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So what’s the miracle?

My sister sent out Easter cards this year with a photograph on the front. It was of four of us sisters posing for a picture. We were dressed in our Easter finery, which included spring coats with matching hats, white gloves and patent leather shoes. The ensemble was laid out on the eve of Easter with great anticipation. We might wear the coat on a cool Sunday after Easter. We would occasionally pull the pretty dress out of the closet for a special occasion. But never again did we put all those special elements together for one particular outing. When Easter is over the dress is dry-cleaned and the bonnets are put away. The baskets are emptied of their eggs and stored in the attic for another year because Easter is over.

Or is it?

Melissa Fay Green, in her book The Temple Bombing, wrote about the events surrounding the hate-crime against the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. The temple was damaged by dynamite in 1958. The very next Friday, the shell of a building was filled to overflowing as congregants met to worship in the carnage. Their rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, looked out over the packed crowd and said, after a lengthy pause, “So, this is what it takes to get you to temple?”

What does resurrection look like? Does new life come out of dead places only one Sunday a year? Or are we Easter people who continually watching for signs of God’s renewal among us?

In the Book of Acts we encounter a description of a miracle that happened in the Temple a short while after Jesus’ resurrection. A man born with a crippling condition is deposited by his friends at his usual begging spot: at the entrance to the Temple called the Beautiful Gate. His disability stood in stark contrast to all that was considered beautiful in first century Israel. He asks Peter and John for a few coins, a request he has made to countless pilgrims for a lifetime. But instead of tossing him a few coins, the men stop to look intently at him. Instead of money that could by a crust of bread, they offer the social outcast something better: “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” No sooner do they invoke the powerful name of Jesus and the man’s ankles and legs are strengthened. They help him to his feet and he jumps about like a victorious athlete after winning the entire tournament!

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Instead of a hand out they give him a hand up. This healing gives the man the possibility of earning a living. Now he can move about freely and enter his world, no longer sidelined by sanctified discrimination. We can imagine the energy that surrounds that scene and the crowd it drew. Folks excitedly recount the miracle they just witnessed. With mouths agape, all stare at the man they recognized from their daily trips into the Temple. The man who was never before seen at eye level now dances among them, singing God’s praises.

People are drawn to sacred spaces after momentous events. When supernatural moments challenge our world view, we are drawn to a divine power. We want an interpretation of what we’ve witnessed. Remember how folks drove around on the evening of 9-11 looking for a worship service to attend? When our human framework for interpreting life has been blown to smithereens, we want the consolation of Someone more powerful than our best friends or enemies. The people who gathered at the Beautiful Gate were shaken because something stunning just disrupted their expectations for a normal day. The crowd expanded as folks hungered for another dramatic show of power. Instead, they got a sermon. In fact, the main event appears to have been the message and not the healing.

The lectionary text for this past Sunday builds on this miraculous healing with an interpretation. Today I’m asked to deliver a sermon…on a sermon! This was Peter’s second sermon in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. His text had to address the divinity of Christ. Those who believed that a crucified man was the Son of God had a monumental task to convince others of this unlikely truth. Undoubtedly there were those in the crowd who cried out not so long before, “Crucify Him!” Peter tries to convince these oglers that they made a grave mistake in crucifying Jesus. This would have been an unlikely message to teach to a throng of voyeurs who simply wanted another act to the magic show!

In his sermon, Peter unpacks the errors in their evaluation of this remarkable event at the Beautiful Gate. Thomas Long lists three crucial mistakes. First, the onlookers misunderstood the source of the healing. They assumed John and Peter possessed the power to straighten out this man’s legs. We easily fall into idolatry of the healers in our society. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have an impressive fan base on their respective television shows. We spend money on supplements that promise youthfulness. We listen to podcasts that give us hope for a new way of life. We buy tickets to hear speakers who divulge secrets about magical cures. Like the hemorrhaging woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ coat, we grab at the panacea offered by our community healers, sometimes traveling long distances for the cure. John and Peter quickly set the crowd straight by saying that it’s not about them. Rather, this healing has everything to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God they worshiped regularly in the temple was the one true healer.

Second, the crowd misunderstood the nature of life with God. They assumed that brokenness was the norm and healing the stunning exception. They believed that disappointment was the expectation and joy the surprise! Long writes, “Life is perceived to be barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be an incredible exception to the norm.”

Finally, the mob thought the healing required only a response of amazement. In his sermon, Peter urged them to repent. I suspect repentance was the furthest thing from their hearts as they watched the lame man jumping for joy! Events that fill us with wonder are invitations to reflect at a deeper level about who we are and what we’ve come to expect of our world. Maybe we need to confess that we limit God by our lowly expectations. We are surprised when our prayers are answered powerfully. Would our spouse be saddened if we found it highly unusual when they did something wonderful for us? Of course they would! What do we expect from those we love? Do we have room for joy or are we predisposed to pouting?

In the frenzy of a miraculous healing, Peter teaches this crowd about Jesus. A couple of times he talks about how they rejected Him. This is insider language because Peter’s denial of Jesus used that same word. Out of the pain of his own betrayal, Peter argues with this crowd what it means to be faithful. He assures them that there is still time to repent. Could you preach to a mob who was responsible for the murder of your dear friend? Could you offer them the gift of forgiveness? Peter affirms that the power to heal came not from them but was found in the name of Jesus. God has been at work all along and the power of the crucified Christ continues to effect miraculous changes in their world. Peter asks these awestruck believers to repent—to change their minds about who Jesus of Nazareth was and is! Peter preaches that those who accepted that Jesus as the Messiah would experience times of unimaginable refreshing. This miracle was a clear indicator of the kind of world God created for us and continually restores through Christ Jesus. For those who define their worth through shades of shame and guilt, Jesus’ resurrection confronts them with the reality of forgiveness. God is willing to wipe away the entire record of our misdeeds but we have to be willing to receive that gift.

I wonder what we have learned about how we are to live as Easter people? How did Peter’s sermon work on our forebears and how does it speak us into action today? Do we expect to see double rainbows out our windows in the calm of a Spring evening like we did last week? Do we anticipate the greening of the earth each Spring and for bulbs to courageously raise their blooms above ground even as snow threatens? Do we trust that rifts between family members can be repaired or do we construct higher emotional walls to keep them eternally at bay? When we walk through the doors of our sanctuary, do we expect to meet God or do we simply want to hum a few bars of our favorite hymn?

Annie Dillard challenges our expectations of worship in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk: “On the whole, I don’t find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

In what ways are we still resisting resurrection? Are we packing away our faith in God’s resurrecting power even as our Easter finery gets dry-cleaned for the next grand event? Do we cling to favorite sins that are viewed as normative in our communities? Can we embrace the opportunity at new life or do we prefer the usual combination of guilt and relapse? Are we so worried about doing everything perfectly that we sit safely on the sidelines doing nothing? Maybe we like the predictability to how things happen now that we reject new visions, new people, and new challenges for a rewarding life?

The people at the Beautiful Gate of the beloved Jewish Temple assembled to ogle a miracle but got a sermon instead. Peter delivered a mandate to expect new life to come out of dead places. In our own congregation we celebrated tremendously good news this past week. A woman who was taken into surgery to have a malignant vertebrae replaced was given a clean bill of health. The doctor went into the procedure expecting her spine to be porous, like swiss cheese, because of the cancer. When he opened her up he found that everything was…fine….healthy….normal. He closed her up and told the anxiously awaiting family that he has never seen anything like it. So what’s the miracle here?!

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

Do we expect resurrection on the Sundays after Easter? Do we believe there’s power in Jesus’ name? Do we expect disappointment or joy? Times of trial or moments of refreshing? Ongoing worry or dancing with paraplegics? Can we let go of our pessimism to embrace an abundant vision of reality?

Christ has risen and is moving powerfully among us…now and always.

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Throwing a Fit

Parishioners have gotten to know my dog, Hunter, since we’ve been doing our worship services online. He typically likes to add his voice to my sermon each week. He is a beloved part of our household and we are protective of him as he ages. He gets up slowly because his back legs are feeble but he still protects us. He no longer hears the doorbell when it rings. He doesn’t see well but is still able to catch food mid-air much of the time. He devours the treats we slip his way, belying his priorities.

When Hunter is given a savory bone from our dinner table, he wanders our estate, looking for a suitable hiding place. We know when he’s in this state of worship because he whines. He walks around our house with the bone in his mouth, looking tormented as he struggles to find the most secure nook. Garrett’s side of the closet is a favorite spot. But he’s also taken it outside, even burying it in the snow. I’m amazed at how he can sniff out a bone in the snow on a bitter cold day. He trots in victoriously like a King preparing to count his money. We joked that he’s a little bit like Peter at the time of the transfiguration. Perhaps you remember that Peter was so stunned by the glory on the mountain top that he wants to build a booth or pitch a tent. He wants to encamp for days to hold onto that sacred experience. We build a booth when we take seventy pictures of a breathtaking mountain only to discover that none of them measure up to the lived reality. In fact, we may have diminished our experience by trying to capture it through a lens rather than just living it. Hunter wants to build a booth to house his bone. He hangs onto the precious moment of unimaginable blessing in case we never toss him a bone again! He finds a protected place and relaxes–but only for awhile! He checks his bank balance by digging it up the next day then wanders the earth looking for another safety deposit box. You can never be too careful!

In John’s Gospel the order to the events in Jesus’ life is different from that of the other Gospel writers. In John 2 we read the prophetic story of Jesus chasing the moneychangers off the temple grounds. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this disruptive event happens in the last week of Jesus’ life. In John’s Gospel this bold act shows up as Jesus is kicking off his ministry. We have to wonder why John would place that defiant moment at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Any Jew approaching the Jerusalem Temple would do so with awe. They would have a keen sense of belonging in this place that hosted the deepest spiritual moments of their ancestors. It was always a privilege to be in this sanctuary yet Jesus disrupted the scene by throwing a fit. The temple was an amazing structure. Herod the Great had tried to curry favor with the Jews by starting a renovation of the temple in 20 BC. 47 years later, Jesus showed up and spoke of tearing down the structure. The Jews within earshot of this preposterous claim were incredulous: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?“ I can hear their snide laughter.

The Jews were expected to sacrifice from their personal lives to keep the temple in good condition. They gave money to support the priests whose lives were dedicated to the spiritual well-being of their people. Money was allotted to help widows and orphans, a charitable outreach unequalled by other religions. When Jews entered the temple grounds, they found themselves in the Court of the Gentiles. Temple insiders authorized these non-Jews to be present in a sort of religious flea market. They sold animals to the pilgrims which served as their offering. There was a secondary need for having these merchant services on the temple grounds. Each individual paid a temple tax. Roman coins were not accepted in the Temple because they bore the image of rulers not unlike dear Abe on every one of our pennies. Those faces were understood to be graven images, thus violating the second commandment. The Roman coins had to be exchanged for Jewish currency. Banking and trading was not intrinsically evil but it had gotten out of hand. The money changers charged unfair rates of exchange. The price for animals was high, taking advantage of weary pilgrims who needed to make a suitable offering. The principle of supply and demand was brazenly on display in the Court of the Gentiles.  Jesus saw that it was a racket and threw a righteous fit!

Most images of Jesus portrayed in artwork display serenity. I’ve heard some people say that He is depicted as a “wimp.” If that’s the image you have in your mind, this story will confront you. As early as twelve years of age, Jesus claimed the temple as His Father’s house. This was heretical language. Knowing God with such intimacy, Jesus was incensed when people used the sanctuary for their own gain. It’s the classic tale of the teenager throwing a big party in her parents’ lovely home when they leave for the weekend. It’s all fun until the guests abuse the house because they don’t care about it. The girl has to oust her guests and repair the damage before the parents return. Jesus defended God’s honor by protecting the temple as a worship space. But the Jews turned it into Mall of America, attempting to buy their salvation for a fee. Jesus turned that bad theology on its head!

The story asks a question: What is Church? John features this story early in Jesus’ ministry to call out idolatry of place. He decries the inverted values by which we worship gods of our own making. We want to preserve precious moments as treasure. We refuse to relinquish them so they interfere with God‘s will for our lives. Like the Apostle Peter–and my dog Hunter–we want to build a booth, assemble a Shutterfly book, and buy a souvenir to mark an event. Time and again we discover that nothing equals the experience itself. Often we miss the beauty of the moment in our fervent effort at containing it.

A Mainline church in New York City owned a high-rise building across the street from their sanctuary. A developer asked to buy their unused space. A total of 60 stories, they sold twenty stories to the developer for five million dollars. This seemed like a win-win proposal but actually created great consternation. The congregation was not unified when deciding how to spend this unexpected windfall. Comprised of Wall Street executives and educated city folks, some of the membership wisely suggested they invest it! Great idea! Other people said that it goes against the nature of Christ’s Church to sit on piles of money. Their suggestion was to use it to support a homeless shelter. A compromise was reached: they split the income in half. Two and one half million dollars was invested and two and one half million dollars was spent to create shelter for some of the homeless population in that city. It really was an argument about idolatry. Do we deify our facility, putting the beautification of a facility above the calling to love the least of these? At what point is it irresponsible to give money to missions if our building is falling into disrepair? There has to be a balance, doesn’t there?

I wonder if Jesus is cleansing the Church in this time of COVID? Is He perhaps asking us to examine our priorities and be ready to change? Hulett Gloer writes, “The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its missions. Soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and money changers.” Is Jesus at work as we isolate at home?

My last morning in Jerusalem was spent in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This grand structure is built over the site of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. It is a massive compound that houses some 25 different sanctuaries. Each one is operated by a different Christian denomination. Each jealously guards their own space. Each cleric tries to out-bellow the other in worship. Before I left on my trip, a friend recommended that I soak in the cacophony of worship noises on my visit. I wandered from one unique sanctuary into another. Crusader crosses mark the basement walls from one thousand years ago. Sadly, this sacred space has become a breeding ground for territorial Christians who guard their own sacred turf like my dog protects his bone.

I have no doubt that Christ is worshiped in that holy space but there is a selfishness that cannot be ignored. Each night the door to this holy complex is locked. Guess who holds the key? For generations the same Muslim family has been entrusted with it because the Christians can’t trust each other. Every night a member of that Muslim family locks the door and re-opens it in the morning. Christians have built a spectacular sort of booth over a holy site, wanting to contain it. Christians from all over the world worship in that space. But I wonder what Jesus might do if He entered through those doors today?

We’ve had to explore what it means to be a church without a building this year. It has been disorienting. Not only have we lost our space but we can’t even gather together safely. After a year of transformed worship, we are anxious to get back in the building. We are ready to serve as a shelter for homeless families. Our youth director worked alongside our high school students to transform the youth room into a space that is both safe and comfortable for meetings. I can’t wait for them to gather and grow their faith in that appealing room. We are tailoring our sanctuary to suit the needs of a streaming audience. We have discovered that the Internet does not readily cooperate in a building that was constructed in the 1870s! It takes money to get good cell coverage. It takes money to have good lighting for a streaming product. It takes a good camera and a skilled person behind the camera. Part of our church budget is needed to make the technological improvements so that our sanctuary allows folks to join our worship from their homes. We anticipate that expanded congregation even when we can safely gather again. Do we idolize our building and insist it remain the same as it was a generation ago? Or do we adapt so that the Spirit of the living God can continue to be experienced by a broader congregation?

When Jesus made a scene in the temple courts, he was angry at those who took advantage of the faithful for their own gain. Jesus grieved that His people had lost sight of true worship. I hear Him crying out, “You’re missing the point! Forget the success plan you’ve carefully tailored to earn your way into heaven! Get on your face and rest in God‘s presence. Be in awe of God‘s power. Bask in the reality that God notices you! Don’t obsess over shiny stars by your name on the attendance ledger.”

Friends, with the renewed promise of resurrection, lay down your burdens in this long siege called COVID. Let go of your sadness, anger, and frustration.  Don’t’ feel like you have to bury God’s love. No one can steal it from you. Don’t hoard it, like it’s a limited commodity. Don’t try to out-preach another believer. God needs all of our voices. God has enough love for you and me and them, all of them, whoever they are! So lay it down in Jesus’ name, all of it! Amen!

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This IS Church!

I wonder what you’ve been watching this past year? I bet you have a sharpened opinion now on where you find the best programming: Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Youtube, Acorn…. The list could go on and on! We’ve had some time on our hands since last Easter and we’ve filled some of that time with programs. Even though I like to finish what I start, there are some series we started in our household but never finished. They weren’t worth our time or emotional investment. In the past month my son and I discovered a program that was touching, worthy even of an Easter sermon! It’s called Last Chance U and the particular episode focuses on a coach at East Los Angeles College. It’s a documentary that celebrates a triumph of the underdog. At this community college, a basketball coach by the name of John Mosley transformed a team into winners and put their modest school on the map!

Mosley had been a successful basketball player and coach in several different settings before accepting the part-time position at East LA College. He took a significant pay-cut even though he and his wife are raising three children. His wife supported this vocational move because she understood his sense of calling: to give underprivileged young men a chance to escape poverty and aimlessness. He brought with him significant basketball skills and a seemingly endless supply of energy. Perhaps the greatest gift he offered to these young men was his Christian faith.

The guys on the Huskies team learned to expect sermons from him. His half-time pep talks in the locker room were impassioned and sometime angry but they often morphed into prayer. The players closed their eyes when he prayed in Jesus’ name and headed back onto the court with the assurance that a power greater than their coach would fight for them. I’m surprised that the academic institution has allowed him to be so vocal about his Christian perspective. Perhaps he was granted such latitude because of the great success he has brought to their team. Maybe the administrators allow him to throw out scripture passages as motivation because they’ve been on the receiving end of his compassion. They have witnessed the broad capacity he possesses to love others. In the series we meet one of the star players who never had a dad in his life but was very close to his mom. When she developed advanced cancer, her son found team practices and games to be his safe space. As the mom lay dying, she told Coach Mosley that she was entrusting her son to him. In one of the sideline interviews, Mosley says with a smile that he will always be there for that young man—always. At the end of the season this orphaned student, along with eight other players on the team, was given a full scholarship to play for a 4-year university. Offering his players the opportunity for a better life is central to Mosley’s mission.

In one of the locker room scenes, Mosley is giving one of his boisterous pep talks. Then he quiets it down and asks, “You know what we’re going to do now?” One of the young men mutters, “Go to church?” The players knew when their coach was going to launch into a sermon, pray, or recite scripture. But Mosley replied, “We’re not going to go to church. This IS Church!”

What is Church? Have we been out of church? Or have we been going all along? Is it a building with stained glass windows, pews, and a bell we ring into the community? Or have we learned, in the past year, that Church happens in more ways than we ever imagined possible? Where is Church? Is it found where a crowd of believers gather to sing hymns and bow their heads in prayer? Or does it happen in our homes when we set out communion elements and share in the feast remotely with other believers? Does Church happen when we sit on our beds, wearing our pajamas, drinking our coffee while we sing hymns at the top of our lungs–by ourselves?

We have discovered that new life comes from unlikely places in the past year. Christ has been at work in each of us so that we could affirm at unlikely times and unusual places: This IS Church!

A couple of weeks ago a man stopped by the our church looking for some financial assistance. We sat at a distance from each other in the sanctuary so that he could tell me of his struggles. His mother had just died and he needed gas money to make it to Indiana. He needed to bury her and close out her life there. He told me he had hoped to move her near him but she became sick and died before he could do that. He confessed his emptiness. He missed his mom and wished they had more time together in recent years. He started to talk about his faith and I realized that he needed a pastor. He asked me a few questions and showcased a great knowledge of the Bible in our reflection. As light streamed through our stained glass windows and danced around the pew where we sat, he expressed his amazement that God gave up the beloved Son, Jesus, for us! He grew quiet and hung his head, reflecting on this miraculous gift. That very morning I had stopped at CITGO to pick up some more gas cards. I wanted to have a few available just in case someone stopped by. I told him his timing was just right. We both knew that God orchestrated our meeting. As I sent him off with a couple of gas cards and a prayer, I thought to myself, “This IS Church!”

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

We have been to Church in a lot of new settings this past year!

Church happened when I went to the local motel to pay for several nights lodging. It was for a couple who have been living out of their car. COVID cost them their jobs. They both have health challenges and and rely on an unreliable vehicle. I talked with the woman over the phone, asking about their circumstances and offering words of encouragement. When I told her we would be able to pay for several nights, she wept. After the phone call, I stopped by the motel with my church checkbook. I met with the owner who is of a different religion. We have worked together before, across cultures and faiths, to put a temporary roof over the heads of individuals who find themselves in desperate circumstances. Our congregation—this Body of Christ in Rockford, Michigan—have supported a pastor’s discretionary fund. Their compassion brought Church to these two women who had lost hope. In the modest shelter of a Colonial Motel room, we offered them resurrection. We assured them through our actions that there is always new life in Christ. That morning I came in to the woman’s message on our church answering machine: “You’ve helped so many people and that is a really beautiful thing. But if you can help us, we’ve been living in our car…”

How good it is that word is out in our community that we can be counted on for respite in troubled times.

When have you brought Church to someone who wasn’t sure they dared to hope for new life? There’s been so much bad news this past year. Even now, the COVID numbers in Michigan are headlining in national news. I wondered if we would have to stay virtual after all our planning to reunite in person—even if at a distance and masked! We repeatedly hear news of shootings in our towns and cities. In California a disgruntled employee turned a gun on folks he knew. The price of his anger: four deaths and another shock to our nation. Rage simmers just below the surface for many people. The prophet Isaiah ministered during the time that the Israelites were overtaken by the Babylonians and marched far from home as slaves. After half a century of servitude, God opened the way for the people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, why say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

When have you been the bearer of good news to a people who have come to expect only disappointment? When has Church happened on somebody’s doorstep, by a hospital bed, in a Zoom conversation with people you missed? When have you coached someone not just on how to play a sport or master an instrument? When have you coached someone into discipleship in the name of the resurrected Christ?

One of our members, who has been tested as a frontline worker this past year, was recently approached at the workplace by a young colleague. He said to her, “You’re the only person around here who goes to church. Why do you go?” Nearly twenty years his senior, she told him, “My faith keeps me safe and gives me the strength I need to deal with my struggles.” This person isn’t preachy but she lives her faith. She mentions church in her conversations which is code for, “I’m a Christian—if you want to talk faith!”

After a year of confronting our mortality, people are hungering to talk about eternal matters. About truth. About a God who loves us for who we are. Church happens in the most unlikely places when we invite Jesus to use us. Church happens when we dare to tell someone we will pray for them. Church happens when we invite someone to go to a worship service with us or send them a scripture verse that offers encouragement.  

George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland stated, “I simply argue that the Cross should be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. That is where church-men ought to be and what church-men ought to be about.”  (Beyond Playing Church: A Christ-Centered Environment for Church Renewal by Michael Slaughter. Anderson, IN: Bristol House, 1994, p. 69.)

In the darkest times, we experience new life in Jesus. I asked folks on our church Facebook page what blessings have surprised them during this COVID year. Guess what? Folks’ answers assured me that God is with us! Church happened! We found gifts amidst the COVID carnage! Maybe you can relate to some of these answers: I learned to appreciate the little things. Slow down. Quality time with my kids—maybe I missed something in the past because I didn’t have time to really watch them grow and learn. Folks from all over the world joined in our worship and Bible Study. Random acts of kindness. My sense of community deepened. Creativity abounded, like sewing and cooking and bread baking and woodworking! I added new and let go of old. I changed priorities. Deep conversations with my spouse and family. We understand each other better! Reading. Long walks. An appreciation for nature…and for quiet.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene headed to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. When she discovered that the tomb was empty, she ran to the place where the fearful disciples were hiding. Peter and John raced back with her, mystified by the empty tomb as well. They returned to their hideout, leaving Mary alone. She was unable to leave without the assurance that her beloved Jesus was safely at rest. She worshiped Him even in death. We read that when He revealed Himself to her, she fell at His feet and wept. This is Church. Mary encountered the risen Christ and couldn’t get enough of Him. He had a mission for her. His resurrection was not simply for her. It was for the disciples—and the world. He told her to share the good news of His resurrection with the beloved disciples who had abandoned Him in death.

“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of one bringing good news…” I can only imagine how effortlessly Mary covered the distance between the tomb and the disciples’ hide-out. She is the very first missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ. When she burst through their doors, she cried out, “I have seen the Lord…”

This IS Church when we attest to the ways that Christ is alive within us. This IS Church when we act with kindness to those who have lost hope. This IS Church when we encourage the gifts of a stranger or offer financial help. This IS Church when we break bread at our dining room table, fully confident that we meet the risen Christ in that meal. This IS Church when we assure a hospitalized family member of our love on speaker phone because we can’t be with them. This IS Church when we help a friend move in the thick of a pandemic when workers are hard to find and COVID threatens us.

What we have been doing this past year, as frustrating as it may have been, IS Church! The celebration today that met in our building on Easter morning and in our parking lot and streamed into our homes IS Church…because the risen Christ cannot be contained or owned or denied. Like Mary, run with that good news wherever God leads you.

Christ is risen. Risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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Unmasking the System

Walking into the hard days of Holy Week, we sit with the Beloved Disciple, John, for an advanced lesson. Jesus teaches His witless disciples a theology of the cross. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t make sense to His followers. The disconnect between His understanding of the future and theirs is on full display in John 12. As Jesus’ popularity increases, momentum builds. People travel to hear Him. Everywhere He goes, crowds gather. The disciples interpret this as success but Jesus knows He’s wrapping up the farewell tour.

Jesus is attracting a very diverse group of followers. In this instance, some non-Jews are looking for Jesus. There is yearning in their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps it’s not by chance that they address themselves to Philip. The text reminds us that Philip is from Bethsaida in Galilee. That region was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It may have been clear to these visitors that Philip was from their home area. They found the natural contact person for gaining an audience with Jesus.

Philip seeks out Andrew with their request. Then the two of them find Jesus to let Him know that His fan base is expanding! Perhaps there is a problem because the Galileans are not Jewish. They let Jesus decide what to do. Earlier He told His disciples that there would be “other sheep” who would be welcomed into the fold of His love. He knew that His message held an appeal for a broad cross-section of people. In the verse that immediately precedes this passage, we hear the religious authorities voice their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity. They exclaim in private: “Look, the whole world is going after Jesus.” This bruises their egos but is good news to Philip and Andrew. Even so, Jesus surprises them with His response.

Rather than welcoming these men and fielding their questions, Jesus seizes the opportunity to lecture about His death. In somewhat veiled language, He let’s them know how and when He will die. My guess is that this deterred the men who had been  seeking Him out! Philip and Andrew must have glanced at each other, shaking their heads. It was a lost opportunity for boosting the fan club enrollment.

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The image Jesus offers is that of a grain of wheat that must die to its present form in order to multiply. We’ve seen how a sunflower seed bursts open against the pressure of a growing sprout within. We have black oil sunflower seeds in a feeder by our front door. My dog sniffs around since I recently put stale bread crumbs out there too. Now we have dried sunflower seed shells tracking in through our front doors. When the seed receives rainwater, soil and sun, it begins to grow and the original container for the seed is destroyed. However, it is through this natural growing process that a harvest is possible. One seed can grow a plant that yields hundreds of times over the value of the original seed. That seed dies to self for the sake of a new generation.

Jesus summons believers to be ready to suffer on behalf of others and not for our own gain. Disciples then—and now—find that hard to grasp. Jesus prepares His disciples for His imminent death. He wants them to understand that He willingly gives up His life out of a profound love. We are more accustomed to seeking the easy way out. We wish to avoid suffering. When we have to go through trials, we question how it will benefit us. Think of the news frenzy when Ted Cruz packed up his family to escape to the tropics. As his constituents sought refuge from freezing temperatures and uninhabitable homes, the Cruz’ flew to Cancun. His constituents exploded with anger. Their exodus pf this elected official from a national disaster even shaped the story line of a Simpsons’ episode! We are a people who have come to expect folks to act selfishly, not sacrificially. We don’t like it but we accept that self-interest will prevail over voluntary personal risk. Those in my generation saw it when Popeye pummeled Bluto; when the road runner fled from the assault of Wile ol’ Coyote. Our children see justice get played out as violent victories in video games. We accept this as normal.

Jesus goes further in this lesson by suggesting that only those who hate their lives will save it. Why would Jesus, the One who came that we might have abundant life, exhort us to hate our lives? I like the interpretation that Biblical scholar, Dale Bruner, offered in his commentary: The one who hates their life is “the person who dies to the supremacy of his or her own self-preservation and advancement at all costs.” Jesus’ teaching steers followers away from a “what’s in it for me” attitude and directs us toward the challenging notion that we must be ready to give up our lives for others. I’m not sure that this lecture made sense to His disciples or those who so earnestly sought Him out.

The Greek word used in this passage for “world” is “kosmos.” It translates best to mean “the System.” Jesus’ crucifixion judges the world, the kosmos, the System. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, He was taking on the System. In this unlikely teaching, as His disciples are ready to grow His fan club, Jesus targets the systems that hold us captive and lead us from abundant life into forms of death. It was interesting to me that, in her interview with Oprah, Meghan Markle used two different terms in reference to her husband’s family. There was the Family and there was also the Firm. Decisions made by the Firm, the corporate entity that manages the well-being of Queen Elizabeth’s family, may not always reflect the wishes of individual family members. Grand Rapids’ philanthropist Fred Meijer’s business was so successful that he had to entrust the management of his grocery empire to a Board of Directors. They didn’t always operate as Fred might have. Jesus’ ministry brings us together as a united family. Because we love each other, we are called to expose the forces that crush us and our neighbors.

Our culture upholds an expectation that we will succeed by fighting our way up the corporate ladder. Pushing other people down, when necessary, is a given so that we can advance our own agenda. This happens between business execs. It happens across fences in neighborhood yards. We do it so that we can support our family. We do it to feed our egos. Laying down our lives for others does not fit within the equation for the American Dream!

This past year we have witnessed far too often how one death can become a movement that takes on some aspect to the System. Several weeks ago the city of Minneapolis awarded George Floyd’s family the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever: $27 million. When two of the carefully selected jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin learned of this unprecedented financial award, they were dismissed and two more neutral individuals were chosen. The death of Floyd sparked outrage in our country and added fuel to the fire of a protest movement that was already well underway. We recently marked the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death. Her face is painted across parking lots, on buildings and down main streets of major cities. Her tragic death has pushed the issue of police reform forward. The logo chosen to remember her speaks to her basic humanity: Say her name. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer unmasked the system that needs reform in a statement he issued: “For White America, these deaths were the latest reckoning and a just alarm that things must change—that America, united, must listen, understand and act to end the injustice that’s hurt and held our country back for far too long.”

As people of faith, we are called to identify the primary aspects to the System that hold us captive and walk us toward forms of death. Can we invite Jesus to work with us to unmask the wrongs and bring healing? Will we recognize fake news and extricate ourselves from its grip? Martin Luther King courageously unmasked a racist system by continuing to march peacefully as violence against them increased. In his famous “I have a dream…” speech, he restated his resolve to unmask the System by letting the nation see their hateful actions: “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”

The very next day King was assassinated while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel room. His death unmasked the System that sought to silence him. Like a grain of wheat that died to self, his death brought an abundant harvest. King’s sacrifice brought down judgment on our nation that still challenges us today.

Jesus vulnerably voiced His sadness in this passage: “Now my soul is troubled.” I suspect we have said that many times this past year, in so many words. We have had to face inequity in our world. We have remained vigilant, courageously naming the wrongs that have become normative. There was nothing easy for Jesus when approaching the hour of His death. He prayed for God to remove that final trial but closed His prayer with an invitation: “Not my will but yours be done.” As His disciples campaigned for more card-carrying followers, Jesus gave this lesson about a grain of wheat dying. He voiced the necessity of hating our lives. He knew that His days were numbered. So we stick close by His side in this final leg of our Lenten journey. We resolve to finish the course with a God who allowed the System to showcase their ugliness so that we could recognize and name it today. We stay the course. We finish the race. We look ahead knowing that resurrection from all forms of death is just around the bend. Thanks be to God!