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The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!‘” Matthew 21:9 (NRSV)

And so it begins.  The Christian year leads up to this week and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection all year.  Our liturgical calendar begins with Advent and follows the life of Jesus to the resurrection, ascension, and then Pentecost.

After watching a show on public television last week, I had a whole bunch of new insights or things to think about concerning Holy Week.  I suspect that we tend to read far too little into the Holy Week stories and don’t always consider the religious and political atmosphere in Jerusalem during that time.

But even if we take the stories as if they were chronologically in order in the four gospels, we would find inconsistencies.  What struck me the most about the show that I watched was how unholy this week really was; of course, it all depends on how you define “holy.”  It’s just that Jesus’ actions in upending the money changers in the temple was a deliberate act of defiance toward the temple leaders.  As the show asked, why wasn’t he arrested?  Normally, the temple guards would have had him thrown in prison within minutes, yet they did nothing.

And then there is Pilate.  Why didn’t he just have Jesus killed?  Pilate was known to be ruthless and heartless; yet, with Jesus, he hesitated.  In the end, he just handed Jesus over to someone else to do the dirty work, although he did have him flogged which was vicious all in itself.

Herod apparently was pretty wimpy in this case, too.  His political ambitions may have kept him from taking action because he was waiting to see what Rome would do and didn’t want to rock the boat.  It’s hard knowing.  He was pretty nasty, too, normally.

Jesus’ arrest and trial were hardly holy.  His crucifixion was excruciating, and his death was apparently a big “Whew!” to the religious leaders.  What was holy about what we call Holy Week?

Maybe it’s because of the outcome at the end with Jesus being raised from the dead.  When we consider how the horrible, evil things took place during that week, we can be sure that those who thought they had prevailed were quite smug and happy with the outcome.  The temple leaders probably thought they had saved the Jewish nation in God’s name – who knows!

But once again, God has the last word.  Good overcomes evil and life overcomes death.  Maybe that’s what makes the week holy – it’s the looking forward to the end result.

What do you think?

How have you viewed Holy Week?

In what ways have you studied what’s behind all the religious, economic, and political moves that were taking place?

How are you ready to expand your thoughts on them?


Being Known Completely

O Lord, you have searched me and know me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”  Psalm 139:1-4 (NRSV)

What is it like for someone to know us completely?  Is that even possible, really?  My husband and I often know what the other one is going to say, and when I can’t think of a word, he will fill in the blank for me.  But we still are learning about each other – still discovering things we didn’t know about each other.

And maybe I don’t want him to totally know all about me, anyway!  There are some things that we can learn as we go along.  Even if it was possible for a human being to know the other person completely, it would be influenced by their own perceptions of us as well as by the influences on their lives as they grew up, encountered people, and developed.

God, on the other hand, is another story.  God DOES know us completely.  When I was growing up, my best friend’s father owned the local pool hall.  In our tiny town, that was definitely frowned upon.  The pool hall was closed on Sundays, so my friend and I would go downstairs and pretend that we knew how to play pool.  It smelled of tobacco and beer, and it was dark and dingy, but we had a good time (never tried anything we weren’t supposed to have either!).

When I would arrive home, my mother would ask if I had been in the pool hall (she probably could smell it on my clothes), and I would say that we had just played a little pool.  Her question always was, “Where would you like to be when Jesus returns?  In the Pool Hall or church?”  The answer was obvious – church – but I would say that nothing happened, and we didn’t do anything wrong.

Now when I think about it, I realize that Jesus probably would have been in the pool hall instead of church since he reached out to those who were marginalized by society.  But the point is that God knew all along what was in my mind and in my heart.  As naive as I was, God was with me anyway and helped me to keep my head on straight.  God knew that I was pretty innocent and didn’t even realize what all the growing was all about.

We can’t hide from God because God is part of who we are, made wonderfully in the image of God, the spark of the divine planted in our hearts.  That’s why prayer is so wonderful.  We are but a breath away from God’s presence with us in all things.  Isn’t that a marvelous gift?

Where have you experienced God’s presence?

What were the circumstances?

How did you realize that God knew all about you and loved you anyway?

Grace and Reconciliation

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”  Romans 5:10 NRSV

Last summer I challenged myself to preach on the Epistles.  I like a challenge, and the letters of Paul and others definitely are rich with teachings and encouragement, as well as calls to accountability.  They also are often full of confusing contradictions (seemingly) and contain what I call the “round-about” passages.  These are the passages that seem to repeat the same words over and over again.  Maybe that’s part of the reason I tend to go toward the gospels and some of the Hebrew scripture passages.

Nevertheless, this coming Sunday, I chose Romans 5:1-11 (I still like to challenge myself!).  Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is rich with assurances and reminders of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.  We all need to hear that kind of encouragement.  What struck me the most in this passage were the words “grace” and “reconciliation.”

God’s grace is often hard to comprehend.  When we try to explain it to someone who really doesn’t understand grace, we might hear them respond with “grace isn’t fair.”  Well, I suppose from our “worldly” perspective, it isn’t!  But God’s grace is an inclusive one, and it’s open to everyone, including us.

A friend of mind used to argue with me about the fairness of grace.  She would say that a criminal and murderer who confesses on their death bed is just manipulating God’s grace. How could they spend their lives being so sinful and then be welcomed into heaven?  She would be so frustrated when I would say that it’s possible, but ultimately it’s between God and the person.  We can’t make that judgement; only God can, and God knows what is in the person’s heart.

Verse 10 above reminds us that initially, human beings were separated from God – “enemies” because of our sinfulness.  It is through Jesus Christ that we find that grace of God and are reconciled with God.  Jesus has set things right with God through his life, death, and resurrection.  Reconciliation is an “aaahhh” moment when all those negative feelings, worries, and even anguish are relieved.

John 3:16 reminds us that “God so loved the world.”  God didn’t just love the churches, the early followers of Jesus, the disciples, or a few select folks; God loved the WORLD!  The world – all of humanity was reconciled in Jesus, the Christ.  It’s a joyful thing!  Paul says we can boast, but he doesn’t mean  being arrogant.  Rather, he is talking about that excitement that comes from knowing that we are living in God’s grace.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we will be without suffering and pain in our lives.  Instead, we have been given the gift of God’s love and companionship that helps us to get through life’s challenges.  We have a strength in Christ that fortifies us and gives us a foundation on which to build so we can keep on keeping on.  By the grace of God, we are reconciled and given life anew over and over again.  Thanks be to God!

How have you experienced God’s grace?

How have you found reconciliation with God that leads to reconciliation with someone else?

Stumbling in the Dark

Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can these things be?”  John 3:9 (NRSV)

Nicodemus approached Jesus in the dark of night and began asking questions about how to enter the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ answers were full of symbolism and metaphors, and Nicodemus took what he said literally.  Spirituality is much deeper than what we can see on the surface.  We have to move deeper into our relationship with God and each other before we can truly begin to understand the process of growing spiritually.

Maybe Nicodemus was really seeking answers.  Maybe he was feeling left empty as a Pharisee because there seemed to be something lacking.  Maybe he saw that something in Jesus and wanted to learn more, but he went away confused.

How can one be born again?  The translation in many Bible actually is “born from above,” which makes a lot of sense when we consider the nature of Nicodemus’ quest.  Or maybe his questions were to trick Jesus.  Was he sent by the Pharisees to learn more under the guise of really being interested?  Did he question Jesus to try to find some ammunition against him?  We really don’t know.

Nicodemus did show up again later in the gospel of John as one who tried to defend Jesus at his trial before the Sanhedrin, and then he showed up at the cross after Jesus died to help Joseph of Arimathea in the burial process, but we really don’t know what his intentions were when he went to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.

Darkness indicates something secret; it can also represent not knowing, such as, “in the dark.”  In the scriptures, it also was symbolic of not knowing God and the light was the symbol of revelation and the presence of God.  Wrestling with these images is always fascinating because we tend to also wrestle with our own beliefs and our own faith journeys.

So, what can we learn from Nicodemus?

What do you see in this story (John 4:1-17) that helps in your walk of faith?

How do you identify with Nicodemus?

How do you NOT identify with him?

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Matthew 4:1 (NRSV)

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “and lead us not into temptation.”  Wait a minute – the verse above tells us that Jesus was led up by the Spirit to be tempted!  Um – hmmm.

Maybe God wanted to test Jesus, so led him up to the mountain in the wilderness.  Or maybe Jesus just felt that he needed to get away following his baptism to absorb everything.  The devil might have just seen this as a great opportunity to try to get Jesus to renounce his identity as God’s Son.  Or perhaps Jesus just needed to prove to himself that he was up to the task.

Because I can’t get into the mind of Jesus, I would only be guessing at what Jesus’ intentions were at this point.  However, according to this scripture, Jesus withstood all those temptations of self-aggrandizement, putting God to the test, and the offer of earthly power.

When we think about it, those who tend to think of themselves as magnificent and indispensable, we might realize that most of them topple of the pedestal they had build for themselves.  (Read the story of Mordecai in the Book of Ruth.)  And those who test God by trying to bargain are almost always disappointed because they couldn’t outsmart God.  Power corrupts, and when someone is in a powerful position, they become the target for being brought down.

Jesus’ ministry and purpose on earth were not of earthly things.  He knew that the things of this earth aren’t permanent.  Ultimately, it is relationship with God that lasts, and because of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, it is a “forever” relationship.

Jesus mission and ministry were to bring people closer to God, to bring forgiveness of sins, and to bring life everlasting.  I’m thankful for forgiveness of sins because it means that we can receive a second chance.  For some of us, we need those second chances regularly.  Of course, the key is that when we ask for forgiveness, we are expected to learn from our mistakes, our sins, our turning away from God so that we can keep trying and moving forward.

I’m fully aware of what it’s like to be tempted and to give in.  My biggest issue is eating foods that aren’t the best choices for me, but there are many other temptations.  I really don’t believe that God LEADS us into temptation but that God allows us to experience them and learn how to not give in.  That takes practice and persistence.

Matthew 4:11 tells us that after Jesus was tempted, “. . . the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”  When we resist temptation or when we repent from giving in to it, I suspect that the “angels” are there to wait on us.  In fact, they were probably there all along, watching over us.  Who knows.  What we do know is that God wants what is best for us, and that is why we have been given a conscience.  Let’s learn to listen more and follow our gut feelings when we are faced with temptation.

How have you been tempted?

In what ways have you been able to overcome them?

How have you found forgiveness when you have given in to them?

Building Churches

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ . . . (1 Corinthians 3:11 NRSV)

In our church, we sing the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.”  This scripture passage from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth may be the basis on which that hymn was written, and it’s a good reminder to all of us in the church that we need to put Jesus Christ first in the work, mission, and ministry that we do.

I’ve heard over and over in my lifetime that we are supposed to live in the world but not of it.  So, as a pastor, I wrestle with how to help people find the tools to do such a thing.  I mean, let’s face it, the “world” informs us every day – every hour – every minute.  Rarely do we see people who are able to separate themselves from “the world.”

Paul saw this happening in the Corinthian church.  The people were fighting over nearly everything from who had the best gifts to where their allegiance belonged for their leaders.  This was a badly divided church!

I know of churches who have been divided over what color to paint the walls, which color and brand of carpeting to choose, how many chairs they needed to buy, and any number of technical things that bogged them down and distracted them.  Some churches had such vehement arguments over these issues that the church split, and one group started their own congregation down the street.

For me, it is such a sad statement that we get so carried away with things that are important, but not vital to our mission and ministry.  Did anyone stop to consult Jesus in the midst of all this?  What would he say?  I suspect (and I hardly dare speak for him, so I’m only speculating) that he would say it isn’t important.  Maybe he would even go so far as to clear out the sanctuary and tell people that they had tried to turn God’s house into a showcase for Good Housekeeping magazine or something.

Where are our priorities as congregations?  How do we live in the world but not of it?  Paul tells us in the verse above and in this section from 1 Corinthians 3 that we are to begin with Christ as the foundation and build on that with good quality materials that consist of prayer, worship, Bible study, fellowship, etc.  It doesn’t even matter how good or bad their spiritual leader was because they were just doing what God called them to do.

When a church is solidly build on Christ as the foundation, it will be strong and work together to make mission and ministry happen.  It behooves all of us in churches, to take a hard look at what motivates the work we do and who it is we consult when we are making decisions.  Is it Jesus Christ first, and then each other?

How does your church make decisions?

How does your church resolve conflicts?

Who is the head of your church?


Who’s in Charge?

I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”  1 Corinthians 3:6 (NRSV)

The Corinthian church was bickering and fighting.  Apparently, they were divided over a number of issues, including who was their true leader.  This was a church that Paul had started (let’s face it – he had a lot of “new church starts”), and when he left Apollos took over as their spiritual leader.

Does this sound familiar?  In my previous parish, one of the long-time United Methodists who had been in that church for many years learned that I was being appointed to a new charge (with two churches).  Her comment was that whoever followed me would have a hard time because I had been a popular pastor.

Wow!  That’s heady stuff!  I had never been popular in my life, and all of a sudden, I learn that I was!  It was tempting to be proud of that, but then I realized and remember this passage above.  It isn’t about me.  It isn’t about the pastor before me.  It isn’t about the pastor who follows me.  It IS about God.

I sometimes wonder if pastors realize how they transition for the person who follows them.  In one church, the pastoral position was supposed to be quarter time, but the pastor (even though the person was paid for quarter time) was there full time.  I followed that pastor and tried to be half time, but there were a number of disgruntled people who thought I was favoring the other church.  In essence, I was working hard to keep that church moving forward.

However, I was never there enough according to some of the folks.  Fortunately, we eventually straightened out the expectations even though I continue to try to work full time in both churches.  That could be a problem for my successor.  I hope not.

Now that I am near retirement, my sermons will be talking about change, focusing on how God is in charge (I’ve been doing that all along, but now it will be a little more noticeable), and helping them to be open to new leadership.  There are no guarantees, of course.

When I left my previous church, it turned out poorly, and so much of the work we did together fell apart.  However, some of it endured since they are still in ministry, so that is something.

There are a number of books I have read about how to leave a parish and prepare the congregation for the transition.  They are guiding me along with a lot of prayer and meditation, as well as the Staff Parish Relations Committee.

Ultimately, it’s out of my hands.  As pastors, we all plant and water, but it is God who gives the growth.  We do our part and trust God to do the rest.

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