A few thoughts on this Good Friday

Our noon Cross+Walk crew at St Paul Lutheran Church in Old Saybrook, CT

Today is Good Friday. It is a day for us to pause and consider Jesus and his cross. While there is much to see and contemplate here, this Good Friday as I look upon the cross – I see these things…

1. I see my own sinfulness.

I find it unavoidable to see the cross of Jesus and not consider my own sin and unworthiness before God. But the cross is also the place to experience God’s undeserved love and mercy. The cross calls me to repentance – to seek a new direction in my life as the forgiveness of God pours over me. Many Christians (and non-Christians alike) believe in a wrath-filled vengeful God whose hatred of disobedience and self-centered actions demand the violence of the cross in return. I don’t meet that God at the cross. Rather, I see a God that loves us beyond measure for the sake of making us whole. At the cross I see Jesus calling us to care for one another like he loves us. Picking up one’s cross to follow him is a call to into the self-giving-sacrificial love of others we first see in Jesus.

2. I see value in his suffering.

We like to hide our pain and sterilize the world’s suffering. We want happy and comfortable; neat and clean. We avoid death and seek things on our own terms in order to keep us interested. The ugliness of the cross confronts all of that. On the cross we see the One who suffers alongside the suffering; One who dies among the dying; One who uncovers every uncomfortable, messy, bloody, violent situation we would rather not have to deal with and rather than tucking it away he makes it the center of his mission. At the cross I see a God who will hang alongside us when we feel the most vulnerable, abandoned and alone. At the cross the message I hear is not “death will get us all” or “you get what you have coming to you in the end” but “I am with you always…Be still and know I am God…I have called you by name and you are mine.”

3. I see our understanding of power turned upside-down.

Jesus’ enemies thought they could do away with him by having him killed. His religious opponents believed the ends justified the means. The Empire in which he lived believed that might made right. At the cross injustice, corruption and our blind allegiance to both are exposed. At the cross Jesus values everyone who is ignored, blamed, scapegoated, thrown-away or stomped-on by others. At the cross Jesus succumbs to power to show its weakness. At the cross Jesus’ death reveals that death had no power over him (and now poses no threat to us either). At the cross I see every person in power and system they represent deemed ultimately irrelevant as Jesus alone is Lord.

These are a few things I see this Good Friday at the cross of Jesus. But there is one more thing I see today too. At that cross I find a community of people also seeking and called into his undeserved reconciliation, healing and peace that surpasses understanding – centered in love, mercy and hope.

Standing with them at the foot of the cross of Jesus – I am grateful.

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “No hosannas. No palms. But praises abound.” Luke 19:28-44, Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C

“As (Jesus) rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.” (Luke 19:36)

The Palm Sunday story is familiar and important. All four gospels tell it. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. People bring their palm branches and lay them on the ground as Jesus rides into the city.

Jesus enters the city as a new King David. The people see in Jesus the enactment of a restored Israel and shout praises but miss the larger promise unfolding. I Jesus the promised Messiah has come – but the gospels lead us to ask, “What kind of King is this Jesus?” and “What does his entry into Jerusalem mean?

If we read the Passion on this Sunday alongside the Palm Sunday reading we will hear how quickly people turn on him. The disciples meet in the upper room (in John Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus shares with them the last supper) but later abandon him; Judas betrays him; Peter denies him; the people shout ‘crucify him‘ and after a mockery of a trial Jesus is put to death on a cross beside two criminals.

We see before our eyes that either Jesus is a complete and miserable failure; abandoned, betrayed, shamed and executed – OR – that his Kingdom is centered on sacrificial love and undeserved mercy that the powers of this world cannot contain, control or defeat.

What is your take away from this narrative?

Luke’s telling of Palm Sunday (Luke 19:28-40) leaves out two familiar details we associate with Palm Sunday. There are no palm branches. There are also no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Jesus is not the restorer of Israel (at least not in the way many thought of what restoration would mean) and he did not come to start a military rebellion against Rome. While he comes to the Holy City, his revolution of sacrificial love and undeserved mercy burst out to the entire world and is inclusive of all and embracing of everyone.

When the religious leaders (the Pharisees) tell Jesus to tell his followers to stand down, he states, “I tell you, if these were silent the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). He weeps for the city rather than conquering it (Luke 19:41), saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). He warns of the coming destruction of the city (Luke 19:44) which by the time Luke would have composed this story had already taken place and would be fresh in his hearers memories.

This story serves not as an ending but the very beginning of Jesus’ global reach and mission (hence part 2 of Luke’s story, the Acts of the Disciples). The Kingdom comes in small moments with huge implications. To another man dying on across beside him who asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:44). We are reminded that even when it feels like the world (or our world) is ending – his sacrificial love and undeserved mercy will endure.

What are a few takeaways from Luke’s telling of Palm Sunday?

  1. The story is neither about the Palms nor the Hosannas. Jesus enters Jerusalem not to restore Israel but to die. His weeping over the city reveals his compassion for  people in he present and hi understanding of the pain that is coming. His imminent death joins the suffering of people everywhere. His Kingdom comes from Israel for all.
  2. Disciples of Jesus are not to keep silent. Too often we make faith a private affair and/or don’t want to get involved in other people’s struggles. We are called to live into and share the love and mercy of God we see in Jesus with others in their pain and suffering. But be not afraid – God’s Kingdom comes beside us when we fail; Christ’s compassion and grace meet us even if we lose our lives in the process; and all of creation shouts especially when we don’t believe we are up to the task. We are invited to join the cosmos in God’s restorative mission.
  3. The time is now. Sometimes we become so focused on our future (or think we are focused on God’s future) that we miss important moments. The pharisees in this story are risk averse and worried about what might happen if Jesus presses on. The crowd prepares for a King to give them what they want. The powers play their part to maintain the status quo. The disciples are eager but fall prey to their fears. Jesus acts in the moment to bring the Kingdom to us.

As Holy Week unfolds, we move from praising to mourning, from hope to despair, from communion to isolation, from prayer to abandonment, from life to death, and from certainty to surprise.

Pay attention to the moment. See the details. Grab hold of the promise. Embrace the mystery. Enter this story fully – and take part of the Kingdom unfolding around you.

Without any “hosannas” – get your “alleluias” ready. Easter is coming soon…

PGS

Sunday is coming! “The ongoing conflict between scarcity and abundance” John 12:-1-8 Lent 5C

“You always have the poor with you, you do not always have me.” (John 12:8)

There is inherent conflict in this passage.

The most obvious is between Judas and Mary. Judas believes the extravagance of Mary’s perfume is a waste – the nard could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus intervenes by accepting her gift of love as she anoints his feet as preparation for his coming burial. The narrator’s comments discredit Judas’ character as a thief.

The message: faithfulness is acknowledging abundance and offering thanksgiving over conniving and scarcity.

A second conflict imbedded in this scene comes between The religious leaders and Jesus. In John 11:1-44, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This scene is the after party to celebrate this amazing sign of the kingdom and the restored life of Lazarus. In the verses between (John 11:45-54), the religious leaders under the direction of the High Priest Caiaphas, plot to kill Jesus out of their fear and the implications of Jesus’ ministry and message. Caiaphas justifies this plot by saying, ‘it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’ (John 11:50).

The message: Jesus’ anointing (the title ‘Christ’ means: anointed one) serves as a foretaste not only of Jesus’ coming execution – but also his coning resurrection. In an upheaval of the power we expect – Jesus is revealed as the Christ.

There is also an ongoing conflict uncovered in this passage between the culture, the church, and the poor. Jesus says, ‘you will always have the poor with you, you do not always have me’ (John 12:8). The misinterpretation of this verse out of context by the church has served to neglect its mission in search of worldly power and wealth. By individual Christians this verse has been used to justify corruption and greed. A better translation of this phrase is ‘keep the poor with you as you do not always have me’ (see Dr. Lindsey Trozzo’s refelction on this passage from Working Preacher, online available: www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3993 ).

The message: our lives are not about choosing Jesus or the poor, but rather to see Jesus in the needs of our neighbors, recognizing the dignity and humanity in all people. What does that look like – a fragrant, beautiful, abundant gift of gratitude and service in the love Mary shows Jesus here. What if we cared for the least among us like that?

Out of this growing conflict Jesus forges a new way forward – abundance, sacrifice and our common humanity over scarcity, power and dehumanization.

Those powers will seem to take control as his arrest and execution loom with growing tension. But Easter…is coming!

Where do you see abundance, sacrificial love and dignity unfolding around you? Where can you participate?

PGS

Important Announcement from the 2 Bald Pastors

Please take two minutes to listen to his audio announcement from the 2 Bald Pastors

Sunday is coming! “The parable of the overtly responsible son” Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4C

“But we had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

[An alternative telling of Luke 15:11b-32…]

Once there was a man who had two sons. The eldest son was hard-working and knew his place. One day the family farm would be his, and the responsibility of managing the estate, the business and their employees would eventually all fall upon his shoulders. He got up early and worked late seeking to gain the experience, know-how and work ethic required to be successful. As he prepared for his coming future, he sought the wisdom and counsel of his father.

The younger son was no farmer. He slept late. He was not dependable. He was lazy and spent his time day-dreaming of a life (and lifestyle) that was far away. He was more or less useless when it came to the family business, did not manage his affairs particularly well, and was not much a planner. But his father loved him, as did his older brother.

One day to the older son’s shock, a hired hand told him of his brother’s departure.

Not only had he left to seek his fortune on the road elsewhere, he had dishonorably talked their father into splitting the family inheritance and giving him his portion to him now. As he left home, it was the equivalent of saying his family ‘was dead to him.’

It hurt to hear this news.

The eldest was mortified. His father had been duped. His job would become more difficult. Business would be much more challenging with far less capital to utilize. He was furious. What hurt the most was that his brother did not have the decency to say ‘goodbye.’

In the years that followed, the older son became a hard man. His disdain towards his brother’s selfishness grew. He also came to resent his father’s foolishness. Since his father could not be trusted to make sound financial decisions, the eldest pushed him away.

The father was relegated to the sideline as his eldest son took over the business.

With hard work and time, the farm became a better success than ever. The latest projections indicated that in only a few short months the worth of their estate would double from its original size before his father had cut it in half. To make the next push forward, it would mean taking on more hands to increase yield. This was their year.

If there was a time to celebrate his success…it was now.

Coming back from the fields in the evening one day, the older son heard the music before he saw the party.  For all his father’s faults at least he had recognized how his efforts saved their family from ruin. As he drew closer to the party, the older son began preparing his speech; thanking his father for the opportunity to lead and for all those in his employ for their hard work and dedication. All he had ever hoped for was coming to be. He stood outside, took a deep breath and looked into the party through the doorway.

Then he saw…him.

Not only was his younger brother present, he was making a mockery of everything this older son had accomplished since he had left. He was wearing his father’s robe and ring. He looked scrawny, sickly and aged by hard times, but he was laughing and joyous, drinking his older brother’s wine and eating a feast prepared for him. FOR HIM.

His father had his arm around his younger son.

The older son was not sure which one he was going to confront first as he clenched his fists and his heart pounded so hard it almost burst through his chest.

His father came outside to meet him instead. It required all of the older son’s willpower not to lay him out on the floor, or shout in his face. Instead, the father could see the rage in his eldest son and put his arm around him. In that embrace, his son gave him a piece of his mind, saying he did not deserve this kind of treatment. His absent, wasteful, deplorable brother did not deserve this either. His father held him a little tighter, paused, turned to face him, looked him in the eye and said,

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)

The older son stood firmly in his place, watching the celebration as his father took him by the arm to invite him inside.

If you were standing there, what would you do next?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Repentance as a way of life” Luke 13:1-9, Lent 3C

“No, I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)

After a horrible event happens, there is often a call to re-evaluate our lives. In religious circles we talk about that introspection as prayer and repentance.  In this passage, Jesus calls people to repentance after the massacre of innocents by Pilate in the Temple and after an accident killing eighteen people when the Tower of Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:1-4). There is a time in the wake of tragedy (in our time as much as Jesus’) that a careful investigation of what happened, why, who was responsible, how can the course be corrected or prevented in the future is warranted.

The word “repentance” literally means to change one’s vision or direction. It is a turning around or seeing a new way forward, that was previously unavailable. To put repentance into practice starts by acknowledging that we are not God and we don’t have a clear view of the big picture or ourselves. It is admitting we do not know everything. It is acknowledging honestly that we often act without knowing the consequences; or that we do know the implications and do it anyway. It is confessing that we have done harm to others out of our self-interest. It is hoping to live, think and act better. Repentance often leads to the hard work of forgiveness, making amends where we can and restoring relationships when possible after we have hurt people. Repentance also includes the change of heart to accompany different actions and way of being.

Jesus calls us to a way of repentance that guides our entire lives. Paul called it the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Repentance leads us to be more and more self-reflective, honest, and dependent on God’s mercy and peace. By looking inward, repentance causes us to begin looking outward to the needs of others in self-giving love. This ongoing way of repentance helps us be responsive when tragedy strikes, rather than look for who to blame for it. It calls us into compassion to help when people are in need. It looks beyond our often selfish, self-interested concerns. It looks to love as we are loved. It takes root in us as a new way to be in the world. It helps us grow. It bears fruit.

Hence the parable of fig tree.  Our lives are not just about getting better at growing figs. Fig trees grow figs or there is something wrong. The plant might need better nourishment. We do too. Growing fruit is what a fig tree does, just as loving others is what a follower of Jesus does. God’s word, the sacraments, prayer and community with others nourish our faith. Living into ongoing repentance will naturally grow fruit, or we might not begetting enough nourishment.  It is not a measuring stick to condemn us.  It is fruit to share. Looking beyond ourselves to God and others shows us a new life. In it we may find a joy that we may have never known before or maybe have long forgotten. It is a joy found beyond ourselves that reaches back and gives us a strength that is not our own to meet whatever challenges are coming.

Be nourished in a life of repentance to grow and thrive. Come and be nourished by God’s grace again.

PGS

What do you think of when you hear the word “repent”?

How does changing direction/vision change that definition?

Are you ready to make repentance a way of life? Why or why not?

Sunday is Coming! “Focus beyond that fox…” Luke 13:31-35, Lent 2C

“Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31b)

Jesus has already “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) but he won’t get there until Luke 19. He is clear in his mission on the way. “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.” (Luke 13:32). On this long road, Jesus is clear on what he is doing, and what the implications will be. The powers of this world are threatened by him. Soon, those powers will crash around Jesus – but not yet.

While Herod is referred to as “a fox” who threatens to kill him (Luke 13:31-32), it is Pilate, not Herod, who will condemn Jesus to the cross to die (Luke 23:13-35). Jesus’ death looms on the way to Jerusalem as its logical conclusion, of which Jesus seems painfully aware: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets...” (Luke 13:34). Herod’s power is meaningless. Only the mission matters.

How often do we shy away from doing or saying what we know is right, not realizing those who threaten us are often powerless?

Jesus does not back down. While the opposition against him is growing, his focus is narrowing. He looks to Jerusalem and his rejection as the climax of where is life is headed, not as the threat of others. He laments the city’s faithlessness. He hopes to gather God’s people like a hen gathers its chicks for protection, but they would rather scatter by their own devices. In the weeks that come they will gather with shouts of, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38) only to scatter and turn on him with shouts to crucify (Luke 23:21).  We often abandon the mission and scatter without focus too.

Jerusalem and the cross are coming. So is the third day. Keep focused.

We are those Jesus hopes to shelter us by his very presence. We are not immune from the dangers of this world but are covered by his enduring faithfulness and grace to face anything that comes at us. This is a time for courage and boldness. Jesus calls us to join him in casting out the demonic and bringing healing to those around us. There is still road to travel ahead. Jerusalem awaits. With Jesus we are on the way.

With Jesus beside you, why should you care what foxes want to do?

PGS

Episode 73: Standing with our Siblings in Christ

Pastor Geoff and Pastor Joe followup their conversation with Pastor Amanda with a deeper dive in conversation about human sexuality.  They cover topics about the vote in the United Methodist Church and the recent document put out by the ELCA on Visions and Expectations. 

Sunday is coming! “Confronting comfort/power/security in the wilderness” Luke 4:1-13, Lent 1C

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2)

The temptation in the wilderness is a showdown between Jesus and these temptations personified in the devil.

Comfort: “Turn these stones to bread, and you’ll never have to want for anything again.”

Power: “Worship me and I’ll give you the kingdoms of this world who will bow down to you.””

Security: “Throw yourself down from the Temple to reveal your power and God will protect you and keep you safe.”

Three questions emerge from these three areas of life.

  1. How do we typically respond to these temptations?
  2. How does Jesus respond to these temptations?
  3. What can we learn from Jesus?

How do we typically respond to these temptations?

Comfort, power and security form the basis of much of our our competitive/consumer economy, how we often treat our relationships and the world of human politics. Using our agency in economics/relationships/politics for self-interest over the interest of others or for the benefit of the whole we easily pushes us into acting out of greed, exploitation and violence. We respond to one another out of perceived scarcity, fear and dehumanization. We objectify our desires and opponents and seek to insulate ourselves from the world. We turn inward to glorify ourselves, hide from God and negatively judge our neighbors. How we live can be damaging to ourselves, to others and the world in which we live.

How does Jesus respond to these temptations?

Jesus addresses each of these key areas with biblical responses. All three verses he quotes point to God rather than to comfort/power/security:

Comfort: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Power: The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.” (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Security: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Depending on God’s promises is of greater value than feeling comfortable. Faith often deepens when our circumstances become the most challenging. True power comes in serving God not by lording what we can do over others. The wilderness teaches humility and respect for things that are out of our control to better focus on our mission. Jesus’ mission is teaching and showing compassion to others, healing the broken, forgiving the sinner, including the outsider and bringing good news to the poor. Placing himself outside of human constraints and definitions of power, reveals Jesus’ heavenly/divine power; as he confronts worldly/human power. The cross will be the place where undeserved mercy and self-giving love will be made known.

What can we learn from Jesus?

The lure of comfort/power/security can draw us away from God and one another. On the flip-side – entering the wilderness can point us to confront within us our temptation to think only of ourselves. In the wilderness we can to learn to trust God no matter what situation we face, and reorient our lives to see the wilderness others are struggling. Remember the wilderness story, helps Jesus find his voice and focus to re-engage the world through the lens of being focused on his mission of mercy and compassion among people.

We could all use a wilderness refresher course this Lent. Don’t forget, you are not alone. Jesus is sent by the Holy Spirit, and so are we!

-What comforts/powers/securities tempt you from the wilderness?

PGS

Episode 72: Conversation with Rev. Amanda Gerken-Nelson Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Today Geoff and Joe talk with Rev. Amanda Gerken-Nelson the Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries.

Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Reconciling works

Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christian by Austen Hartke