  When we act to speak out about injustices or to help someone else, do they benefit from it?  It takes courage to behave so that we make a difference for others in the world.  There are SO many situations from which to choose, too!  One of the gifts God has given us as a human race is different capabilities and talents.  When we use those talents to help, thousands of us will reach out in thousands of different directions, so we can pick the one that is our passion, the one that gets us in the deepest part of our hearts, the one that tells us God is pointing us that direction.

God calls us to make a difference.  How will we do that?  In what direction is God calling you and me?

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