Reflection for Good Friday

The chapel sermon on our final night of Jr. High camp was always the same: a passionate re-telling of Jesus’ violent death on the cross, with the assurance that, “Every time you sin, you pound the nails deeper and deeper into Jesus’ flesh.”

And there we sat, dozens of awkward barely-teenagers, with tears streaming down our cheeks because of that one time last year when we forged our mom’s name on a test, or hid in the closet at 9:05 with the phone we weren’t allowed to use after 9:00, or wrote “Mrs. Smith is a poopyhead” in the margins of our notes, or noticed how hot the shirtless high school guys looked out running the track; we cried because we were killing Jesus.

This, of course, is crazy talk. I had a feeling it was crazy talk a long, long time ago. And after two seminary degrees and almost a decade in ministry I can confirm it: when I got impatient and yelled at my son last week, that action did NOT, in fact, pound the nail deeper into Jesus’ tortured flesh.

This is the kind of theology that makes many thoughtful Christians want to distance themselves from the cross altogether. But while I have set aside that Jr. High camp version of the crucifixion, I still hold the cross as a central symbol and event of my Christian faith.

The foot of the cross is holy space because it speaks deep truth about humanity and deep truth about God. The cross is, in part, about sin. Not because our every minor misstep is responsible for killing Jesus, but because the cross reminds us that we, as humans, are capable of pettiness, of injustice, of violence. We sometimes grasp for power in ridiculous and dangerous ways. We can let fear control our actions and our interactions. And our individual sins can morph into systemic sin that oppresses and wounds many, many people.

The foot of the cross is holy space because it assures us that God desires intimacy with us so deeply that God became human. God did not just look human. God did not just hang out as a human for as long as it was convenient. God, in Jesus of Nazareth, became really, fully human–so human that he died on the cross.

And so it is at the foot of the cross that we can most clearly see our need for God. It is at the foot of the cross that we can gaze most intently upon God’s love for us.

I leave you with this blessing for this holy day:

As you stand in the shadow of the cross, may the darkness guard your heart with love; may the chilled air fill you with holy breath; may you rest in the peaceful uncertainty of knowing that things are not as they seem. Amen.

Here are a few previous pieces related to Good Friday scriptures:

Reflection on Jesus’ trial–Why was he such a threat?

Reflection on Matthew’s version of Jesus’ death

And some theological reflections from John’s account

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For Maundy Thursday

Imagine the scene of a family meal. Perhaps Thanksgiving or Christmas. There’s a big table with all the leaves put in, and Aunt Betty’s tablecloth doesn’t quite reach the ends. Chairs are crowded around the table—six nice wooden ones, a few wobbly chairs brought up from the  basement, a couple of metal folding chairs, and, of course, the piano bench where the two smallest have to sit and share the curved end of the table.

It’s supposed to be a nice meal. The food smells good. Grandpa says “Amen.” You say, “please pass the jello salad.” But then uncle Herman says, “Can you believe those anti-family kooks letting gay people get married.” And your cousin Frank, who’s still in the closet, looks intently at his mashed potatoes.

Or maybe all is pleasant until Aunt Cindy whips out the brochures for the new product she is selling and encourages everyone to place an order. “Just don’t get gravy on the order forms.”

Or maybe the doorbell rings; it’s your sister’s ex-husband here to see the kids.

Or Grandma says, “Now you kids know the chemotherapy isn’t really working. Glenn has a copy of the will. Pastor knows how I want the service. When the time comes, please don’t fight over the china.”

That’s often what things are like around the table–awkward, uncomfortable, disconcerting. Even around the holy table, the sacred space of the last supper. The mood in the upper room must have been incredibly tense that night. Jesus and his disciples knew that Jerusalem was a risky place for them to be. Jesus had been making strange statements about death all week. The authorities could break into this upper room and bust up the party at any moment. And then Jesus, the master, the teacher, strips down, kneels, and performs the task of a common servant. How embarrassing.

It can only get worse as Jesus calls the bread his body; the wine his blood. Suggesting Jews drink blood, well, it’s not Kosher. And it is a vivid reminder that he will soon die a violent death.

The communion table is a sacred space, a holy place, to be sure. But it is not always comfortable. All sorts of people crowd around the table and argue about who should be there and what should be said and how things should be done. The history of communion in the Christian church is spotted with pain and schisms. And yet the table remains a holy place, where the power of God surges among us in amazing, grace-drenched ways.

The former archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, used his position of influence to speak out against the oppressive practices of land owners. He also stood tat the holy table often. In March of 1980 he was leading the people in the mass–“This is my body”–when the bullet went right through his heart.

Paul’s letters attest to the struggles of the earliest church to share the meal among rich and poor; slaves and free; men and women; and, most notably, Jews and Gentiles. Over time, of course, some of the categories of division change. Most of us are no longer concerned with distinctions of Jew and Gentile. But there are still plenty of divisions to overcome: Catholics and Protestants; Americans and Russians; blacks and whites; Israelis and Palestinians; Sunni and Shia; liberals and conservatives. The categories change. The nature of the conflicts change. But our human need for reconciliation remains.

The table is a holy space not because everyone around the table agrees with each other, but because it brings together those who disagree. In bringing people together, the table holds out the hope of peace.

Yes, there was fear and tension in that upper room. But the presence of Jesus brought a peace that reached beyond the turbulent circumstances. We are told that Jesus and his friends sung a hymn before they went out into the night.

Yes, Romero was killed at the communion table. But the words he said to a reporter a few days before his murder have proven true: “A bishop will die. But the church of God—which is the people—will never perish.

The table is a holy space, though not necessarily a comfortable space. It is a place to which God draws us; a place in which we allow Christ to become a part of us; a place from which the Holy Spirit leads with transforming power.

*You can read the full sermon version of this reflection (along with other good sermons) at the Bridgefolk site.

Creative Prayer Experience

Create an invitation to the meal in the upper room. If Jesus had sent handmade invitations, what would they have said? Address the invitation to yourself as a reminder that you are Christ’s chosen guest each time you share in the communion meal.

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Looking Toward Easter

Here is a Call to Worship for Easter morning, based on Isaiah 25:6-10:

God has destroyed the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations.
Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.
God has wiped away our tears and removed our disgrace.
Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.
God has swallowed up death forever.
Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.
The morning has come. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. The Good News is proclaimed.
Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.
For Jesus Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed!

And here are links to previously posted Easter resources:

Mark 16:1-8
John 20:1-18
Matthew 28: 1-10 (and a briefer reflection)
Luke 24: 1-12 (and a reflection)

Call to Worship
Calls to Worship
Call to Worship, Offertory, and Benediction

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The Week Ahead


I’m re-posting this piece from a few years ago. Because I need to hear it again.

Originally posted on Spacious Faith:

Holy Week tends to be pretty hard on pastors–or at least on me.  There is, of course, the practical aspect of organizing and leading extra worship services. (Between today and next Sunday there are seven worship services in which I have a significant part.)  More worship services means more sermons to write, more music to choose, more people to coordinate, more liturgy to develop, and more time leading worship.

Really, though, I usually find that the hardest thing about Holy Week, for me, is the emotional disconnect.  I’m reading through and preaching on the road to the cross, and the cross event itself, all while planning for a glorious celebration on Easter morning.  “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” runs around in my head all week with “Christ the Lord is Risen today!”  It’s exhausting.

And to be honest, I tend to resent the exhaustion.  I want to…

View original 311 more words

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Prayer Practices for the 5th Week of Lent

Creative Prayer Experience based on John 12:20-33
Create a drawing or collage of a growing plant–possibly a wheat stalk. Show the “dead” seed within the earth and the living plant above. If you would like, you can add words to your collage. Within the earth, write words that represent “deaths” you have experienced–deep disappointments, things you have given up, parts of the Jesus-path that are most difficult for you.  Above the ground, write words that express the life you have in Christ–the joy and grace you have found along the way.

Creative Writing Exercise
Consider Jesus’ statement in John 12:27: “Now my soul is troubled.” Jesus speaks these words after his entry into Jerusalem in anticipation of his arrest and crucifixion. If Jesus were talking with his closest friends or praying to God, what might he say about his troubled soul? Why is his soul troubled?  What does he most desire at that moment? How does he grasp for peace in the midst of his anguish?

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Micah 6:6-8 Call to Worship

So we’re not exactly using the Lectionary right now. This Sunday’s theme is “sacrifice,” and here is our call to worship based on Micah 6:6-8.

With what shall we come before our God?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
Should we write large checks?
Should we empty our wallets?
Should we promise to fast and pray every day?
Should we sign up for more committees?
Would that make God happy?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
With what shall we come before our God?
With humble hearts.
Hearts bent toward justice.
Hearts open in loving-kindness.
Hearts earnestly seeking God.

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Creative Prayer Experience: Ash Wednesday

collage materialsYou will need:

  • a piece of paper
  • glue or Modge Podge
  • foam brush
  • collage materials (magazines, pictures, patterned paper, etc.)
  • scissors
  • colored pencils

The Hebrew Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday have a lot of “heart” language. Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our clothing. The psalmist writes: “teach me wisdom in my secret heart;” “create in me a clean heart, O God;” “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If the imagery of the heart seems a bit trite right on the heels of Valentine’s Day, it is good to remember that the Hebrew term used for heart literally translates as “gut.” We’re talking here about the deepest place inside you.

In a sketch book or on a sheet of plain paper or card stock, create a collage that represents what is inside your heart–or your gut–right now.  In creating the collage, you can use pictures, words, and shapes. You can create your own images and/or use images from the collage materials you have. ModgePodge works well for creating collages, but you can also use regular glue.

On this Lenten journey, we seek to be in a holy space; a space where we are aware of our connection to God. Use a dark colored pencil to circle, shade, or otherwise indicate that stuff in your heart that keeps you from inhabiting holy space.  Use a light colored pencil or pastel to highlight the stuff that helps draw you into holy space.
Response suggestion: Choose one dark part of your heart to try to diminish this week and/or choose a light part of your heart to nurture.

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Epiphany Sermon Snippet

Somehow I managed to preach on the magi story twice last year, so this year I went with Isaiah 60 for Epiphany. This is an excerpt. You can also hear the audio and read the full manuscript.

– – – – – – – – –

I imagine the captured Israelites expected their return home to be an epiphany—an immediate burst of light to drive out all the darkness of captivity and exile. They must have dreamed for years about a glorious and triumphant return to their home country. The jubilant parades and the “welcome home” banners stretched across gleaming cobblestone streets. Their old houses ready and waiting; their old jobs available for the re-taking; their old friends sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for them to come back. Once they returned to their homeland, everything would be wonderful and perfect–just like that. A spectacular event. An epiphany!

That’s the kind of epiphany we all want, I think. The immediate, all-illuminating light. We seem particularly prone to these fantasies at the beginning of the new year, when we imagine the radical changes we will make to drastically improve our lives. We’ll get healthy and wealthy and spiritual and organized—just like that.

We want the shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord. We want immediate light and definitive revelation. We want our loved ones (or ourselves) to be healed, our bodies to be toned, our jobs to be fulfilling, our bank accounts to be large, our children to behave, our relationships to be whole—just like that. . . .

But instead the light usually comes as a glimmer rather than a bright explosion. Because people—individually and as a society—we rarely change quickly; circumstances rarely alter immediately for the better. Deep darknesses of inequality and injustice and violence won’t disappear in a sudden burst of light. It didn’t happen for the ancient Israelites, and it won’t happen for us.

True, Epiphany is more than an interlude, but it is also more than an event. The shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord—these are events, yes; but they are events that mark the beginning—that suggest the possibility—of a season of Epiphany; a journey toward revelation; a gradual brightening of the light.

One of the blessed, beautiful things about light is that it doesn’t take much of it to make a big difference. (I’m probably not the only one who has been irritated by the glow of a cell phone screen in an otherwise darkened auditorium.)

Despite the dilapidated buildings, the social unrest, the temple in ruins, a prophet declared to the people of Israel: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Turns out that our light does not come from us or depend on us. Our light is the light of God; the Divine light that shines for all people. It is a light that draws people—and camels, apparently–to it—maybe sometimes because it is so bright; but I think, most often, people are drawn to the light no matter how dim it is; simply because it is there, promising to dispel the thick darkness, promising to reveal, slowly, in hazy glimpses, a better way.

So may we truly live into this season of Epiphany. May we arise and shine knowing that our light has come; that our light is here; that our light—which is God’s light–will always be shining no matter how thick the darkness. Amen.

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Worship Pieces: Exodus 1-2

For those following the Lectionary, here is a call to worship for this Sunday inspired by the Exodus reading:

In this act of worship
we lay down our fears;
we refuse our oppressors;
we deny the forces of death.
In this act of worship
we know God’s protection;
we receive Divine power;
we are embraced by the Giver of life.
Let us worship God with joy.

*You might also be interested in this reflection on the power of the women in the story, and this one on the connections with this story and current events related to the shooting of Michael Brown.

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A White Mother’s Neglect

One more brown body
and I think of all the lessons I never
my son like
avoid the police at all costs
dress nice
and don’t wear red or blue or any color that they might think means you’re in a gang
keep your hands at your sides in the store
so they know you’re not stealing
or packing
or preparing to throw a punch
and if they accuse you of stealing
or packing
or preparing to throw a punch
say “sir” and “m’am”
and keep your head down.
I have not taught these things to my son.
And not once
have I thought to give him the script
that should have saved Michael Brown’s life
but didn’t.
Never have I said,
when they take aim at your beautiful body
you must
spread your fingers,
raise your arms
and say
clear as day
‘I do not have a gun.'”

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