Second Chance

Psalm 118:14-29, John 20:19-31 – April 26, 2020

A little boy, growing up in a community where his father served as a Methodist minister was outside playing. He was doing all of the things that a little boy does. He was climbing trees. He was swinging on the swing set and jumping out. He was rolling and playing with his dog. His mother called him for dinner and all of the family gathered at the table. His mother looked at him and said, “Young man, let me see your hands.”

There was some rubbing of his hands on his blue jeans before he held his hands up. His mother looked at them and asked, “How many times do I have to tell you that you must wash your hands before you eat? When your hands are dirty, they have germs all over them and you could get sick. After we say the blessing, I want you to march back to the bathroom and wash your hands.”

Everyone at the table bowed their heads and the father said the blessing. Then, the little boy got up and headed out of the kitchen. He stopped, then turned and looked at his mother and said, “Jesus and germs! Jesus and germs! That’s all I ever hear around here and I haven’t seen a one of them.”

We are in the midst of a season of having to wash our hands because of unseen germs.  Thomas was in the midst of a week of washing his hands of the last 3 years of his life because he couldn’t believe what he couldn’t see. For him seeing was believing.

Today’s passage is a two part account 8 days apart.  The first part took place on the night that Jesus rose.  Last week we looked at how Jesus spent that afternoon, walking with the two on the Road home to Emmaus.  The first part of this morning’s passage took place, I think, as the two from Emmaus were in that Upper Room sharing what had happened to them on the road.  The second part describes what took place on a Monday night, 8 days later.

On that first night, Peter and John gathered with the other disciples in that upper room to talk about the empty tomb.  In the timeline I propose, Cleopas and his friend had arrived from Emmaus and were telling what they experienced. As they were talking, Jesus came and stood among them. They were frightened, but Jesus reassured them by showing them his hands and feet.

How often had the disciples seen those hands of Jesus touch blind eyes so they could see? How often had they seen his hands bless little children? How often had they seen him reach out hands and lift the cripple up and say, “Walk.” They saw the hands of Jesus and they knew that he was resurrected from the dead.  1

For the next 8 days the disciples who were in that room that night tried to explain to Thomas what they experienced.  You may be interested to know that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. It is only in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then there are only 155 words about him.… but there is more than one description.


When Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem the disciples thought that it would be certain death for all of them. Surprisingly, it was Thomas who said, “Then let us go so that we may die with him.” It was a courageous statement, yet we don’t remember him for that.   We don’t call him “Courageous Thomas”

In the Upper Room when Jesus is preparing his disciples for his leaving them Thomas said, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”  To which Jesus responded, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.”  We have that statement because Thomas asked for directions.  But we don’t call him “Inquiring Thomas.” 

Eights nights after Jesus rose, on Monday night, the disciples were together again; this time Thomas was with them. Again, the doors were locked; but suddenly, Jesus again stood among them. Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger into my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe” Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Yet we don’t call him,”Professing Thomas.”  

Perhaps Thomas’ real problem was that he was devastated by what had happened and would not admit it –not to his friends, not even to himself. He was so devastated that he could not see what had to be the sheer joy on his friends’ faces. After all, what they experienced in meeting the resurrected Jesus totally changed them. It was their encounter with the risen Lord that empowered them to publicly and powerfully proclaim the good news, the news that, over time would turn the world upside down. But Thomas could not see that joy.

No doubt there are folks in our world in exactly the same boat. Life has dealt some crushing blows — marriages break, homes split, addictions overpower, diseases devastate, jobs disappear and grief grows into despair.  They find it hard to believe.

We live in a world where, “Ya gotta see it to believe it.” (unless it’s April 1st).

One of our 50 states of our United States-Missouri is called the “Show Me State.”   There’s even a Bible of the unbelievable–Ripley’s Believe it or not!

However, there are so many things that used to be impossible that we now take for granted.  Can you believe that people used to live without electricity or indoor plumbing?  In fact, did you know that people actually used to live in Texas in the summer without Air Conditioning!   I grew up in Houston without air conditioning.  We had an attic fan.  I would lay on my bed at night with the window open the screen down and have the Attic Fan suck the humidity over my body.

For years the goal was to find someone to break the 4 minute mile.  President Kennedy made a commitment to put a man on the moon .. and bring him back.  We’ve since made a watch no gears, a personal computer smaller than a living room….that fits in a back pocket.

Thomas had not seen the risen Lord like the others had. They told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas was unconvinced. His friends must have been either deluded or delusional.  Their story was simply too good to be true.

Thomas was a realist. He had been hurt and disappointed. He had expected so much from Jesus. To watch Jesus die on the cross like a common thief was too much for Thomas to bear. He had his hopes dashed once. Now he wanted to be careful because he didn’t want to set himself up for another letdown.

We have to admire Thomas for being so honest with his doubts.  Even though it was a fact that was attested by his closest friends, he could not believe it.   

On the night that Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas missed his chance to see it for himself.  He said ‘I won’t believe unless I see it.”  Or “Seeing is believing.”   Actually, Seeing is “verifying.”

When Jesus did make his command performance for Thomas Jesus chided Thomas and in essence said “Believing is Seeing.” Thomas you believe because you have seen.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” 

We’re in the same situation that Thomas was before Jesus appeared to him.  We have not seen Jesus.  We have to take Thomas’ word for it.  We have to take the word of all the disciples, their friends and the people they shared their story with.  We have to take the word of those who wrote down what they saw and heard.  We are among the “blessed ones” who have not seen and YET …believe!  We have to believe to see it.

There is a story about a pre-civil rights African American community in Florida. The story says that during times of political elections, this community would rent a voting machine and go through the voting process. Now, they knew that their votes would not be counted, but they voted anyway. When asked by members of the white community why they did this every year, they replied, “Oh, just practicing. Just practicing.”  Believing in what is not yet seen means we practice or behave as if it is already exists.

At St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Houston where I served as an Associate Pastor from 1981 to 1991 there is a staircase that has this inscription. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” This is what leaders and visionaries do. They believe in something bigger than themselves and they begin to act as if it is so.  I don’t know if the person who painted the quote on the wall at the bottom of the staircase at St. Andrew’s didn’t know who said it and that’s why it was left out but when I went to Washington D.C. with Anne  I saw the quote again.  It was on a Wall of quotes at the memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr.  2

I want to tell you about another Thomas.  He didn’t see it so he didn’t believe.  He was a brilliant man. He accomplished unbelievable things and contributed greatly to the founding of our country.  But when it came to matters of faith, he was a doubting Thomas.  I have a copy of The Jefferson Bible.  The subtitle is “The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ of Nazareth–extracted from the gospels by Thomas Jefferson.” 

He could not tolerate those passages which dealt with the supernatural.  In the Thomas Jefferson Bible you will find only the moral teachings and historical events of Jesus’ life. He took out the miracles. Here is how his bible ends: “There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the sepulcher and departed.”  The very next page says, A biographical sketch of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson took a selfie before cell phones were invented!   

I think he could have started his own denomination called the Cafeterians—take what you like and leave what you don’t.  It is very easy to rewrite history and say, “that did not happen.” But the story remains that the disciples were witnesses to these events. Thomas Jefferson is in essence calling the disciples liars and that they continued throughout the first century, for 70 years to propagate those lies.3

When it comes to Thomases, I think I prefer to go with the Thomas who saw and believed and said, “My Lord and My GOD!” than the one who didn’t see and left Jesus in the tomb, and on the next page told the story of HIS own life! 

Throughout the years since Jesus’ coming, miracles have continued to happen.  Healings still happen–physical healings, spiritual healings, emotional healings.  The lump is no longer there. The old rebellious spirit is no longer there. The anger and hurt are no longer there. 

God works within the chemistry of our body.  God works through the prayers of our spirits. God works within the longings of our heart. 

The important message of our Scripture lesson is that Jesus praised faith in people who believed in the absence of signs and wonders.  Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Christian faith does not depend on signs and miracles! Christian faith is an ongoing relationship with the living Christ that perseveres even when God seems to be silent. 

Do I believe in miracles? Yes. By definition, miracles defy explanation.  Miracles point us to God who defies explanation and requires faith to accept, to believe, the unbelievable. 

The message of the gospel to those who cannot see the Easter joy is, “Open your eyes!” See what God has done. Celebrate it. Even laugh about it.

That is a reminder we all need from time to time. Life can be so burdensome; we can be depressed, discouraged, and despondent. Then along comes a day like this one. A day for laughter and light-heartedness, for comedy and craziness, a day to celebrate the victory of the resurrection over death and the grave, a day to join our voices with the God who “sits in the heavens and laughs,” a day to remember the word of Jesus who said, “I am come that [you] might have life and that [you] might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 KJV).  3

Unlike doubting Thomas Jefferson, Believing John ends HIS book with these verses 30-31, “Now Jesus did many other things in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.“ 

We’ve all heard, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.  But in the case of Thomas it’s more like, “If at first you don’t believe, try, try, again.” Like Thomas, God is more than ready to give us a chance so we can move beyond “seeing is believing” but “believing is seeing.”  Like Thomas, who missed the first meeting on the evening of the day that Jesus rose from the dead, God is still giving  doubters a Second Chance.

Let’s pray.  Dear Lord, we give you thanks for all that has been recorded in the gospels of all that Jesus performed in the presence of the apostles. We rejoice in the other signs too numerous to be written that Christ has given among your people, then and now: the healing of the sick, the peace that has been given to those who have been doubtful but wanting to believe. We exult in the fellowship our risen Lord and live in hope of the final triumph of his rule.

United in Christ, may we become your agents of reconciliation in the church and in the world.  Where class and race cause hurtful distinctions, help us to proclaim your covenant promises.  Where peoples contend with one another over conflicting ideologies make us the mediators of their differences.  In all that we do, breathe the Holy Spirit upon us so that we may stand united as brothers and sisters to the glory and praise of your Holy name. Amen.

Faith Lift: Get in the Pool

Everyone has their own way of getting in the pool.  Some just jump in off the deep end.   Me, I wade in from the shallow…a freezing step at a time. 

When L.A. Fitness was open I went to Water Aerobics Monday, Wednesday and Friday to rehab my right leg from my knee replacement.  Now I ride my Trike 2-3 miles every day.

 For some reason they keep the water at LA Fitness cold.  Since it is an indoor pool we don’t have the benefit of sunshine warmth.   Gradually, my body acclimates to the cold and within 5 minutes, by the time I manage to submerge up to my neck, I am able to go through the exercises along with my other 25 senior denizens of the deep ….end.

When it comes to Faith, everyone has their own way of getting in the pool.  Some jump in off the deep end. 

The Apostle Paul was like that. 

Even though he spent his life learning the Hebrew Scriptures and had dedicated his life to following the law, he had a dramatic encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  He was on his way to Iraq to arrest followers of Jesus but wound up becoming one.  His entrance into the pool was dramatic.  It was shocking.  It was so radical that he was blinded for 3 days.  It took that much to get his attention. After God sent Ananias to pray for him his sight was restored.  Ironically, while in his life and ministry Jesus made the blind to see, in his risen form he made a sighted man blind.  If Paul sang Amazing Grace he’d have to sing, “was sighted but then was blind.” 

One of Paul’s disciples, Timothy, grew up in a family of followers of Jesus.  In his 2 letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “I see that the faith that was in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice now resides in you.”  Timothy was a wader like me. He was a third generation follower of Jesus.  Gradually he experienced more and more of God’s grace until his faith was fully formed as an adult.

So, whether you came to the faith by jumping in the deep end or wading in one step at a time I rejoice that as you read this you are in the pool.  Let’s not harp on how we get in; but, rejoice that we are in God’s family, no matter how we…get in the pool.  

God be with you…. Till we meet again.

On the Road Again

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Luke 24:19-31 – April 19, 2020

Let’s pray, Dear Lord, we are amazed at the lengths to which you went to see to it that these two followers did not get away.  We thank you that you were persistent with them and we see in our own walk that you have persistently pursued us, wooed us,  called us and equipped us for faith and our own ministry and mission.  As we dig in to their experience with you, may we draw parallels in our own walk as we seek to follow you. In Jesus’ name Amen.

Welcome to Holy Humor Sunday. Like I wrote in my article this week the first Sunday after Easter is Holy Humor Sunday.  If you are not familiar with that concept, it is only because we are not in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. It is based on the understanding that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate joke on death, Satan, and all the forces of evil. It is a testament to the God who, as the psalmist says, “sits in the heavens and laughs” (2:4) at the foolishness of humanity and any forces that might seek to thwart divine purposes. Word has it that one tradition is for priests to gather on the Monday following Easter for cigars, brandy, and jokes to celebrate the God who does this surprising, transforming thing.

The resurrection is comedy of the best sort, the unexpected reversal of expectations. Mary comes to the tomb on Easter morning expecting to find a dead body. Her train of thought keeps barreling along one track, and she almost literally stumbles over the risen Lord, asking, “Can you tell me where you have laid you? “  This morning we read about Jesus traveling along the road and asking two travelers to tell him what happened to him. 

Resurrection reverses the expectation of gloom and doom in the face of death and instead brings celebration. Alleluia!

Frederick Buechner in his book: Wishful Thinking writes: “Whether your faith is that there is a God of that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” 1

Here’s a story about some guys who put their faith to work and got moving.

One dark night outside a small town, a fire started inside the local chemical plant.  Before long it exploded into flames and an alarm went out to fire departments from miles around.

After fighting the fire for over an hour, the chemical company president approached the fire chief and said, “All of our formulas are in the vault in the center of the plant. They must be saved! I will give $50,000 to the engine company that brings them out safely!”

As soon as the chief heard this, he ordered the firemen to strengthen their attack on the blaze. After two more hours of attacking the fire, the president of the company offered $100,000 to the engine company that could bring out the company’s secret files.

From the distance a lone siren was heard as another fire truck came into sight. It was a local volunteer fire company composed entirely of men over 65. To everyone’s amazement the little fire engine raced through the chemical plant gates and drove straight into the middle of the inferno. In the distance the other firemen watched as the old timers hopped off of their rig and began to fight the fire with an effort that they had never seen before.

After an hour of intense fighting the volunteer company had extinguished the fire and saved the formulas. Joyous, the chemical company president announced that he would double the reward to $200,000 and walked over to personally thank each of the volunteers.

After thanking each of the old men individually the president asked the group what they intended to do with the reward money.

The fire truck driver looked him right in the eye and said, “The first thing we’re going to do is fix the brakes on that old truck!”  …….

Those volunteer firemen had an eye-opening experience. They didn’t intend to be put in the middle of the fire, but once there, gave it all they had and wound up reaping a great reward. 

Cleopas and his companion didn’t intend to be put in the middle of the fire.  In fact, they were going in the opposite direction of their fire. They were followers of Jesus.  They had seen his miracles and been a part of the crowd that cheered him when he entered the city a week before.  Then it happened – the terror and the unbelievable nightmare of darkness which engulfed him and them so suddenly.  They saw him crucified. They saw him taken out to a place of degradation and shame and strung up like a common criminal.

They had believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would redeem Israel. There had been some convincing evidence: the power of his preaching, his healing ministry, the miracles he performed, and his mastery even of nature. His refusal to be controlled either by political or religious power blocks, the prophetic witness of his presence with the poor and oppressed, all served as evidence that this man was their long-awaited Messiah.

There were rumors whispered about that his tomb was empty, that the women had come back after sunrise with the wild story about an angel speaking to them, about the stone being rolled back, and the grave clothes lying in the cave. In their depressed state of mind, such stories seemed like “idle tales.”  They say to their new fellow traveler, “Are you the only person in all of Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?” 

For us, this is a great inside joke.  We know that it is Jesus talking to them but they don’t.  It brings a knowing smile to our lips to hear them asking Jesus if he was the only person in Jerusalem who didn’t know what happened to himself.

What really is remarkable is how Jesus responded to the question of these travelers.   He opens the Scriptures to them he begins to interpret them and explains to them how all these things were spoken of by Moses and the Prophets.

He transforms their thinking.  Too soon they had concluded that Jesus’ mission had failed.  However, because of Jesus’ patient explanations they came to understand that the last three days were God’s plan all along.  Even still, they did not recognize who this man was.


Finally, they arrive in Emmaus, and Jesus acts as if he was going on.  The two beg Jesus not to go on and invite Jesus to dinner.  Jesus transforms that event. Though he is their guest, he takes the bread and assumes the role of host. There, at that ordinary dinner at the end of the day this guest  takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, gives it to them…and their eyes are opened and they recognized him.  THAT was an eye-opening experience!  The only problem was that as soon as their eyes were opened to see who he really was there was no one to see!  Jesus was gone. He vanished. 

The resurrection changes everything. It transformed them and it transforms us. It takes two sad friends on the road home and has them heading into the heart of the fire!  It moves us from despair to new possibilities of life. It transforms ordinary bread into a holy meal. It takes us in our blindness and opens our eyes.

When they realize that it is the risen Lord who is with them and he vanishes they turn to each other and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us … on the road?

Isn’t that true to life? We usually don’t understand what is happening to us until our eyes are opened and we are changed. Then we look back and we see the conviction of our hearts as the result of eye-opening experiences. 

Jesus is still giving folks eye-opening experiences. He doesn’t appear in person like he did to Cleopas and his friend.  Since Jesus ascended into heaven, he reveals himself and his presence through the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit may speak to us and open our eyes to see something about Jesus through our reading of the scriptures or through something we see in nature.

One morning when I was on a retreat as I made my way to breakfast and rounded a corner I saw a bright red cardinal at my feet.  Then next morning I saw a rabbit at my feet.  The Holy Spirit sometimes chooses to reveal Jesus’ presence to us and speak to us through other people. Sometimes he does it through angels disguised as people. Sometimes he does it through animals disguised as angels.  Sometimes he does it through machines named after angels.

Here’s a story of another two that almost got away.  Pastor Glen Barnes of the First Baptist Church of Lodi, California tells about an experience he had. Barnes’ church was hosting a couple of visitors, two women, from Lesotho, South Africa. According to Barnes these two women had an incredible ministry caring for the poor and sick in South Africa, especially those suffering from AIDS. Unfortunately this ministry was taking a toll on them physically, emotionally and spiritually. In fact, one of the women shared with Barnes in confidence that she was really struggling, feeling burned out and wondering if it was time to move on to another ministry. As they talked about trying to hear God’s voice, she said that sometimes she just wished God would write it on the sky. Then she would know whether she was doing God’s will or not.

Later that very same day Barnes and these two ladies went on a little sightseeing tour of San Francisco. They went out on a boat onto San Francisco Bay. They went by Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. About half way out on their journey, they heard a rumbling like thunder in the sky and they looked up and right above them flew the Blue Angels, the aerobatic team of Navy jets that entertain for special events. The two African women looked terrified and one asked Barnes if America was under attack. He reassured them that it was just a show.

As a part of the magnificent aerial demonstration, one of the planes took off over the city, turned its smoke stream on and went straight up, and it began skywriting. What it wrote was not a word or a sentence, but a symbol. The jet left floating, written in the sky, a big AIDS ribbon. Pastor Barnes looked over at his new friend who was struggling with her work back home attending to AIDS sufferers. He had chills up and down his spine when he saw the ribbon in the clouds. She literally had tears running down her face as it seemed God, on this occasion, had literally written His answer to her in the sky. (1)  It was written, of course by an angel….a Blue Angel.

I can imagine that there are those on the front lines of the pandemic the world is fighting that feel like those two women from South Africa.  They need our encouragement.  Perhaps you have had a similar experience–less dramatic, maybe, but an experience in which God spoke to you. You were at the end of your rope, hanging on for dear life. And then, a friend said something and you realized this was a message from God. Or you heard a song, or read a story, and it was as if Christ was speaking directly to you. This happens most often to those who are believers. Notice that after Christ’s resurrection, he showed himself only to those who had believed in him.  He didn’t appear to Herod or Pilate. That’s true in our lives. If you have surrounded yourself with a veil of skepticism, it might be harder for you to hear from God.  But if, in your time of trial, you ask God to show up, you will be surprised how often that prayer will be answered.

There’s promise in this story of the two that almost got away – great promise. In the midst of, or in the aftermath of defeat and despair, of suffering and pain and confusion, there is always the friend who joins us.  We can count on it if we will listen, reflect on His Word, spend time with friends who believe in Him and who share our commitment.  Jesus will  make himself known – perhaps in the breaking of bread – in our worship, in our private prayer time, in our deliberate conversations with others– in our solitude which some of us are having more now that we have had in a while– in the sudden visible transformation of a person whom you would never imagined would be changed.. No matter what turn or twist your walk is taking you, He will come. Stay alert. Keep your eyes open …or be ready in case they are opened for you.  

Notice that none of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances take place in a place of worship.  Jesus met Cleopas and company on the road.  Jesus met the disciples in the upper room.  Jesus met the disciples on the beach.  Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus.  We need to not coop our faith up indoors.  We need to take our faith on the road….

At the end of our gospel story Cleopas and his friend do what is only natural.  They get up and get on the road again to return to Jerusalem and tell the disciples whom they have seen. That’s being a witness, telling your friends what you have seen. The Holy Spirit has the power to do the rest. The same Holy Spirit who was the power behind the witness of the disciples, was the power behind these two disciples that almost got away ….and is with us.

On your road don’t miss the power of the resurrection to transform and to make you into one of His witnesses. Make yourself available to be used by God.  .  After all, that’s what witnesses are, people who can’t keep their mouths shut because they’ve had an eye-opening experience of Christ that moves them to take their story on the road….again….and again….and again.

Let’s Pray.  Dear Lord, walk with us.  Walk with us from room to room, from home to home.  Walk with us and reveal yourself to us…in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of a meal around a table, in the beauty of worship, in the day to day and night to night walks of our lives.  Open our eyes to see you in the face of our brothers and sisters.  Open our hands to reach out to them in compassion.  As we lift our hands in praise to you give us we pray, the strength and power to be your disciples in the world.

Open—Jim Gill

Open our eyes that we may see your truth.

Open our ears to hear your voice.

Open our minds to receive your word. 

Open our eyes.  Open our ears. Open our minds O Lord.

Open our hearts to feel your love.

Open our souls to sense your touch.

Open our hands to receive your gifts.

Open our hearts. open our souls.  Open our hands O Lord

Faith Lift: Bunnies, Baskets, Eggs, Lilies, Buckets, Cigars, Brandy, and Jokes.

These last few weeks of seclusion have given me more time than usual to watch commercials.   One of the ones that struck me is the one for the Lindt Gold Bunny.  They show the bunny being made and the ad ends with this quote:

“Bring home the Lindt Gold Bunny and watch the magic of Easter come alive”

Really?  The Magic of Easter comes alive with a… chocolate bunny?

What do chocolate bunnies have to do with the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection? 

Almost everyone knows when Christians celebrate–December 25th.  It can be on any day of the week.  Almost everyone knows when Thanksgiving is.  It’s the last Thursday of November.  It’s always a Thursday, but the date can be any number over 20. But like the elusive risen Christ, appearing here and then there, we cannot tie down Easter to one specific numeric date but it s always on a Sunday.  Why?  Because it was on a Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead. 

It was on a Sunday that Jesus shifted the calendars of the world.  It was on a Sunday, the day AFTER the Sabbath day of rest that Jesus raised.  For the people of Jesus’ day, Sunday was their Monday.  Sunday was the first work day of their week the day after their weekend.  Jesus’ resurrection moved the weekend!

Since the Council of Nicaea in 325, Easter has been celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.  In the West, only the Celtic church in Britain and Ireland refused to accept the date until 664 because of their own Celtic calendar.  Until 1582, New Year’s was celebrated the world round on April 1st with the arrival of spring.  To me, it makes much more sense to celebrate the beginning of a new year with the bursting out of new life all around.

It’s true that many of the current Easter customs we celebrate had their beginnings in the pagan celebrations of the rebirth of the earth in the spring.  In fact, the English word for Easter is taken from the name of a Teutonic goddess of spring or the dawn.   In the same way that the early Christians adopted and adapted pagan celebrations in the dead of winter to mark the birth of Jesus, they also adopted and adapted pagan celebrations to mark the resurrection of their Lord.

In one sense it was out of a heart for evangelism that the church did this.  Rather than try to convince pagans to give up their celebrations, the Christians added their meaning on top of the celebrations that were already going on.   What’s the old adage, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”  Apparently that was the plan.

After Christ’s resurrection, rabbits were used as images of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. These appearances were likened to the rabbits being seen and then disappearing and then being seen again somewhere else. (because of their tunnels)

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection are quick and darting, here and there, like the comings and goings of a rabbit.  First, he’s in the garden by the tomb, then he’s in the Upper Room, then he’s on the road to Emmaus, then he’s back in the Upper Room when the men from Emmaus arrive to tell the Disciples what happened to them, then he’s cooking breakfast for the Disciples in Galilee, then he’s appearing to over 500 people, then he’s on a mountain ascending to his Father from whence he came.

Since then, the Easter rabbit has become as traditional at Easter time as the Easter egg. It may have been intended to symbolize the fertile life that the risen Christ would send His followers.  Rabbits were also a pre-Christian fertility symbol among the Egyptians and other ancient peoples. We know how fast rabbits can reproduce.  Not only were rabbits a symbol of fertility and new life so were eggs.

In ancient Egypt and Persia friends exchanged decorated eggs at the spring equinox.  Eggs have always been symbols of creation, fertility and new-life and the beginning of the New Year. These eggs were a symbol of fertility for them because the coming forth of a live creature from an egg was so surprising to people of ancient times.

Christians of the Near East adopted this tradition, and the Easter egg became a religious symbol also.  It not only represented new life but it represented the tomb from which Jesus broke forth.  The chick bursting forth from its shell became a symbol for Jesus bursting forth from his tomb.  In Luke 13:34Jesus did describe himself as being one who would love to gather his followers like a mother hen gathers her chicks.

In medieval times eggs were traditionally given at Easter to all servants, and to the children (it was one of the foods forbidden during Lent), along with other gifts. The eggs were often colored red to represent the blood of Christ by which all believers were given a share in this new life of Christ.  (Ask Jo Ann to show you a picture of her decorated egg.)

The butterfly is also an ancient Easter symbol.  Just as the butterfly which emerges from the cocoon is the same caterpillar in new form, so Jesus, emerged from the tomb the same person – yet glorified. 

In the early church, those who were baptized at the Easter Vigil were dressed in a white robe. They would wear that robe throughout the whole Easter week as a symbol of their new life. Those who had already been baptized in prior years, did not wear white robes, but would wear new clothes to indicate their share in the new life of Christ. So, the wearing of new clothes at Easter was an external profession and symbol of the Easter grace.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, people in their new Easter clothes would take a long walk after Easter Mass. This was a kind of procession preceded by a crucifix of the Easter Candle. The tradition evolved into Easter Parades. .

In early Christian art the lily is a symbol of purity because of its delicacy of form and its whiteness. They did not exist in North America until about 100 years ago. The white trumpet lily, which blooms naturally in springtime, was brought here from Bermuda. They are popularly called “Easter Lilies because they bloom around Easter time. The American public quickly made it a symbolic feature of the Easter celebration.  For some, the term “Easter Lily” has become a euphemism for folks that only show up at church on Easter: those who only come out to church once a year!

Early Christians customarily celebrated Easter Week as days of joy and laughter. They would tell jokes, play pranks, feast on lamb, dance, sing and express humor and joy over this “final joke” on the devil, death and evil. They would add fragrant oil or perfume to the Easter water they had brought home with them from church.  This water was used to sprinkle and bless food, pets, gardens, homes and more. In some countries you could get soaked this week. Baptism was recalled with the custom of “dousing”. On Easter Monday men wake women with a spritz of the perfumed Easter water while they whisper “May you never wither.” On Easter Tuesday, women wake men with a bucketful of the scented water.  I’m sending this article out on Wednesday to spare our guys from being treated to that baptism.

The Sunday after Easter in some circles is celebrated as Holy Humor Sunday.  If you are not familiar with that concept, it is only because we are not in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. It is based on the understanding that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate joke on death, Satan, and all the forces of evil. It is a testament to the God who, as the psalmist says, “sits in the heavens and laughs” (2:4) at the foolishness of humanity and any forces that might seek to thwart divine purposes. Word has it that one tradition is for priests to gather on the Monday following Easter for cigars, brandy, and jokes to celebrate the God who does this surprising, transforming thing.

So, now you know what bunnies, eggs, baskets, parades, lilies, buckets, cigars, brandy and jokes have to do with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  If you hurry and put on your mask and gloves you might make it to the grocery store in tine and be able to take advantage of their half price sale and

“Bring home the Lindt Gold Bunny and watch the magic of Easter come alive”

I got one…but there was no magic.  Only calories. 

Hoppy Easter! 

God be with you…..till we meet again.

Pastor Gill.  

Black Friday

Mark 15:1-47 – April 10, 2020

I have never liked calling this day Good Friday.  As far as I’m concerned a Good Friday is a day when I go to Red Lobster for fish.  When they cook it right it’s a Good FR Y Day even if it is a Tuesday.  Of course because of the global pandemic no one is going to a sit down dinner at Red Lobster or T.G.I.F (Thank God It’s Friday). We even had to cancel our annual Lenten Friday Fish Fry back in March.  Although we didn’t intend to we have had to give up our traditional Lenten Friday Fish Frys … for Lent.

Actually I’d like to propose a switch. I propose we call the Friday after Thanksgiving “Good Friday” because it’s a good day to shop. I assume it started being called Black Friday because it’s the day that retailers hope to get out of the “red” and back in the ‘black.” Some retailers however are not able to resist and start Black Friday sales the day after Halloween!  It’s more like Black November!

I propose that we call today Black Friday because it was the day that the sky went black at High Noon and stayed that way … for 3 hours. The day Jesus died may have ultimately been a good Friday for us, but it was a terrible day for Jesus and his followers

One person challenged this tradition of calling the day of Jesus’ crucifixion a Good Friday.  She said that there was enough betrayal, denial, violence, bloodshed and death in the world. The idea of coming together in a church to hear of all this as it was heaped on Jesus was too much for her. She could not hear of it without coming to tears, or feeling a combination of outrage and depression.

Our Spanish speaking fellow Christians speak of this day as Viernos Santo – “Holy Friday.” The Germans speak of it as Kar Freitag – literally “the Friday of pure gold.” Swedes know it as Lang Fredag – “Long Friday,” implying unhurried devotion throughout the day on the meaning of the Cross. From these and many other traditions come names for the day that refer to its supreme value and importance to all believe the Gospel.

We call this Friday good because not because of a sordid curiosity over one man’s excruciating ordeal of going through a crucifixion. It is the consequence of that great sacrifice that occupies us. It was because it brought our salvation.  So we come tonight to behold the meaning of the cross from God’s perspective.

In spite of the cruelty, treachery, and injustice heaped upon Jesus from every side, he was not simply a victim of circumstances. He entered into the ordeal fully, with nothing spared. But he did so with an air of mastery. He saw and knew that the Father was working out his purposes of saving love through everything that seemed to oppose it.

At the Last Supper in the Upper Room, Judas prepared for the act of betrayal. Our Lord said, in the presence of the betrayer and the other eleven disciples, “See, my betrayer is at hand,” and puts the whole shameful deed in the context of the fulfillment of what was prophesied a millennium before in Psalm 41: “he who ate my bread lifted up his heel against me.”

At his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus intervened against the impulsive effort of Peter to defend him with a sword. Peter drew his sword and swung, cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers that came to arrest Jesus.  Jesus said to Peter, “Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given me?” Then he healed the one whose head was slashed by Peter’s sword, thereby sparing the disciples the inevitable reprisal that would have brought them all to a similar death as his.

Before the religious court of Caiaphas, the high priest that year, Jesus calmly announced to those arranging his condemnation, “You shall see the Son of man seated at the right hand of power.”

Before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Syria who held the power to free Jesus or send him to death, Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”

At every critical point, when it seems that all the wrong forces were prevailing, Jesus speaks as the one who is in control. 

When Pontius Pilate shoved Jesus in front of the mob with the taunting slur, “Here is your king!” Pilate did not begin to grasp the real truth of Jesus’ Kingship. The regal air that dominated our Lord all through the events of his trial and crucifixion bore witness to God’s power at work through his Son.  Jesus did not soar above the bloody sweat, the pain and horror of suffering and death, but entered into it so as to take hold of it and conquer it through enduring it. He turned the wrath of humans to the purposes of God’s accomplishing our salvation.

Nothing takes him by surprise, nor moves him to work out a plea bargain compromise. With frenzy and fanatical hatred bursting out all around him, Jesus was strong and steady in his mission to carve out the pathway through all that our sins create.

It is here that our faith is centered. What we preach on this Friday, and every opportunity of proclamation on every day, is Christ crucified – and risen, for us. There is no other foundation on which we can establish our trust.

This is a Black Friday.  Hurtling through the sound barriers of twenty one centuries, the cry of Jesus from the Cross still pierces our ears and rends our hearts with, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

Now none of us would pretend that we have been to the depth of the darkness of the Cross, yet most of us can identify with the feeling of being forsaken – forsaken by friends and loved ones, forsaken by the goodness of life, even sometimes feeling forsaken by God.  Most of us have asked on occasion, where is God? We may not have asked it verbally but deep in our inner souls where we struggle alone that which matters most, most of us have asked, “Where was God?” We ask it when a loved one dies. We ask it when starvations ravage the poor and no help comes to the needy. We ask it when we sink into depression and find no relief for our souls. We ask it as we shelter in place.

On this Black Friday, when we are forced to look at human suffering at its worst, and human goodness and self-giving at its best, perhaps, we can hear more clearly some solid truth which we can store up in our minds and call upon in the future, when the need is great – when we are in the midst of pain and death, or on the brink of despair – and that terrible question may be silent in our throats, but clamoring in our souls: “O God, why have you forsaken me?”

These last weeks we have seen people lament the loss of loved ones due to the virus stalking our lives.  Networks manage to find at least one person a night to lament that they were not able to be with their loved one as they died. Yet, in Jesus’ greatest hour of need he was abandoned. His closest disciples ran for their lives and left Jesus alone. After Jesus was arrested only Peter was even close enough to be accused of being one of his disciples, and he denied it 3 times.  

There were some followers of Jesus faithful enough to stand by the cross.  There was John to whom Jesus commended the care of his mother Mary. There were women looking on in addition to his mother Mary there was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses and Salome.

Women, who were not even thought worthy in their time to be called disciples, and whose testimony was inadmissible in a court of law stood by Jesus at the cross. The men were full of brave words, but when the time of testing came, they were not there.

The only person at the cross to speak of faith was a Roman soldier who proclaimed: “Truly, this was the Son of God!” Why was a Roman soldier at the cross? The only reason a Roman soldier was at the cross was to crucify! The only words of faith at the cross were spoken by one of the soldiers who crucified Jesus!

Finally, another faithful person came to the cross that day. He came when Jesus was dead. He came to claim Jesus’ body for burial in his own tomb. His name was Joseph of Arimathea. Mark states that he was an honored member of the council. And in the previous chapter, Mark says twice, just to be sure that we have heard, that the whole council condemned Jesus to death. The whole council condemned Jesus? Including that honored member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea?

These are Mark’s faithful witnesses at the cross: a Council member who condemned Jesus, a Roman who pounded in the nails, women who were there to watch him die and two thieves on either side of him.

I think God worries about people like those who were intrigued and attracted by Jesus’ miracles, but ran from the pain and despair of the cross. I think God worries about us, when we look to Jesus for a way out of our troubles, as a path to self-fulfillment or a guide to successful living; when the presence of God in our “normal” life just doesn’t seem to be enough and we go off looking for some spiritual excitement or enlightenment, some spiritual high which will “help us believe.”

In a skeptical world which wants to see proof, which says, “give me a miracle and I’ll believe,” we are called to have faith in the Lord of the cross.  For that Lord comes to us when we hurt, stands by us when we weep, lifts us up in our pain and comforts us in our loss.

At the close of our service we will sing the familiar spiritual that asks the question, “Were you there?”  Whether you could imagine yourself to have been with John and Joseph of Arimathea and the centurion and the women at the cross or whether you imagine yourself to have been among those in hiding, you were there. I was there. My need for a savior was there.  When Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world we were there.  ..on that Black Friday.

Master Plan.- Jim Gill

It wasn’t nails that held him to the cross. It was his love, his master plan. 

I was the nail that held him to the cross. He had me right in the palm of his hand.

He could have called legions of angels to rescue him and set him free

 He could have called legions of angels but he showed his love for all to see

It wasn’t nails that held him to the cross. It was his love, his master plan. 

I was the nail that held him to the cross.  He had me right in the palm of his hand.

It was nails of need and nails of anger that held him there, held by my sin.

Though it was he who once was held by us, risen in power we’re now held by him…

It wasn’t nails that held him to the cross. It was his love, his master plan. 

I was the nail that held him to the cross He had me right in the palm of his hand. 

Now he holds us all in the palm of his hand. He holds us all in the palm of his hand

He took the whole world in his hands; He took the whole world’s sin in his hands

He took the whole world in his hands. He took the whole world in his hands. 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Easter Thoughts-(continued) Darrell Cluck

God borrowed a body to become one with us.

On a borrowed beast he rode to a borrowed room

Where he broke the borrowed bread and served the borrowed wine

Borrowing condemnation from ones on borrowed time.

He bowed his head and borrowed death.

They wrapped him in borrowed linens and laid him in a borrowed tomb

A New Commandment

John 13:1-17 – April 9, 2020

INTRODUCTION TO JOHN 13:1-17

On Palm Sunday we saw Jesus send two disciples in to town to find a burro for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem.  In Luke’s telling of what we are going to read tonight Jesus sent two disciples into town to find the place where Jesus and his disciples could share in the Passover meal.  Luke tells us that this was on the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed  (Luke 22:7) Hear the word of the Lord from John’s perspective that gives us some details of what happened that neither Matthew, Mark or Luke shared.

***

Let us pray. Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts this night by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love You and worthily magnify your Holy name.  As we read the account of your humbling yourself before your followers, may we follow your example. Bless to us the reading and hearing of this portion of your Holy Word.  Amen

***

One thing I’ve always wondered is:  Why do we call it a Foot Washing?  Do we only do one?  (When my mom lost a foot to diabetes I kidded her that she was the only one who qualified for a Foot washing) 

Let me share with you a few things about this practice of “feet washing.”  First of all, because of the hot dry climate of Palestine, almost all of the people wore sandals.  Sandals were cooler and they certainly were cheaper because it takes less leather to make a sandal than a full shoe.  Because of the dusty roads, when a person traveled from house to house his feet would get dusty, but because of the long flowing robes, little else would.  So, when guests came over for dinner, one of the things that needed to be done to prepare for the meal was to wash the feet of those who had traveled to one’s home. (Now we are being urged to leave our outside shoes outside to avoid spreading Covid-19).

This was especially needed because of the way people were seated at table.  The table around which the disciples gathered was only about a foot high, and shaped in the form of a U.  Those gathered for the meal reclined on their left elbows and ate with their right hands making one person’s feet near another person’s head.  With dirty feet this could be unappetizing to say the least.

Ordinarily, on such an occasion the host would have designated a servant to do the menial task of removing the sandals of the guests and washing their feet.  Since the meeting was obviously intended to be secret however, no servants were present. If there were no servants present, the task of washing the feet of the dinner guests was reserved for the person who occupied the lowest station in life of the assembled group. None of the disciples were ready to volunteer for such a task, for each would have considered it an admission of inferiority to all the others. They were too proud to be so humbled.

Jesus was patient. He waited. He even let them start the meal.  But when it became evident that none of the disciples were going to volunteer for the task, while they were still eating Jesus rose, removed his outer cloak, tied a towel around his waist, and began to perform the work reserved for servants. For the disciples to have their teacher wash their feet must have been agonizing.  The first few dared not speak out, for they were either ashamed of their own reluctance or stunned that their teacher would stoop to do it.

Finally, when Jesus knelt before Peter, he had the boldness to say what the others were surely thinking, “Lord you must never wash my feet!”   He was too humble to be humbled.

Many today have the opposite problem.  Like the other disciples they are too proud to be humbled.  They are such great achievers, eager to work their own way up to heaven. For them to receive a free gift that they can’t earn is an insult.  If you ask them to do something hard they might do that, but to accept a free gift of grace is too easy.  Then they would have nothing of which to be proud!

Jesus was the perfect teacher. This encounter with his disciples this night shows however that his disciples were less than perfect students.  Throughout the gospels the disciples did not understand what Jesus said and did.  Even on this their last night together they really didn’t have any idea what Jesus was doing.  I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that. If those who spent the most time with him and saw first-hand the miracles and still didn’t understand, I don’t feel so bad when I don’t understand. 

This is about servanthood. It is an illustration of the kingdom of God and who is the greatest in it.  If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University has explored how it is that people make everyday ethical decisions. Many people, he found, perform deeds of compassion, service, and mercy because at some point in their past someone acted with compassion toward them. He wrote, “The caring we receive may touch us so deeply that we feel especially gratified when we are able to pass it on to someone else.”

He tells the story of Jack Casey, who was employed as an emergency worker on an ambulance rescue squad. When Jack was a child, he had oral surgery. Five teeth were to be pulled under general anesthetic, and Jack was fearful. What he remembers most, though, was the operating room nurse who, sensing the boy’s terror, said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right here beside you no matter what happens.” When Jack woke up after the surgery, she was true to her word, standing right there with him.

Nearly 20 years later, Jack’s ambulance team is called to the scene of a highway accident. A truck has overturned, the driver is pinned in the cab and power tools are necessary to get him out. However, gasoline is dripping onto the driver’s clothes, and one spark from the tools could have spelled disaster. The driver is terrified, crying out that he is scared of dying. So, Jack crawls into the cab next to him and says, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you; I’m not going anywhere.” And Jack was true to his word; he stayed with the man until he was safely removed from the wreckage.

Later the truck driver told Jack, “You were an idiot; you know that the whole thing could have exploded, and we’d have both been burned up!” Jack told him that he felt that he just couldn’t leave him.

Many years before, Jack had been treated compassionately by the nurse, and because of that experience, he could now show that same compassion to another. Receiving grace enabled him to give grace. Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.” 1

My friend Karen Aarons is a wonderful pianist, and piano teacher in Baytown.  She is the daughter of a holocaust survivor who spoke at our church the year we hosted the first Holocaust March of Remembrance.  Karen is the lay leader at the Congregation Israel Knesseth in Baytown.  She sent me a text wishing me a Happy Easter.  She wrote, May this Holy Week be filled with many blessings for you all!   Take care and God Bless!  I wrote back and wished her a Pesach Samach.  (Blessed Passover).

It reminded me of a conversation I had with her about the timing of the Passover Seders.  She said that the Jewish festivals are celebrated according to the lunar calendar.  That’s why they do not occur on fixed dates. That’s why our celebration of Holy Week moves as well. 

Karen said that the celebration of Passover usually last 8 days.  The celebration of the Seder meal can take place any time during that week.  She said some orthodox families celebrate the Seder as many as 3 times during that week, on the first night and the second night and then on the last night.  I asked her about the sequence of the meal.  She said that there are ceremonial prayers and partaking of the specified items like the shank bone of the lamb and bitter herbs and unleavened bread and salt water and two cups of wine that are shared at the beginning of the meal.  Then the participants have a full meal which is ended with two more cups of wine and more prayers.

What does this mean?  It means that it was after the ceremonial beginning of the Passover meal and in the middle of the meal proper that Jesus rose to stoop to wash his disciple’s feet.  It means that after washing their feet they returned to eating until they finished their meal.  It means that at the end of their meal they shared the last two ceremonial cups of wine.  It means that after those last two cups Jesus took some bread and a fifth cup of wine adding a NEW ceremony.  Jesus broke tradition with the  breaking of the bread and the taking of the fifth cup of wine in order to start a new tradition—one which we remember tonight..  Through their Passover Seder they had just remembered the Old Covenant and the Old deliverance from slavery.  Now Jesus institutes a New Covenant with a New Commandment.

After they finished the meal they sang a hymn and went out.  In verses 31-35 Jesus gave them the words to go with this new tradition.  Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you.”

“Most scholars agree that the English word “Maundy” is derived through Middle English and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum which is the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum” –a New Mandate, a New Commandment. That’s why we call this Thursday “Maundy Thursday.” 

Margaret Guenther wrote, “Note that the Lord’s command is not that we LIKE one another. That certainly would be nice, but to like or not to like is rooted in our emotions, and emotions do not respond to commands. The love of which Jesus speaks is NOT an emotion. It is a way of acting toward one another that says, “No matter what, I want GOOD for you, and I will do whatever I can to insure that you get it.” Christian love is not something the Lord wants us to FEEL for one another but rather something he wants us to DO for one another. 

As to how this love should be measured, our standard comes from the clause, “as I have loved you.” That is a broad and lofty standard indeed! The love that Jesus had for his disciples began with a willingness to ignore the limits of society. He did not content himself with a little group made up of only his “own kind” – he reached out to ALL kinds, and especially to those whom the rest of the world would shun. The love of Jesus enabled him to take on tasks that would have been thought to be beneath him – servant work like washing dusty feet, for example. The love of Jesus was able to encompass the hypocrisy of Peter, the self-serving ambition of James and John, the unbelief of Thomas, the betrayal of Judas. It was a love that knew no limit. He loved them so much that he was willing to die for them. That became our standard for obedience. “As I have loved you…so you must love one another.”

We have cheapened love by using the word carelessly. We have confused the sentimentality of the Hallmark card with the deep, dark mystery of love that is manifested for us in the incarnate Christ. Yes, love can be warm, enfolding and sheltering. Yes, love can feel good. But love can also be strong and difficult. It can be an impossible challenge.” 2

What else does this mean?  It means that after a night-time trial which ended in a morning sentencing and scourging and crucifixion that Jesus was being killed at the same time that the Passover lambs were being slain all over the city.  It means that after having slain the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, some Hebrew families were sitting down to eat the lamb of Passover that reminded them of the lambs that were slain to save the lives of the first born sons of Israel when the angel of death passed over the homes marked with the blood of the lamb on their doorpost. It means that when Jesus was placed in the tomb before sundown, Hebrew families gathered around tables all over that city to celebrate the Seder, remembering the Exodus and God’s great deliverance from the hand of Pharaoh brought by avoiding the angel of death, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world would lay dead, wrapped in a borrowed linen shroud in a borrowed tomb.

I want to close with a poem in 4 parts.  It was written by a seminary classmate of mine Darrell Cluck called Easter Thoughts 1973.  I will read a part of it at each of the next 3 services.

God borrowed a body to become one with us.

On a borrowed beast he rode to a borrowed room

Where he broke the borrowed bread and served the borrowed wine

Borrowing condemnation from ones on borrowed time.

Let’s pray.  Holy God, source of all love, on the night of his betrayal Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another as he loved them.  Write this commandment in our hearts. Give us the will to serve others as he was the servant of all.  Wash us from the stain of sin, so that, in hours of danger, we may not fail, but follow your Son through every trial and praise him always as Lord and Christ to whom be glory now and forever.  

Lord, we pray that we might never forget the scene lived out that night.  When we are tempted to think more of ourselves than we ought, flash before our minds the incredible scene that night of you stooping to wash the dust from the feet of those you loved. 

We pray for those who are in deep need this night–.for those whose pride stands in the way of them being in relationship with you.  We pray for those who once were close but now have drifted far away, for those who even have gone so far as to betray you to others or deny knowing you, or run so far away that no one even think them to accuse them of ever having known you. 

We pray for those that know you intimately but still are in need. We pray for those who are battling illness, fighting for recovery, trying to overcome addictions, surrounded by loneliness, aching from grief.  Surround, comfort, heal, and sustain those who have leapt to our minds in this moment of prayer. Send your Holy Spirit to work you will in their lives in Jesus name.

Lord, as we soon come to the table in remembrance of the night in which you were betrayed, help us to so come in the right spirit and frame of mind.  Don’t let tonight be just another rote experience but make it special.  Break the pride in us that keeps us in control and wrests control from you.  Humble us in the same way you humbled your disciples by stooping to do what neither they could, nor can we imagine ourselves doing.  Move us to doing the unimaginable that our mission might be fulfilled and your will might be done on earth as it is done in heaven. This we pray in Jesus name, Amen. .

1.  CSS Publishing Company, Taking the Risk Out of Dying, by Lee Griess

2)  “No Exceptions Permitted,” article in The Christian Century, May 3, 1995, by Margaret Guenther

Faith Lift: Revealed

When I was a kid I loved to watch cowboy shows. I would ride my stick horse around the back yard with my bandana.  Who would have believed that I would be a trendsetter for 2020.  

Now, 63 years later after taping my sermon at the church on Saturday I went to Kroger looking like this.  

I was headed for the blueberries and I heard someone say, “Hi Pastor!”  I turned and it was Janet and Ken.  I said, “How did you recognize me? She said she recognized my “Shout for Joy” cross.

Ken had made his mask out of a coffee filter.

In these days of living behind masks we have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and each other.  Without the distractions of sports and movies and concerts and dining out and even gathering for worship we have more time to think and pray and dig deeper into who we really are and what really matters most—what really is essential.   

We will not be able to gather to worship this Sunday.  We’ll be behind closed doors.  If you think about it though, we will be more like Jesus’ disciples this Sunday we call Easter than any other.   

John 20:19 says, “On that evening of the first day of the week the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear…” Those who first heard the good news from the women who went to the tomb were not in a house of worship.  They were sequestered in a home.  

This year as we remember the empty tomb we will do so with an empty sanctuary.  We will be in our homes, but not for fear.  We will be in our homes out of respect and love for the rest of our human family.  We may be behind doors to protect ourselves and those we love and those we may never meet from an unseen threat, but we will not do so out of fear.  The sting of death has been stolen and the grave has been robbed of its victory when who Jesus was and is was finally and dramatically and triumphantly revealed…

Blessed

Psalm 118:1-2; 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11, Philippians 2:5-11 – April 5, 2020

INTRODUCTION TO PSALM 118:1-2; 19-29

This morning’s reading from the Psalm 118 was the Psalm that was on people’s minds when Jesus chose to enter into Jerusalem.  The chant that went up from the people was a direct quote from that Psalm.  When we read the story later in the service you will hear them echo what I read now.  Hear the Word of the Lord.

INTRODUCTION TO MATTHEW 21:1-11

What happened on that Sunday long ago was not totally spontaneous.  It was a deliberate act on the part of Jesus, demonstrated by the fact that Jesus sends two disciples into the city to make this entrance different from every other time he has entered that city. It is a fulfillment of what I read earlier from Psalm 118. 

PRAYER OF PRAISE

God of our salvation, we give you thanks for Jesus Christ our Lord, who came in your name and turned the lonely way of rejection and death into triumph.  Grant us the steadfast faith to enter the gates of righteousness that we may receive grace to become worthy servants and citizens of your holy realm.  Hear our cries asking you to Save Us and receive our Praise for doing so.

***

Thank you for joining me for this 4th sermon from my living room.  I discovered that the recording of my last sermon on Wednesday ended before I did. For some reason it stopped at 15 minutes and 13 seconds.  Those of you who made it to the end of the sermon were left hanging on what Albert Schweitzer said.  So for those who were left hanging and for those who didn’t get to that part to be left hanging I’m going to open this sermon with that illustration.  My message was on being humble.  It still is a fitting opening illustration for today’s message which is Jesus’ entering Jerusalem on a humble donkey.

Albert Schweitzer was laboring one day, under the hot African sun, building his hospital at Lambarene. A large timber had to be raised into place, and try as he might, Schweitzer couldn’t manage it alone.  He looked up and saw a well-dressed African man standing in the shade of a building, and asked him to lend a hand.   “O, no,” the man said, “I don’t do that kind of work. I am an intellectual.” Albert Schweitzer, with five earned doctor’s degrees, said, “I used to be an intellectual, but I couldn’t live up to it.”   

Speaking of humble, a pastor was once asked to speak at a banquet for a charitable organization. After the meeting, the program chairman handed the pastor a check. “Oh, I don’t want this,” the pastor said. “I appreciate the honor of being asked to speak. Keep the check and apply it to something special.”

The program chairman asked, “Well, do you mind if we put it in our special fund?”

“Of course not,” the pastor replied. “What is the special fund for?”

The chairman answered, “It’s so we can get a better speaker for next year.”

Life is full of humbling experiences. But, when we look at Jesus’ parade through the Holy City, we sense that it was an act of humility. He did not choose to ride into the city on a white horse named Silver, but on a donkey. He was not coming in the might and power of a conquering king, but as a humble servant.

Jesus was using his parade through the Holy City to teach that humility is the key to greatness. The idea of greatness is directly related to being a servant. The one issue which Jesus made abundantly clear is that he came not to be served, but to serve. If we are ever to attain the humility of Jesus, then we must realize that we, too, are called to be servants.  If we do that we will be blessed, because of our service, our world will be blessed.

Jesus blessed people’s lives. He blessed and transformed the life of Nicodemus.  He blessed and transformed the life of the Samaritan woman at the well.  He blessed and transformed the life of the man born blind.  He most certainly blessed and transformed the life of Lazarus. He has blessed and transformed my life and I trust yours too.

This morning’s text tells how Jesus blessed and transformed the most significant religious event in the life of Israel–Passover.  He blessed the bread and the cup of Passover and transformed Passover from a week of remembering the children of Israel’s deliverance from bondage to Egypt to a week of celebrating the whole world’s deliverance from bondage to sin through his life, death and resurrection

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is in stark contrast to Solomon’s reception of the Queen of Sheba, 1 Kings 10:1‑13 and the acclamation of Jehu as king of Israel, 2 Kings 9:13.  The garments and palm branches strewn in Jesus’ path by the people, as well as their cry of “Hosanna!” reinforce Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the Savior of the common, ordinary people. Jesus didn’t get the red carpet treatment.  He got to green garment treatment. There were no vast display of riches, no dignitaries and no loud trumpets to greet the arrival of this king.

The cry of “Hosanna!” which greets Jesus (v.9) was originally a plea meaning “Help (or save) Traditionally it was addressed to the king or to God but, by the time of its use here, it may have become a ritualistic liturgical formula of blessing or acclamation for a distinguished figure–like Hail to the Chief or the song “Pomp and Circumstance” which is used for graduations.  As the representative of this God, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the gospel of Matthew is a triumph of peace and humility over the forces of pride and hostility.

Can you imagine if Jesus had been treated like a 21st‑century celebrity as he rode into Jerusalem?  Wolf Blitzer would have reported on rumors that Jesus planned to disrupt temple business.  Pundits would have argued about who he “really” was.  Someone would undoubtedly have written a psychological profile for Psychology Today.  Some tabloid would investigate Jesus’ relationship with “the woman at the well or the woman who anointed his feet with oil and dried them with her hair.  There would be in‑depth analysis by cult specialists and modern‑day Pharisees and Sadducees on the 24 hour news channels. A council of church officials would be in place to verify the veracity and authenticity of Jesus’ feeding the multitudes and walking on water.  As he entered the dusty city, hundreds if not thousands would have taken selfies with him or photo- bombed him while Lester Holt would stand by to offer color commentary.

While the celebrities of today are famous because they have hired promoters and agents, Jesus was celebrated by a relatively small number of followers who were not quite sure why they were there, except for the fact that something drew them to this teacher, this holy man. He could heal them. He spoke in mysterious parables. He was very different from anything they had seen before. And he loved them in a way they had never experienced before. There was something about him.

In a cruel and violent world, where most people were interested in basic survival, Jesus regularly stirred up enough trouble to risk his safety. In a culture where people shamelessly promoted themselves, many times Jesus told those he healed to “tell no one.”  He was not swayed by current trends. He was not concerned with money. He had no problem with challenging those in power. His ministry was guided, nourished and planned NOT by the powers that be but by the only Power that really matters.

Considering the life expectancy of a man of his time he was not particularly young.  He was most definitely not rich.  His disciples were limited to 12 men of limited resources and a few women of some of whom had uncertain reputations.

The one detail we know for certain is that his story never ends.  It did not end in a procession in Jerusalem.  It did not end on a cross. It did not end in a cave on the property of Joseph of Arimathea.  It did not end because the calling was passed on from generation to generation.  It was and is a relay.

The story continues. It continues in the lives of people like you and me in whom the living Christ continues to work wonders.  The story continues in us who are called to keep it alive.  For those of us who have, by grace, found ourselves following Jesus it is an irresistible story, a life‑changing story.  We are as transformed as Nicodemus and the woman at the well and the man born blind and even as Lazarus was.

The procession that began on Palm Sunday continues. It continues not because a finish line was never crossed.  It continues because there is NO finish line.  It is an eternal relay.  It continues because the baton has been passed to us and will be passed to those who follow us when our leg is finished.  The question before us as a church is, who is coming behind us?  Who are we training to take our place when we finish our leg? 

When I was serving as pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Baytown I joined in a procession-the Relay For Life.  Like so many other events it has been postponed this year.  I was in the 16-20 year group at the end of the procession.  My friend Mike Wilson was in the 1-5 year beginning of the procession.  In between us was a long line of people who have survived cancer, and friends and family of folks who walked with them and friends and family of those who finished their race and had passed on their batons.

What impressed me in The Relay For Life was the diversity of the procession.  There were people from all walks of LIFE, taking part in this relay.  Cancer does not discriminate.  It’s an equal opportunity afflicter. It’s the same with Covid-19. 

As followers of Jesus we believe that dying is not the end of life. While we walk and raise money for research to find a cure for disease that takes away life in this world, we believe that even when our lives in this world end, it is not the end.  It is not a battle lost; it is passing a baton to those behind us to continue as we drop out having run our leg.  Life is a Relay—a Relay OF Life. 

Even though I’m no longer in Baytown I hope to keep participating in the Relay For Life until I make my last lap and hand off in my Relay OF Life so that, like Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy, I will have “fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

Until then, my calling and I think our calling is described the way someone put it so simply long ago when he said:  Find a hurt and heal it; Find a need and meet it. When we do this, we are on the road to being humble servants of Jesus Christ.

When we do this, we will be on the road to discovering greatness as one of the followers of Jesus Christ.  When we do this we will be echo of the cries that he heard that morning when Jesus entered Jerusalem.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Wherever we go, when we come in the name of the Lord we too will be Blessed.!

Let’s pray. God of glory, God of grace, we rejoice with humble hearts as we celebrate the condescension of the One who was your equal but left such glory for a while, to become human, in the lowliness of servanthood, the pain of suffering, and the indignity of death.  We raise our voices in exultation that you exalt Christ again in raising him to the heights and bestowing on him the supreme name in the whole universe, announcing that Jesus the anointed is Lord.  All glory be given to you, in praise of your vulnerability and your victory, one God, great in grace and great in glory. 

For a video recording of this sermon, click here: https://youtu.be/p8qo3Yp7xvc

Humble

Luke 18:9-14 – April 1, 2020

Jesus Loves Me

INTRODUCTION TO LUKE 18:9=14There’s an old “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip in which Calvin is talking to his stuffed tiger Hobbes (whom he imagines to be real and his best friend). He says: “People are so self-centered.”

Then he adds philosophically, “The world would be a better place if people would stop thinking about themselves and focus on others for a change.”

Hobbes sort of rolls his eyes and thinks aloud, “Gee, I wonder who that might apply to.”

Calvin answers, “Me!. Everyone should focus on me!” (1

Bill Watterson’s cartoon character Calvin could have been the poster child for the Pharisee in tonight’s passage from Luke. Let’s look at that passage and you’ll see what I mean.

***

I used to have a red 1968 Dodge panel van.  I covered it with Jesus bumper stickers.  On one side I got a giant logo for Humble Oil.  I cut the letters B and E off of another logo and put it above the word Humble.  So I drove around town commanding everyone who saw me coming to “BE HUMBLE.”

Through this morning’s parable Jesus paints a picture of two very different kinds of men and two very different kinds of prayer and two different kinds of …humble.

One of the men was a deeply religious man.  The Pharisee stood up and prayed in a voice just barely loud enough to be heard across the street,  He used prayer as a means of getting public recognition, not to seek to commune with God. In fact, he stops just short of congratulating God on what a great job God did in creating him! He sets himself apart, not just from the tax collector, but from all other men!

What we are to understand is this. When he prayed he was telling the truth. When he said, “Lord, you’re lucky to have a guy like me, because I’m one of the best guys I know,” it was really true. He really was a wonderful guy.

For instance, when he says, “I thank you that I am not like other men,” indeed he wasn’t like other men. He had a standard of morality that was far above the standard of that day. When he said, “I fast twice a week;” it happens to be literally true. The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday of every week. When he says, “I give tithes of all I possess,” he means he tithes on the gross and not on the net. He went beyond the Law of Moses. That’s no big deal; all the Pharisees did that. And when he says, “I am not a crook,” he really isn’t a crook. When he says, “I am not like this filthy tax collector,” he’s really not like that guy. When he says, “I do not commit adultery,” he really doesn’t commit adultery. He is faithful to his wife. When he says, “I am honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion,” he means it and every word of it is true. He truly is a genuinely good man. When I read his prayer, I am reminded of that country song that says, “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”

While he prayed, people would be standing around watching. And they would say, “He’s a fine man.” While he prayed, they probably applauded. He was the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you.–a good citizen, a law-abiding man, a good, religious kind of person. If he were to come to this church today we’d love him because he would be faithful, loyal, and give us a lot of money.

The other man was a tax collector.  Have any of you ever been audited?  Very few folks greet and IRS audit with enthusiasm.  They wonder if they did anything

wrong.  They wonder if their records will adequately support their audited tax returns.  They wonder how much more money they will have to pay to Uncle Sam as a result of the audit. Let’s just say that a tax audit is not exactly one of the blessings of living in the USA for which we will be offering thanks come the last Thursday next month.

Now I want you to imagine the person behind the desk at the IRS, the one who will be conducting your audit.  Imagine that he is not only intimidating and distrustful, but also dishonest (I know it’s stretch, but try to imagine that). Imagine that he will receive a percentage of the corrected amount resulting from the audit, and that he will do or say almost anything to prove that what you paid was not enough.

Now I certainly don’t want to imply that this is the way the IRS works in America, but that IS the way tax collectors operated in the time of Jesus.  Tax collectors were among the most corrupt and despised and feared people in society in those days. They were out to get not just a few, selected people here and there, but EVERYBODY!  They frequently operated beyond the law with no fear of punishment, changed the rules wherever they wanted to, collecting taxes from people in heartless and dishonest ways. 

This is the kind of man Jesus is talking about when he says, “But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and whispered, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  Jesus said, “but this man, rather than the other, went away justified before God.”  To quote Lil’ Jon I’d say, “ What?????” 

I suppose this is a question we could ask about a lot of Luke’s stories about the words and actions of Jesus. What’s going on when God sends His only Son to be born of a peasant girl in a stable in Bethlehem? What’s going on when Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well? What’s going on when Jesus invites Zacchaeus (another tax collector) down out of the sycamore tree and goes to his house for dinner?

We continue to ask that question in many circumstances today.  What’s going on is this story? What’s going on is life. What’s going on is humanity, immortality, the limits and frailties and brokenness of human existence. It’s the reality that every one of us falls short of living a loving, faithful life. It’s the reality that every one of us struggles with the hollowness and emptiness that creeps in as we try to cope with the secret sorrows of our lives.

As we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we hear the gospel theme of reversal. The one we expect to be judged faithful is not. The one we expect – or maybe even secretly WISH – to be condemned is redeemed.

Albert Schweitzer was laboring one day, under the hot African sun, building his hospital at Lambarene. A large timber had to be raised into place, and try as he might, Schweitzer couldn’t manage it alone.  He looked up and saw a well-dressed African man standing in the shade of a building, and asked him to lend a hand.   “O, no,” the man said, “I don’t do that kind of work. I am an intellectual.” Albert Schweitzer, with five earned doctor’s degrees, said, “I used to be an intellectual, but I couldn’t live up to it.”    That’s humble.

It’s so easy for our best-intentioned prayers of thanksgiving to slip into self-congratulation, even as our best acts of charity can become subtle ways of making ourselves look good.

In Jesus’ parable, two men went to worship before the altar. One was a good, Bible-believing, faith practicing, tithing Pharisee. The other was a money-grabbing, immoral, corrupt tax collector. The two men went back home after worship. One, the tax collector, went home forgiven, justified, blessed. The other was not.  

Neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector is the hero of this parable. Both of the characters in the story are sinners.   One sins knowingly and the other unknowingly, but both come to the altar of prayer as sinners, just like us.


The hard truth of prayer is that you quite often get exactly what you ask for. The Pharisee sinner didn’t seek God’s mercy in his kind of prayer.  He came with his hands full, so he went back home empty. Like the Pharisee, we don’t always ask for God’s mercy, so we don’t get it. 

Now understand that the tax collector is NOT a good person. Jesus doesn’t say that. The tax collector is a sinner, a man who has been dishonest and sometimes cruel. But he had a realistic assessment of his own wretchedness.  He acknowledged his shortcomings and his need for forgiveness. 
 What’s going on in this parable is that God is transforming reality, changing our expectations. God is being God, loving and embracing everyone who falls short, everyone who stumbles, everyone who knows the frustrations of life.

This is a parable about a typical Sunday morning worship service in every church every where. Jesus says that before any altar of God, in any service of worship, whether it’s in a magnificent cathedral or a storefront church in a shopping center, you mainly find two sorts of folks: Pharisees and Tax Collectors.  

Very few of us are one or the other ALL the time, but most of us are sort of like one or the other some of the time.

There are times when we come to worship as good, Bible-believing, righteous Pharisees who ask for nothing and get exactly that. We are so pleased with ourselves, so competent, so well-liked in the community. And yet we go home to Sunday dinner with a gnawing emptiness which we sometimes blame on the preacher, (sometimes rightfully so) but most often because we were so full when we got to church that nothing else would fit.

But there are other times, when we enter a house of worship like tax collectors

needing everything, empty, lost, painfully aware of our sinfulness and our need of God’s mercy. And we go home with even more than we dared to ask for.

God’s love extends to sinners of all shapes, sizes, and colors, ages and stages in life whether we agree with the choices they have made or not, whether they have memorized the great prayers of the saints of the church and can quote them on demand or whether the best they can muster is “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell this story about President Teddy Roosevelt.  At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite:

“That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” 

Then Roosevelt would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”  

Thanks be to God, that there is enough mercy for all us SINNNERS, Pharisees and Tax Collectors, me AND Kanye …and ALL who, every now and then need to know what it takes to BE HUMBLE.  

Let’s Pray, Lord have mercy on us, sinners all.  Forgive us and give us a renewed sense of your presence with us and in us as we strive to make a difference in our world by expressing the difference you have made in our lives.   Thank you that there is nothing we can do to make you love us any more.  And nothing we can to do make you love us any less.  We Love you Lord.  Thank you for your mercy and grace.  In Jesus’ name.

Last Laugh 

1)  Billy Strayhorn

Faith Lift: YouTube

When I was serving at the Interim Pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Dickinson I looked for an Open Mic in the area. I enjoy singing at Open Mics. I’ve made a lot of friends doing that. There is a listing of all the Open Mics in the Houston area and I looked up Dickinson.  It turns out that there was an Open Mic on Wednesday nights at a place on 517 called Hog Heaven.  I assumed it was a Barbecue joint. 

When I pulled into the parking lot I realized that it was not a BarBQue place.  It was a Bar … a Biker Bar. There must have been a dozen Harleys in front of the door. 

As I made my way to the stage area the bar maid asked me if I wanted anything to drink.  I asked, “Is tonight the Open Mic?”  She said yes and pointed me to the man who was the host. The band was on a break and he showed me the sign up list.  I signed up and took a seat to wait my turn.

I introduced myself to the four people at the table that had an open seat and listened to the next performer. He was backed up by a lead guitar, a one legged bass player and a drummer.  Both the bass player and the drummer were wearing Mullet wigs.   The host came over while they were playing and asked me if I wanted to play solo or if I wanted them to back me up.  I said, “Either way.”  Then he said, “O.K. You’re next.” 

When my turn came up I realized I didn’t have a guitar strap with me so I asked if I could borrow one.  The only one they had that was long enough was a rainbow strap.  After my second song the host came up and said, “You oughta record that and put it on Youtube.”

After my last song, as I was taking off my rainbow strap the one legged bass player got on his crutches and came over to me and made a point to tell me that he grew up playing in church.  I invited him to come.  He declined saying that Sunday mornings were hard for him.   Then another guy came up to me and said, ‘It took a lot of courage to come up here and do what you did.” 

It didn’t take a lot of courage.  It took me wanting to play well with others.  It took me doing unto others what I would want them to do to me. It took me treating others as beloved children of our one God that we know and love through Jesus who loves the little children of the world.

May you thrive in your time of not being able to play well with others because you can’t be with others.  Until we can gather again we’ll have to settle for “recording that and putting that on Youtube.” 

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