Three teenagers and one pre-teen helped make our Ash Wednesday worship gathering happen. One served as sound board apprentice, the other three led prayers or scripture readings. Having young people eager to participate in worship always makes my heart glad.
Glad hearts were in short supply this Wednesday. Too much death. Always and forever, too much death. Yet, acknowledging our mortality is a key component of Ash Wednesday. As is, at least at Woodridge United Methodist, a time of extended silent prayer. That fills my soul more than just about anything.
Our sequence this week:
-Singing “Come and Fill Our Hearts”
-8 minutes of silence
-This beautiful song by Over the Rhine
-My brief reflection:
Part of our job tonight is to remind ourselves of our inescapable mortality. Tragically, we have been reminded of that all too well today. A recent diagnosis of cancer, community members entering hospice care, and the mass shooting in a Florida high school.
So, yes, we have much for which we need to repent: the way we allow rampant gun violence; poverty; scapegoating of immigrants, and so much more.
Yet…I am convinced God’s favorite people are broken.
Thanks to Becky, our amazing Office Manager, that lovely greeting was waiting for me when I walked into my office today. My spiritual renewal is over so, for the first time in four months, I was back at work.*
As recently as, oh I don’t know, yesterday, I wasn’t so sure I was ready to be back. Being off — especially on Sundays — was really enjoyable. Then I stepped up to the church building, keys at the ready to unlock the door…but I didn’t even need them. Becky could see me; she buzzed me in. We chatted briefly; I went down the hall to my office. And I discovered I was glad to be back. I wanted to be there. I might have even smiled to myself.
Don’t get me wrong: there was no basking in a holy glow, nor a sounding of the heavenly chorus. I didn’t feel my heart strangely warmed. But being in that physical space again felt right. Maybe there is a deeper meaning to be found in that welcome, in having a door opened for me?
Whatever the reasons, I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, I am ready to work.
Certainly, there is much to be done in our country and our world as the compassionate, loving, justice-seeking hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. Let’s get to it.
*There are, I know, layers of privilege in that sentence (and this whole post). I intend to examine those layers soon.
[Note: This is an end-of-the-year letter I wrote for our congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church. I’ve adapted it here for, hopefully, appealing to a wider audience.]
I am often asked about that weird word in my title. Koinonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek language scholar, but those that are write that koinonia means community. The way the term is used in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47) suggests community that is formed through worship, fellowship, and living together justly. It seems to fit as my title, as my main areas of responsibility are youth ministry, outreach and justice projects, and worship.
Of course each of those areas also have a full committee working on them. Instead of telling each of their individual stories, I focus on an event that brought all three areas together in a vital, beautiful, inspiring, Spirit-filled way — creating community. Or, if I may dare to say it, creating koinonia.
With input from Youth Council and our youth themselves, we decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama for our summer youth mission trip. Immediately, our leadership team knew we needed to spend as much time as we could learning about the civil rights movement before our trip and as much time as we could visiting the movement’s special sites once we were in Alabama. Studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a key component of our preparations.
But first we read the letter to Dr. King which prompted his now-famous epistle. Most of our group was surprised and disappointed to learn that two Methodist bishops were among the eight signatories of the letter accusing Dr. King of being an outside agitator who had no business being in Birmingham. With the context set, we dove into the letter itself.
I am fond of quoting the portion of King’s letter that reads,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
While that first sentence is oft-quoted, the final two sentences seem to me even more vital. For they remind us that no matter how independent we think we may become, each of us is dependent upon others. We need each other and so we need to look out for each other, help each other, speak up for each other. Reading through Dr. King’s letter together transported us back those 60 years, evoked questions and concerns, and helped us consider our present time: In what ways is our society better? How can we better live into the ideals of the letter? What is the role of the Christian community in this? What is WUMC’s role?
The letter and all it provoked made us uncomfortable. Which is probably why it is so powerful and still relevant.
One of our members provided another milestone in our preparations. Thanks to her connections, the mission trip group was blessed with an evening with two leaders in the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Stanley L. Davis, Jr. andthe Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr. The duo shared stories of their experiences, suggested some sites to be sure to visit in Birmingham, and encouraged us to be faithful witnesses of God’s love for all people. Then Dr. Martin offered a closing thought that transfixed us and became our prayer for our time in Alabama:
Hate no one no matter how they have wronged you.
Live humbly no matter how wealthy and privileged you become.
Think positively no matter how hard life gets.
Give much even if you have been given little.
Forgive all, especially yourself.
Never stop praying for the best for everyone.
Always forgive. Forgiveness upsets, interrupts, and distorts the plan of Satan to defeat you. Always be forgiving.
Love is of God and God is love. Love is bigger than the past, our pain, our anger, fear, our scars, and yes, bigger than this whole world with devils filled.
There is somebody bigger than you and I. Behold the universe — the only thing bigger than you — walk there, live there in.
Do not worry about thinking outside the box — there is no box!!! There is no fence! There is no border!
Live free in God.
Thanks to one of the families on the trip, each member of the mission trip had those beautiful words laminated on a card along with Dr. King’s words that I quoted above. Our trip included meaningful work with community organizations, fun conversations on the road, vehicle mishaps, moving worship, laughs, tears, and lots of pictures. The attending youth were fantastic. They are why we do this.
I can never say this too much: our mission trips would literally be impossible without the dedication of and sacrifices made by our volunteer adult leaders. THANK YOU Lorie, Alma, Glenn, and Kevin.
As amazing as all that was, our time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was, at least for me, the most moving experience of any of my 20 mission trips. God’s Holy Spirit is in that place. God’s Spirit is at work in the people who are continuing the story of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus by working tirelessly for all people to be truly free. I want to be part of that story.
So that is on my mind as I consider plans taking shape and ways we might show better hospitality in our church and our community in 2017. For some time now, our lighted sign reads, “We stand with Standing Rock.” I hope we will further our lines in God’s ongoing story of freedom by renewing and increasing our connection to the Standing Rock reservation, and finding ways to support their efforts to protect their water supply against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our young people return to South Dakota in June 2017 for mission in Martin, South Dakota.
We look forward to confirming into full membership 15 young people in May, should the whole Confirmation class choose that path. Regardless of the final outcome, the families in that class are already deepening their connections with each other, with the congregation, and with the community — and, ultimately, that is why we have the program.
One way I hope we will expand koinonia in 2017 is through fuller participation with Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors. If even some of the president-elect’s campaign promises are fulfilled, our neighbors who are recent immigrants could be extremely vulnerable. We can help JFON care for them. That is a way to love our neighbors we have left largely unexplored. I hope we begin to correct that in 2017.
To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou: As we work for justice for all God’s children, whatever challenges and roadblocks 2017 brings, I know that with God’s Spirit, like a song, still WUMC will rise.
I don’t have many traditions on this blog (other than posting quite irregularly, of course). However, I’ve tried to maintain a Christmas day tradition. I missed doing it in 2015, so wanted to be sure to get back on track this year.
Each Christmas I post this Isaiah passage (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year); Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, which I find the world’s best and most challenging Christmas song; and a second song that changes each year.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-free future.
Yes, our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. I’m convinced the Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopelessness. It means we’ve got some work to do.
(Trigger warning: some images involves children, many are difficult to watch.)
Previously, I’ve made the second song a light-hearted or even silly offering. However, 2016 being what it has been, I just don’t have it in me. All the shootings here in Chicago, multiple friends in pain over broken relationships, all the celebrity deaths, mass slaughter in Aleppo, the appalling election, the hateful acts and words towards people of color and other marginalized groups as celebration of Trump’s win, and my dad’s death combine to make 2016 pretty terrible.
Still, I refuse to lose all hope. Many friends are standing up to racism and hate in myriad ways. People in my congregation continue to feed the hungry and provide shelter for those experiencing homelessness. I still believe that the “moral arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice.”
Instead of a silly song, how about a “Happy Christmas” cover? Sarah McLachlan’s work with Bare Naked Ladies on “Good Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” remains an all-time favorite of mine. Though her cover here is not new, it is new to me this year. A double-dose of imagining war is over is just what I need. Maybe the same is true for you.
Merry Christmas from the Buerstetta’s to all who celebrate it! Happy Holidays to all other traditions!
In a recent note to the families involved in the youth ministries at the church I serve, I wrote this about Church Conference:
Church Conference is the United Methodist term for what other denominations might call its Annual Business Meeting, or what a corporation might call its Annual Shareholders meeting, or what a leading tech company might call its Keynote Event.
That is, Church Conference is where we do business such as electing church officers, consider the successes and challenges of the past year, and cast the vision for who we want to be in the new year.
Prognosticator that I am, all three of those things happened Wednesday night. Plenty of good ideas were shared, but two moments far outshine all the rest:
The District Superintendent’s dinner with the youth and our newly adopted Hospitality Statement.
I don’t know how often this happens at other churches, but I know that in the last 20 years at WUMC, the District Superintendent has never shared a meal with our youth. That changed Wednesday night. The interaction between the youth and Rev. Dick Wisdom, Superintendent of the Aurora District, was so fun to watch and participate in. Our young people prepared ten questions for Rev. Wisdom, and he responded to all of them with grace, humility, and, well, wisdom.
But what really made the night was a little later when Rev. Wisdom declared that the questions from our youth were the highlight of his year. I couldn’t be prouder of our amazing teens! What were those questions that so moved our DS? Glad you asked…
Do you have children? If so, how old are they?
Were you in youth group in High School? What was it like? Did it influence your vocation? Did you go on mission trips?
What does a District Superintendent do?
What did you do before becoming DS? Before you were a pastor?
What made you want to be DS?
Why did you assign Pastor Danita to WUMC (not complaining)? How did you come to decide this was a good fit?
Is swearing considered a sin?
One of my best friends is Muslim. What can I do, as a Christian/Methodist, to make sure that she doesn’t feel scared or bullied? What if I am too scared to stand up for her?
What do you think of UMC’s “democratic” nature? Is democracy the best way to run a church of Christ? In democracy, majority rules, but is the majority always right? What do we do when the majority is wrong?
Is the UMC too influenced by the political process in our country? Does it interfere with us responding to God’s will?
The other highlight was the historic moment when our congregation unanimously adopted the Hospitality Statement. Our Administrative Council worked on the statement for months, approving it at our November meeting and thus bringing it to Church Conference for a vote. While almost everyone who visits WUMC says they received a warm welcome, and we’ve long tried to be welcoming of people no matter what, this statement marks the first time our congregation has officially declared that all people are welcome.
It is written in three parts:
We are an open and loving United Methodist Community who are:
Welcoming to all;
Uniting in service toward greater social justice for all;
Moving forward with understanding and acceptance of all peoples;
Creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We invite others to join as we live our Christian faith together.
Our purpose is to offer a safe place and community to all races, cultures, religions, genders, sexual identities, ethnicities, age groups and other beliefs.
We expect everybody:
To accept imperfection in one another;
To respect that we are all on unique and valuable spiritual journeys;
To recognize that we are all worthy of God’s love;
I am bad at posting the text of my sermons — mostly because I don’t usually write a manuscript from which to preach and then post. Plus, I’m convinced that sermons are best experienced when heard, rather than just read.
Here then, is the audio from yesterday’s sermon. My editing talents are limited so there is a little extra material at both the beginning and the end. Go to the four minute mark to hear the beginning of the sermon. Or start at the beginning to hear a bit of a song and the two scripture passages for the day, Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 7:17-23.
However, if reading is preferred over listening, I’ve also posted my notes below. The caveat being that I mostly use them as a guide, meaning what I actually said doesn’t completely match up with what I wrote. I doubt I’ve ever had a sermon completely match in that way. I suspect that’s true for most preachers.
We didn’t have time after the message for discussion in church, so I’d love for this to become a conversation here. So comment, question, and critique away.
”Names for the Messiah: Wonderful Counselor”
We are a country divided. From coast to coast, we have an issue that pits sister against brother; child against parent; even spouses against each other. I am of course talking about…
Properly using commas.
Why, what did you think I was talking about?
“To Oxford Comma, or not to Oxford comma, that is the question.”
I can’t and won’t solve this dilemma today, though if you know much of anything about me you can probably guess in which camp I fall. But for our purposes today, let’s at least acknowledge that comma placement affects the meaning of a sentence.
Here’s an example; notice the difference: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Mark Twain, and God.” OR “I dedicate this book to my parents, Mark Twain and God.”
Comma placement matters. Can we agree upon that?
Here’s why that’s important today:
The key passage for this sermon series, ‘Names for the Messiah”, is, as you might expect, the passage that, you know, names the Messiah: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
Thanks to Handel’s “Messiah”, we are probably most used to hearing that list as five names: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, etc.
“The two terms are to be taken together. ‘Counselor” refers to the exercise of governance, the capacity to administer, to plan, to deliver policy.”
‘Wonderful’ may suggest the new king will have great wisdom. Or it may suggest that the plans and policies of the new king will be tremendous and surprising.
Here’s my next controversial statement that’s not actually controversial at all: The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE. He was writing about the crowning of a new king of Israel. He was not predicting Jesus of Nazareth, some 800 years later.
The early church read those terrific titles and used them to bear witness to Jesus, connecting the reality of Jesus to the expectation for a Liberating King, a Messiah, to the Hebrew Testament.
So we inherit a tradition that sees these titles in Jesus. And ‘wonderful’ becomes the operative word.
His teaching is ‘wonderful’ because he tells us and shows us that things we think are impossible are actually possible for God. Scriptures tell us Jesus is wise beyond explanation. He open up new possibilities for us. Thus he is a threat to conventional wisdom and conventional power.
The passage from Luke shows just how surprising and unconventional Jesus is. Even his relative, John the Baptizer, the one called to make the way for Jesus, isn’t sure he really is the one! But because of Jesus, the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed and the poor have good news.
“The old limits of the possible are frauds designed to keep the powerless in their place.” Jesus exposed this desire of the power order of his day and invited the common people to see that another way was possible, and not just possible but what God actually wants for all people. No wonder the religious and political leaders of his day wanted Jesus dead — he was “teaching them out of their allegiance to the entrenched order!”
Jesus breaks down such conventional wisdom, such as that “wisdom” that says white men should be in authority in order for society to maintain “proper” order.
Make no mistake, conventional wisdom and power are resistant to change; resistant to new possibilities. We’ve seen that in the rise of white nationalism, white supremacy, trying to disguise itself in a new name, “alt-right”, but with the same goals: keep white men at the top of the power structure; at the top of society. These are people who, intentionally or not, feel empowered by this month’s election to come out of the shadows and speak overtly, publicly that all who aren’t straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christians don’t belong.
Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means we who strive to follow in His Way must resist racism in all its forms.
Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means we who strive to follow in His Way must resist demonizing and “othering” of all groups of people: no matter their race, no matter their religion, no matter whom they love.
One way we are living this out is through our new Hospitality Statement. What is that statement? Come to Church Conference Dec. 7 to be part of the group that hears, and hopefully, approves this historic document.
Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means another, better way, another better world is POSSIBLE. Not just possible, but is actually what God wants for the world.
We who strive to follow Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, must be agents of hope, especially for those desperately in need of good news.
We who strive to follow Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, must be agents of God’s better way that includes ALL people.
That, I am convinced, is our way forward, together. Amen?
Divorce. Disease. Death. The uncomfortable truth is that our congregation, our communities, and our country is hurting. From more than just those three ‘d’ words, of course. But those are the ones I’ve encountered most in recent weeks and months. Too often, we feel the need to present ourselves as doing fine — even in church. Maybe especially in church. I know because I do it too. In my head, I know that our sanctuary should be just that: a place of refuge from the parts of our lives that expect us to be — need us to be, demand us to be — ‘ok’ all the time. I know I want our place in the world at 2700 75th Street to be a place where it is ok not to be ok. However, I also know just how hard it is to admit to ourselves and others that we’re not ok. For myriad reasons, internal and external, we want and need to appear tough, solid, stoic, strong, above it all.
Yet we follow God in the Way of Jesus. That means we follow a God who willingly became vulnerable and intimately entered the world. Baby Jesus? Vulnerable. Born to an unwed, teenage mother? Vulnerable. Part of a family that became refugees in a foreign country in order to flee violent authorities? Vulnerable. Lived in a country occupied and controlled by a foreign military power? Vulnerable. Openly protested his own people’s cultural practices that further oppressed the poor? Vulnerable. Arrested, beaten, and executed on trumped up charges? Vulnerable.
But following God in the Way of Jesus means we follow a God who lived in an open, vulnerable manner that allowed others around him to be vulnerable as well — which often led to their healing. Isn’t that what we’re after too? Healing the hurt in our selves and in our sisters and brothers?
Our scriptures are full of people crying out to God for help, for healing, for wholeness. Let those authors provide your voice, if need be. Especially good for this are the psalms of personal lament such as Psalm 13, Psalm 35, and Psalm 86. Or try the psalms of communal lament such as Psalm 44, Psalm 74, or Psalm 80.
This Sunday, our prayer time will not feature a responsive litany. Instead we will engage in directed silence, lament, and celebration. To paraphrase biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, we will seek to be honest about the ways the world disorients us and how we might find a new orientation in the grace and love of God.
So whatever it is that makes you not ok today: your own struggles, or issues with which those close to you are dealing, or broader societal problems like systemic racism or violence such as (this week’s examples) Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott, or desecration of sacred land in Standing Rock Reservation, or global challenges like getting education for all girls…bring it all so that in our honesty we may lay it at the altar.
Today is Thorsday (aka Thursday) and, I’m told, it’s also #NationalSuperheroDay. I don’t know why that’s a thing, but I like it. Since I was just talking with a friend about a sermon I once did about Thor…seems like a good day for an archive post. Plus, I really do enjoy Marvel’s Thor books. The current run with [SPOILER ALERT – look away if you haven’t yet read the story arc revealing the identity of the new Thor]…Dr. Jane Foster as Thor has been particularly fun to read and is beautifully drawn. Here’s a small sample:
Pretty awesome, right? Anyway, here’s The Gospel According to Thor
Originally posted January 30, 2014
You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.
I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.
Let me know what you think.
“The Gospel According to Thor”
Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23
Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!
Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:
Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games
Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.
Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.
So really, why not Thor??
Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.
Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.
“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”
“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”
“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”
“What! How do you figure?”
“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”
While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.
So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?
A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.
When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.
There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:
-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…
-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.
-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.
-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.
-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.
-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.
-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball
-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.
-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.
Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.
So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”
“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.
We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.
Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:
For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.
Or consider this from CS Lewis:
“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
Stories within stories within stories.
In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.
Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??
Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.
Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.
So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.
Stories within stories within stories.
There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.
(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)
God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.
Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?
Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.
One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”
You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”
Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:
-1 Billion w/o clean safe water
-800 million hungry
-27 million trapped in slavery
-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted
-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability
There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.
And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.
Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!
But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:
-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.
-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people
-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.
-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.
How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.
What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?
I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?
*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.
Last year this blog went through an extended new-post drought. While I wasn’t posting here, I was still writing and posting (at least occasionally) for my church site blog. Those posts felt specific to that audience, so I didn’t put them here even though I always use this site to write them (the WordPress process is so much more user-friendly than the church site one). Perhaps I thought those posts weren’t worthy of a wider audience?
Anyway, here’s a response to our Good Friday worship experience at Woodridge UMC….
After our Good Friday experience of dining together and walking the Stations of the Cross, one participant asked if we could print the pictures used for each station instead of just having them on the screen. Another participant asked if we could offer the text from each station here on the website. So, here we go…
I was surprised by the number of people who weren’t familiar with walking the Stations of the Cross. I guess I thought the practice was more widespread, but that seems not to be the case, at least among our congregation. “I thought that was just a Catholic thing,” I heard a few times. Please note: not once was this said in the “that’s too Catholic for us” old critique kind of way. Each time it was said from a place of curiosity and wonder.
We started out by sharing that walking the Stations of the Cross is a form of prayer that’s been used since at least the Middle Ages, with some references of it going all the way back to St. Jerome, circa 325-420 CE. Christians have engaged in the practice for a long time.
Since we don’t have permanent Stations, we had to place our readings throughout the sanctuary and sort of hunt for them. At each station one person sounded a chime, another person read the station’s title and it’s description. Then the chime was sounded again to mark the end of that station. Plus, each station featured an aforementioned visual image projected on the screen.
You’ll have to imagine the chime and visual, but here then are the titles and readings we used for each station. They are adapted from a resource found at preachingpeace.org.
Station 1 — Jesus is condemned to die.
Pilate found no fault with Jesus, but when the crowd grew loud, he grew silent. “I wash my hands. You deal with it.” Pilate had the knowledge and the power to stand and say “No!” to the world as it sought to crush the Lord of Life, but he chose not to act on his knowledge nor use his power.
Station 2 — Jesus takes up his cross.
This cross has now been thousands of years in the making. Its weight still grows greater each time I look for someone to blame for the pain in my world. Each time I insist that sin must be punished, I add an ounce to the burden Jesus carries for me. This is the cross Jesus carries; it is the cross of blame, of vengeance.
Station 3 — Jesus falls the first time.
Jesus, they watched you fall, and nervously laughed together. The laughter transformed them from individuals to a collective, and gave them a sense of belonging. Their laughter reduced you to a joke, to something less than a man. They became a mob, and relinquished their individual sense of right and wrong.
Station 4 — Jesus meets his mother.
Jesus, they wanted to make you an object of laughter to isolate you completely, but your mother’s loving presence got in the way. She withstood the blows of taunt and sorrow to be present for you along the way. She alone remained to give you courage, to remind us that you are someone’s child, just like we are.
Station 5 — Simon helps Jesus carry the Cross.
They needed you to die, Jesus, but their rage had gone too far. You were beaten so severely, not able to go on, so they looked for a solution that wouldn’t involve them too closely or have them touch the cross themselves. The answer – find a stranger who had no idea who you were to carry the cross. Simon knew nothing of your innocence.
Station 6 — Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
Jesus, you had been beaten so badly that you were “marred beyond human semblance.” As you walked along, you were almost unrecognizable. It was so much easier to hate you, to jeer you, to wish you dead when they couldn’t see your face. Veronica did not permit that luxury. She stepped forward and wiped away the blood and sweat, revealing your human face to all the onlookers.
Station 7 — Jesus falls the second time.
The first time you fell, Jesus, the onlookers laughed. Your fall made their hatred well up even more powerfully. Even though Simon was forced to help you, you fell again and showed weakness, so the mob screamed all the louder, “Get up! Get up!” desperate to find an outlet for their rage. They recognized that life was not the way they wanted it to be and someone had to be blamed, and so they taunted you. “Get up, Jesus! Hurry up!”
Station 8 — Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
Jesus, you told them, “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.” The women of Jerusalem, standing at a distance, wanted to weep for you as though your fate were unrelated to theirs, as though the violence you suffered did not affect them as well. You turned their sympathy back on to them; to remind them that your fate was their fate, too.
Station 9 — Jesus falls the third time.
Jesus, you did all you could do. You were utterly beaten, defeated, with not an ounce of strength left, so the remainder of what was to happen was left to the mob. They were not finished watching, taunting, hating. Like the potter’s clay, they fashioned you into what they needed you to be.
Station 10 — Jesus is stripped before the crowd.
Physical humiliation wasn’t enough. Spitting wasn’t enough. Whipping wasn’t enough. Crucifixion wasn’t enough. The mob needed to shame Jesus, to strip away from him any shred of human dignity. They were blind to the dignity in which his heavenly Father, our heavenly Father clothed Jesus. Unable to see his deeper dignity, they took sadistic pleasure in the shame they poured out on him.
Station 11 — Jesus is nailed to the Cross.
Hanging on the cross was not cruel enough, Jesus. Watching you suffocate would not satisfy the rage of the mob. So instead of using the traditional ropes, they needed to use nails to cut through your human flesh, to help the rage bleed away.
Station 12 — Jesus dies on the Cross.
The mob stood in stunned silence as they surveyed the result of their sin. The Lord of Life, Jesus, hung dead on the cross. The peace they pursued as they chased him up the hill refused to come. As they gazed upon Jesus, their victim, the realization dawned – violence would never bring peace. They were terrified and alone even as they stood with one another.
Station 13 — Jesus is taken down from the Cross.
Once the spectacle ended, the mob felt compelled to leave. There had been something both horrible and fascinating about Jesus as he hung there, and it was frightening to them. The task of dealing with his lifeless body, of touching Jesus, was left to those who were already unclean, so the mob had all departed by the time the guards permitted those who loved Jesus to bring him down from the cross.
Station 14 — Jesus is laid in the tomb.
Those who did not abandon Jesus, those who refused to join the mob, laid his body to rest with great tenderness into the empty tomb donated by a rich man. At that moment, they saw nothing divine in the torn flesh, nothing holy in the bloodied brow. They knew only sorrow, deeper than the greatest trenches of the oceans. Deep sorrow.
Today is known as “Good Friday.” Well, it’s actually only known as such among English- and Dutch-speaking people. Other names for this day include, according to UMC Discipleship Ministries, “‘Holy Friday’ among the Latin nations, “Great Friday” among the Slavic peoples, “Friday of Mourning” in Germany, “Long Friday” in Norway, and “Holy Friday” (Viernes Santo) among Hispanic peoples.”
We can only call this day “good” or “great” looking backwards from the perspective of Easter, of Resurrection. But it seems to me that we can better, more fully, enter into the story of Jesus by suspending whatever knowledge we have of Sunday and fully live into the despair of his death today. That’s what we’ll attempt to do with a three-part worship experience tonight at Woodridge United Methodist.
At 5:45 tonight, we gather around a table to share a simple meal, perhaps similar to the meal Jesus ate with his friends that final night. As this is a gathering for all ages, we’ll also have kid-friendly options. This is an interactive time as we consider together and enact the odd-to-us way dinners were served in Jesus’ time.
At 6:30, we continue to experience the story of Jesus’ final hours as we move from table fellowship to walking Stations of the Cross in our Narthex and Sanctuary. This ancient form of prayer invites us to hear 14 moments along Jesus’ journey to the cross.
Then at 7:00pm, a more traditional Good Friday worship time begins, making use of candles, songs, shadow, readings, and reflections.
We exit this service in silence, mirroring the silence of the grave. Jesus, our Lord, our teacher, our friend is dead.
Our challenge in this time is to be honest about this. Our challenge is to keep Saturday Holy. We know Sunday is coming. We can’t wait for the color and sound explosion that is Resurrection Day. But that’s a day away. We can’t yet know that relief. As Slacktivist, Fred Clark, so eloquently writes,
This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know…
Here, in time, there’s just this day, this dreadful Saturday of not knowing.
There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him…
Seriously, just look around. Does it look like the meek are inheriting the earth? Does it look like those who hunger and thirst for justice are being filled? Does it look like the merciful are being shown mercy?
Jesus was meek and merciful and hungry for justice and look where that got him. They killed him. We killed him. Power won.
Our challenge is to be honest about this Saturday. Our challenge is to live with the silence of the tomb. As Taylor Burton-Edwards writes, “This is the silence of the tomb, or perhaps more accurately, the silence from the tomb. This is the silence that grabs us, if we are paying attention at all, when we contemplate the aftermath of the crucifixion.”
To help us experience this, Burton-Edwards leads a Holy Saturday service each year via Twitter. You may follow it at the hashtag #holysat16 beginning at 9:00 am (Central time) Saturday, March 26th.
Let’s keep this Saturday Holy by honestly acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and by allowing the silence of and from the tomb to wash over us. Perhaps then, when we gather Sunday morning at 9:00 and 10:30 am, our celebrations will be sweeter than ever.