Archive for July, 2018

July 24, 2018

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.”

When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.”

After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed.

Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. Matthew 26:69-75

True story. I remember it like yesterday. I went to Bible camp one time in middle school. It was 1974, the summer after 7th grade. To call the camp I went to a “fundamentalist” camp makes your average run of the mill fundamentalist look liberal. It was both a horrible experience and an incredibly formative experience for me. I am a pastor, and I am the type of pastor I am, due in no small part to that camp.

They very well could have talked about the God who loves me but I don’t remember hearing it. I DO remember the God I needed to be afraid of, the one who already had sentenced me to hell if I didn’t change my ways and clean up my act. Hell was the default position for people to be in. Heaven was reserved for those in the club who said the right things and did the right things.

So I did what they told me to do. I accepted Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior at every available opportunity. Every campfire. Every evening speech. I said the words and did the deed and hoped against hope that I would be different when I got home.

The day I got home I went up to the middle school courts to play basketball. A high school player I admired was already there. We got to talking. He asked me if I had seen the movie showing downtown (it was The Exorcist.) My mind told me, “Now is your chance to WITNESS to your new-found faith in God! Tell him that is an evil movie and, as a new Christian, you don’t go to evil movies.” But my mouth just said, “No, I don’t go to movies like that.”

“Why is that?” he asked. My mind again, “Here is your chance! He’s giving you another chance! Tell him about your faith!!!” But my mouth just said, “I don’t know. I just don’t.” And the conversation moved on. I probably asked him to dunk one for me. I was a failure as a Christian.

I SO get Peter. All bluster and conviction gone in a puff at the slightest application of the right peer pressure. Real peer pressure – not the imaginary “our faith is under attack!!!” or we live in the days of “moral relativism where everyone decides for themselves what truth is” or “look out the gays are coming to get your kids!!!” – but REAL pressure. The kind that costs you something. The kind where actual stones might be coming your way. The kind where standing up for Jesus might leave you standing defenseless, all alone. Peter craters. And Jesus knew he would. I SO get Peter.

The one I don’t get is Jesus. He surrenders himself to his captors. He stands defenseless against his accusers. Soon he will suffer at the hands of the soldiers – always soldiers sent to do the actual dirty work of the politicians and religious leaders and the crowds. I don’t “get” Jesus in the sense that I have a hard time understanding such courage. Such love. Such mercy. Such grace.

I don’t get Jesus – but I, and all of us, Peters though we be – get all of the benefits of Jesus’ love. He did all he did, for us.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we are in that courtyard with Peter. We too speak of our convictions and are so quick to defend those that divide, demean, and distort. But to speak of love and to act from a place of love, even at cost to ourselves, that is always the greater challenge for us. To stand up for you by standing up to the world…this is where we falter. Forgive us, inspire us, guide us, use us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Matthew 26:57-68

July 23, 2018

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward.

At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent.

Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.”

Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?” Matthew 26:57-68

Jewish law demanded the testimony of at least two or three witnesses in accusing someone of sin (Deuteronomy 19:15). The irony is delicious. All of the religious leaders present are willing to stick to the letter of the law even as they purposely conspire to kill an innocent and harmless man on trumped up charges. Person after person came forward to accuse Jesus, perhaps to curry favor with the powerful religious leaders, but it wasn’t until someone made a charge against the temple itself that Jesus was condemned.

The trial was a sham. The religious leaders are blinded by their own self-preservation. This was a lynching. A sacrificial death intended to preserve the status quo of power, prestige, and position just as the lynching of thousands of African Americans served to preserve the power structures of white supremacy as well as warning others to stay in line or they might get it too.

I didn’t always see the death of Jesus in this way. I used to see it as a spiritual requirement and a noble death. I bought into the idea of the substitutionary atonement – that Jesus died so that we don’t have to face the penalty of our sins. Almost as if Jesus committed suicide in a noble cause.

I haven’t looked at it that way for a long time now. I have been convinced by the voices who have helped me see the story more clearly. Jesus was rejected, no doubt about that. And we will soon see that it was the religious leaders, the political leaders, and the crowds who each did their part. But Jesus didn’t fight it. He didn’t struggle against his attackers or mount a defense before his accusers. He handed himself over to them.

Jesus was the epitome of non-violent resistance. His motivation was always love. Even love for those who spat in his face and struck him. This is love. This is the love Jesus has for us.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, to listen closely and to walk slowly with you through your arrest and your trial is to be humbled by your courage, touched by your love, and frustrated by the perversity of the powerful who ought to know better. Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don’t care. But we know now that we find our lives not in surrendering ourselves to your love and your ways of being in the world. Give us a measure of your love today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:47-56

July 19, 2018

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. Matthew 26:47-56

He was a troublemaker. He challenged the best thinkers, the governmental leaders, the whole system of human interactions. He claimed no wisdom of his own yet he made the wisest of the wise look foolish. He became a scapegoat for all that was wrong in the changing world in which he lived. He was arrested and tried for causing social unrest, for filling the young with wild ideas, for corrupting his culture. Living four hundred years before Jesus, Socrates died by drinking poison, covering his face as the poison slowly put him to sleep.

Jesus, on the other hand, was lynched.

The religious leaders paid an informant, gathered a posse, stirred up their hatred, and then led them in the night to where Jesus was praying. A sign of friendship and mutuality, a kiss, became a betrayal of the worst kind. The crowd took him, mistreated him, and delivered him to those with the power to see to his death.

One feeble attempt to protect Jesus failed miserably. A slave lost an ear. Perhaps a symbol of the inability to hear the message of Jesus? Matthew doesn’t tell us much. Unlike Luke, Jesus doesn’t reattach the ear. Unlike Matthew, Luke says nothing about the scriptures being fulfilled. From the beginning, followers of Jesus have wrestled with this sudden and tragic turn in the story.

Jesus was lynched. But that was yet to come.

For now, Jesus made it clear both to his captors and to his followers that he would not fight against anyone. He said “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Add this to the list of most often ignored words of Jesus throughout history!

I remember the time when a “gun rights” guy told me that Jesus expected his followers to be armed, that is why his disciple had a sword. I suggested that the sword (knife?) might have been a common tool for everyone, a kitchen accessory, especially for fishermen. That Jesus very explicitly denounces violence as an appropriate response to the world. I think I heard him very well. I don’t think he heard me at all.

The crowd now has Jesus where the religious leaders want him. They don’t know Jesus but they sure know those leaders. They must have figured that they might give them a better deal. As the crowd pushes Jesus into town, the disciples all flee into the night.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, as often as we have heard it, this turn in the story will always hit us between the eyes. The betrayal, the arrest, the shouts of the crowd, the glitter of swords and clubs. Don’t let us turn our heads away from this. Don’t let us stand outside of this story. For we, like all people, live in the tension of trusting you or trusting swords, of following you or fleeing into the safety of the night. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:36-46

July 18, 2018

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.

Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” Matthew 26:36-46

The disciples did the best they could do. It wasn’t very good. They fell asleep. Their bluster faded to black. Without realizing it, they were already slipping toward deserting Jesus.

There is an old hymn often sung during Lent, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” Symbolism and metaphor aside, whether he must or not isn’t the point. Jesus did bear the cross alone. He wasn’t the only one crucified that day, nor was that the only day such heinous things happened, but Jesus was tragically, obviously, sadly, alone. His friends deserted him. But first they fell asleep.

Several times Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake. Each time they fall asleep. They just can’t seem to stay “woke.” An interesting word there. “Woke.” In our day it has taken on a whole new meaning. To be “woke” means that your eyes have been opened. You have come to a new degree of awareness and consciousness of the reality of life for all who suffer under the cultural pressures of divisions like racism and sexism.

It is tough to stay “woke.” It is as tough as it is to swim against the raging current of a river or to run uphill. If, like me, you find yourself among the privileged (I am a tall, white, heterosexual, incredibly handsome male…OK so I embellished that a bit), staying “woke” feels optional. At any point, I can just quit swimming or running. I’ll feel relieved. People around me, people who share privileged positions, will feel relieved. No more pressure. No more pointing out the obvious. No more pushing against comfort zones. We all fall asleep again.

Jesus stayed “woke”. He was driven, not by culture or tradition or self preservation, but by a steadfast devotion to living the will of God. Even if that took him to a place of utter forsakenness, abandoned by all. Even God.

Following him means following him. Again he calls us to stay “woke”, even as our eyelids grow heavy.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, when the way is hard and the path unclear, give us the trust that you are carrying us toward where you want us to be. Give encouragement and strength to those with the courage to stand against all that stands against your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:31-35

July 17, 2018

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.”

Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples. Matthew 26:31-35

And so said all the disciples” – and then they all deserted him anyway. But we’re not there yet. We know what eventually happens. We know the end of the story. But Matthew hasn’t taken us there yet. For now, we accept the words of the earnest disciples at face value. They promise to stay with Jesus.

It is hard to read the gospel stories with fresh eyes, to hear the Jesus story as if for the first time. But isn’t this how they are intended to be heard? Not to be scoured for every textual tidbit but to elicit a reaction, to move people, to “do Jesus” to people? But if we could go back to the first time we ever heard this story we would be right there with the disciples.

They have followed Jesus, thus far, through thick and thin. They too have been criticized and challenged. They have had their own hardships along the way. Their own disappointments. They left everything behind when they got up to follow Jesus. They too have made sacrifices. Yet they are still with him.

If we heard this story for the first time we would admire the disciples for their courage, their commitment, their dedication. And we would completely miss the deeper point – they were following Jesus because they hoped to get something out of him. They were following Jesus like a celebrity posse. Just being close to greatness made them feel just a little greater. And just imagine how great it will be when he sets up shop, raises his army, builds his palace, and rules the world!

But that night at dinner they weren’t thinking about any of that. They were just nervous about being in Jerusalem. But don’t worry Jesus, we’re right there with you.

I hate to admit this but there is little doubt that my own discipleship, such as it has been, has been largely self-serving. When I came to a new place in my faith back in college, I have no doubt there was a part of me that wanted my life to be better, and that getting back into God’s good graces was my ticket to insider status, VIP treatment, and earthly success. In far too many ways, I have probably been chasing something like that my entire life. In that, I’m not alone.

No, the disciples would prove not to be super heroes. They would prove to be, just like us, cracked pots of human foibles, failures, and follies. But Jesus saw something in them that they couldn’t yet see in themselves – the glory of God that sparks within every human being and all creation. Like a sculptor looking at a pile of scrap iron and thinking “I can do something with this” the good news is that, while the disciples couldn’t keep their promise, Jesus kept his.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, in our following we often wander, we falter, we drop into the ditch. Remind us again and again that it isn’t always about us or up to us – that while we struggle in our following, you are constantly pulling us along. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:26-30

July 16, 2018

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Matthew 26:26-30

Staple foods are the basic elements of peoples’ diets that are widely available, store well, and provide much of the people’s basic nutritional requirements. When I grew up, potatoes were number one on the list. At least it seemed that way as most dinners began with a trip to the scary burlap bags in the basement to get a pot of potatoes to boil. The first time I heard Bubba extol the glories of shrimp in “Forrest Gump” I realized that anyone from North Dakota could probably do the same with potatoes.

Bread and wine were staples in Jesus’ day. Bread was as plentiful as wheat fields. Unleavened bread stored a long time. While it had limited nutritional value it did have that one thing that my mom appreciated – it filled you up. It was better than nothing. And wine, likewise, was as plentiful as grapes. The alcohol content was its preservative. Everybody drank wine. Some, too much.

Both bread and wine had deep roots in Jewish memory banks. Wine stretched all the way back to Noah’s vineyard (also a lesson in drinking too much too quickly) and bread to the manna in the wilderness that sustained the lives of God’s people. It is no wonder that both bread and wine made their way into the spiritual and worship lives of the people of Israel. Both were signs of God’s provision, God’s generosity, the wonders of God’s creation.

Thus, when Jesus picked up the bread and then the wine at the Passover meal he celebrated with the disciples, it was a “normal” thing for him to do. It was expected. It was tradition. But what wasn’t at all normal, nor expected, was the manner in which Jesus personalized it. Jesus went off script in saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” I figure that the quizzical disciples had no idea what he was talking about. They, unlike Jesus, didn’t see the cross just around the corner.

Fast forward now to the other side of the cross and the resurrection. Jesus is no longer physically present with his disciples. All they have left are his promises and their memories. Their dinner tables still include, as they always have, the basics of bread and wine. Very quickly it occurred to them, in eating and drinking, they were remembering that last meal with Jesus. They saw him present in the bread and the wine. They remembered him. They remembered his words about a new relationship, a new covenant, about the forgiveness of sins. It is no wonder that bread and wine now found their place as a staple of their worship life.

Every time I am privileged to repeat those words of Jesus over bread and wine I am reminded that – just like my mother called us to gather around the dinner table – so too now the body of Christ gathers again around the table. We are in the same space. We come together only to be sent back out. And just like our family dinner tables, we are fed far more than food.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord that you created such a simple way to bring us together around you, around your promises, around your presence. We confess that we, in our desires to get things right, or our fears that we veer off track, make that meal far more complicated than it needs to be. Bread, wine, your words, your presence, strangers become meal companions. It is enough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:14-25

July 13, 2018

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.” Matthew 26:14-25

Certain names live in infamy – Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Benedict Arnold – but often we forget that such characters don’t emerge in a vacuum. Judas didn’t come out of nowhere. Healthy systems produce healthy leaders. Judas was a product of the system that raised him and taught him what it meant to be an adult.

From our point of view, we look back all the way to Genesis 12 for the promise and purpose of our forebears, the people of Israel. From that very beginning, the call was crystal clear. God would bless God’s people and they would bless all the peoples of the world. Like electricity, God’s love would flow forth, go to and through God’s people, connect with those they touched, and return to its source in God. This is the only plan there is. It is written into the universe.

But, like electricity, all it takes is a switch, or a break in the wire, and you’ve lost the power of your connection. Enough of a break and the entire grid – the system itself – breaks down.

Follow the line back through Judas and the Bible teaches us about how it is that people abuse their freedom to be responsible. They exchange worship of, and obedience to, the Creator in exchange for worship of, and obedience to, their own creations. They forget the Source of their blessings and come to think of themselves as the end all and be all of life. They elevate their own tribe at the expense of all others. The system feeds on itself until it consumes itself. Human sin interwoven into human systems.

Judas was raised in an age, beleaguered as they were, when Jews clung to their identity as special people, chosen people. He was raised with a faith that pitted his good people against their evil enemies – Romans, Samaritans, Gentiles everywhere. A faith which said that the current evil age would find consummation when God would act to set his people free to take their rightful place at the top of the pyramid. Judas was raised in every age. Including our own.

For Judas, Jesus was the worst kind of disappointment. He didn’t deliver the goods. Judas didn’t see the breadth of Jesus’ love and concern as Jesus blessed rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, the leaders of synagogues and the leaders of Roman soldiers. Or perhaps he did and he resented it. Either way, Judas was ready to make a deal. He sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver.

All people, of every age, in every culture and human system, do well not to cast Judas and the other infamous characters in history as tragic accidents but as reflections of the darkness in their own beliefs and expectations. Recasting God in our own image never ends well.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, our sins betrays you. We chase after the gods who are not gods. We choose selfishness over service. We forget about the common good as we sink deeper into greed. We take for granted what a blessing it is to be invited to your table. The table where there is room, and plenty, for all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:6-13

July 11, 2018

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”

But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Matthew 26:6-13

Typing these words feels like a privilege this morning. I am helping Jesus’ prediction of the future come true. One more time we are remembering the woman with the “alabaster jar of very costly ointment.”

The woman is unnamed. We don’t know anything about her. We don’t know what moved her to get that jar of ointment, where she got it, how much she spent to get it. All we know, from this story, is what she did. She anointed Jesus’ head with oil. Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one.

Simon, the owner of the house where this happened, does have a name. Simon. Simon is the English version of the Hebrew name Shimon. Shimon comes from the Hebrew word Sh’ma which means “to listen, or hear and obey.” The most famous use of the word is probably in Deut. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” where the Hebrew word translated “hear” is sh’ma. Simon listens to Jesus…the other disciples get angry with him.

Simon also has another name. A name he didn’t choose. A name of which he might very well have been deeply ashamed. Simon the leper. Say that aloud a time or two. Pay attention to how it sounds in your ears. Remember how lepers were treated in Jesus’ day – feared, ostracized, misunderstood. They weren’t fit for community. Yet Jesus finds a place in his home. Jesus goes there on purpose. Simon the leper is also remembered every time the story of the woman who anointed Jesus is told.

And the disciples get angry. They have a better idea. The story tells us that they think the ointment ought to have been sold and the money given to the poor. It doesn’t tell us how they felt about spending time with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. I do wonder what they thought about that…

Jesus is also right in acknowledging that there will always be poor people. But for Jesus, this is not an “either/or” situation. It is always a “both/and.” There is time, space, and plenty for honoring and worshipping God and there is time, space, and plenty for alleviating the suffering of the poor. In fact, these do go together. For truly honoring and glorifying God leads to alleviating the suffering of the poor, finding a home among the homeless, sharing a table with the outcast or God isn’t honored or glorified in the first place.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, like Simon, we all carry the scars of our lives even if they are covered up and out of sight. Like the disciples, we often think we have a better idea of what you ought to do or what ought be done in your name. Help us be like the unnamed woman who did the best she could with what she had to demonstrate her love and submission to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 26:1-5

July 10, 2018

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” Matthew 26:1-5

Matthew is now turning a corner and leading us, with Jesus, to the climax of his story. Jesus knows what is coming. But what does this mean? The easy answer is that Jesus is both human and divine – his divine nature knows what the future holds, his human nature is willing to walk into his destiny. Jesus has to die so that we can be forgiven. We are along for the ride.

That’s the easy answer. The common answer. The answer that lives in the popular imaginations of people. It is the substitutionary theory of the atonement. It is neat. Clean. It doesn’t involve getting our own hands dirty. It happened. We know it. We believe it. We accept it. We’re in the club.

The only problem is that our neat little theory, as old and as popular as it might be, doesn’t take the story nearly as seriously as it ought to. It papers over it. So, over the next several weeks we are going to walk through the story slowly. As we let it sink it, it will strike us like never before. As it ought to.

The text says that Jesus headed to Jerusalem, knowing what was to come. Whatever earthly fears he might have had, whatever tendencies toward self-preservation might have been inside of him, he turned to walk toward Jerusalem. Among his virtues was courage. The courage to do the right thing. The courage to not back down. The courage that is driven by love, not hate, not greed, not power. The kind of courage, and the kind of cause, that terrifies the power structures of this world, and therefore, the kind of courage that must be stopped.

This year has marked 50 years since the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. Both men brought good news to the poor. Both men spoke truth to the powerful that the powerless deserved justice. Both men changed over their lives. They evolved. They both became, in the eyes of the world, more radical. They needed to be stopped.

Abraham Lincoln was killed on Good Friday in 1865. He too came to see life differently along the way. He too fell at the feet of the powerful forces who resented what Lincoln had done, and continued to do, on behalf of the powerless.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed because of his willingness to stand up to a diabolical government that had twisted and coerced even the religious leaders into an evil vision of racial purity and German exceptionalism, dragging the whole world into war.

The text says that the chief priests and elders “gathered in the palace of the high priest.” Of course the high priest lived in a palace (while Jesus had nowhere to lay his head.) They gathered and  “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” Of course they did. They recognized the threat Jesus posed to them. But they wanted to be careful lest “there may be a riot among the people” Even in planning an assassination, all they cared about was their base, their blind followers as they blindly led them toward shouts of “Crucify him!”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, heal our blindness. Open our ears. Steel our resolved to follow you to and through the cross, even as it calls for our own surrender, our own letting go, our own repentance for our complicity with the powerful. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 25:41-46

July 9, 2018

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46

The interesting thing about this story – and the tragic thing about this story – is that everyone is surprised. Those who did the right thing in their lives by those who most needed it were unaware that they were doing anything significant or special. And those who failed to do the right thing had no idea what the right things to do were, and therefore no idea of their own failure. Everyone is surprised….in the story.

But we aren’t living in that story. It is a story that has been told to us. We are on THIS side of it. And this isn’t just any old story. Jesus is telling this story. And he is telling it right before he steps into the last days of his earthly life. While I think we would agree that every word that Jesus teaches us is important, there is something about this one that strikes at the heart of his message, his purpose, and his expectations of his disciples.

We should also notice that there is nothing particularly new about anything that Jesus teaches here. Consider Isaiah 42:6-7, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

If there is anything new at all it is that this is the sort of stuff that Jesus actually DID. He didn’t have much time or patience for picayune matters of religiosity…but he always had time for broken, outcast, hurting, or hungry people. Everyone knows that! Atheists know that!

The scandal of the Christian faith these days (all days?) is how it is that so many have forgotten the simple words of Jesus. The poor? A bunch of welfare queens and deadbeats who ought to go out and get jobs. The hungry? Cut food stamps, it is a waste of hard-earned taxpayer money. Those in prison? They shouldn’t have crossed the border in the first place. The lonely outcasts? Don’t even talk to me about gays or lesbians or transgendered persons or any of the other deviants who suffer and seek to be seen, heard, and accepted.

Do people really believe and say those things? Do Christian people really say those things? Of course, some do. Even some Christians do. Sometimes it seems as if they have little else to say. And they seemingly have no idea how un-Christlike such beliefs are.

No wonder, when asked about religious affiliations, “Nones” are the fastest growing group in our country. It is NOT about the loss of objective truth, or the loss of belief in the teachings in the Bible. It is about the disconnect between the message of Jesus – a message of radical love, inclusivity, basic decency, justice for all – and the messages of the followers of Jesus who have gotten far off track.

Without even realizing it.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, wake us up to the reality of our beliefs and actions. Open our eyes to see the world around us as you see it, the people around us as you see them, ourselves in the mirror as you see us. Open our hearts, our minds, our spirits, that we might follow you, rather than twisting you into our own image. In Jesus’ name. Amen.