Tag Archives: Jesus’ death

Monday in Holy Week

For the first time in nearly 25 years, I will not be attending formal worship services on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Holy Week. I’m in a new parish and arrived just in time to step into helping to carry out plans made in advance of my arrival.

For these 25 years, I have found the readings appointed for Holy Week to be a wonderful set-up for what happens in the more popular services of the Triduum (The Great Three Days). So, here’s my encouragement to join me in taking a look at these readings. I’ll be posting some introductions and devotional reflections on the readings today, tomorrow, and Wednesday.

 Isaiah 42:1-9  In this selection from one of the servant narratives, God’s voice is heard as a kind of love song for the servant. The servant is God’s chosen delight; the Spirit holds him up. Notice the tenderness embedded in the language, like when a parent holds hands with her child. The beloved servant is called and sent to “bring forth justice to the nations.”  Here is the wonder of it: justice will result from quiet, gentle persistence, not from grand displays of force.

In the church, of course, we see Jesus as servant, the Son called by and beloved of the Father, even from the world’s creation. In the events that unfold this week, Jesus will present himself to the religious and secular authorities with a spirit of meekness; God’s justice and righteousness will result from the gentle persistence of the cross and the quiet of the empty tomb.

Hebrews 9:11-15  The letter to the Hebrews is one the most theologically dense books in the bible. In this reading the author tries to say something about Christ’s death that the gospels never say.  These few verses invite us to think particularly about the Holy Place in the Jerusalem temple, a place entered only very rarely and only by the high priest. Christ as high priest goes to the Holy of Holies once and for all. Except here’s an important distinction: the Holy Place for Christ is not the temple building, but his own body and the sacrifice his own blood, not the blood of animals. But the theological point raises more questions than it gives answers. How can death, particularly the way Christ died, in any way be considered a Holy Place, indeed, the Holy Place? Christ is the victim of injustice, an abuse of both religious authority and imperial power. The cross is an ugly sign of execution, of state-sponsored murder. All of this as Holy of Holies? That’s the strange and astonishing logic of Holy Week and, indeed, of the whole Christian tradition. It’s a place where we’re bound to be frustrated if we are intent on reason and crisp answers; instead, we are invited simply to ponder these perplexing holy mysteries of God’s love poured out for us and for all creation.

John 12:1-11  The story of Mary’s extravagant gesture of pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair is a rich foreshadowing of what is to come so soon. Of course, just before this story, Jesus had raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, a reading that should be fresh in our minds from just 8 days ago on the 5th Sunday in Lent. As a result Jesus’ raising Lazarus, there was an active plot to kill Jesus. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In thanks for what Jesus has done, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha throw him a dinner party where Mary engages in this ecstatic extravagance that fills the entire house with fragrance. Mary’s offering reflects a deeply loving and tender way of being with Jesus.

In this setting of such love and devotion, there is also ugliness. This dinner party is undertaken with Jesus’ knowledge of the plot to kill him. Judas, who is soon to betray Jesus, complains about Mary’s waste of the costly perfume, secretly desiring, of course, to keep the money for himself.

The experience of God’s love, known in the nature of Jesus’ relationship with us, does not happen in a pristine vacuum, a place and time unspoiled by the ravages of human sin and betrayal. No, the encounter between Jesus and Mary happens in the very thick of the hatred, the plots to kill encroaching, closing in. Mary’s action foreshadows the anointing associated with death.

Soon after the dinner party, Jesus will enter Jerusalem, the beginning of the end. In that holy city, he will initiate the fullness of life and love and joy. No human plot can snuff out the foundation of God’s love known in Jesus. We are invited to enter this reality during Holy Week, and especially in the coming Three Days. Contemplate the extravagance of Mary’s ecstatic act, knowing that her action is but a foreshadow of even more extravagant love that we will come to know in Jesus who is for us the very face of God.

Sermon at Eliana’s Funeral

IMG_0086On Sunday afternoon, we held the service to commend Eliana to God’s care. It was a hard and beautiful time. The church was packed beyond capacity; so many family and friends came to help us sing Eliana across the river: family from all over, friends, neighbors,  members from Faith Lutheran Church where I am the pastor, members from Acacia Park Lutheran Church where Chris is pastor, pastoral colleagues from across the Chicago area, colleagues and partners in our community work. It was a glorious gathering. Todd Carrico, our music director did a fabulous job of leading the song, and did the assembly ever sing! They sang for us when the words were stuck in our throats or held back by tears. 

I don’t usually publish my sermons as part of this blog. Sermons are contextual and best heard in the assembly as they are preached. This one is no exception. However, in some ways, this sermon is a continuation of what I have written in the past few posts I’ve shared here, thoughts about promises and resurrection and what all that could mean as we grieve Eliana’s death, a life too short and in which there was too much pain. 

The sermon was based on the lessons Chris and Liz chose for the service: Isaiah 43:1-3a, 4-7, 18-19, Psalm 139:1-17, Romans 8:26-27, and John 4:1-15. Often in the sermon, I use what in the printed word seems to be an ambiguous “you.” In most cases, I’m addressing Eliana’s parents, Chris and Liz Honig.

Eliana Frances Honig. Eliana. God hears. What a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl. Eliana’s world was pretty small and pretty limited. Nearly her entire life was spent in the confines of a small room on the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit of Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago. Yet, she was Eliana. There is both joy and a deep sense of sadness today. Only in her death do you get to introduce her to the world. When you penned her obituary, you told us about a beautiful, brave little girl who was a fighter, who sparred with her nurses and had her own unique way of curling up her feet and touching her bandaged hand to her cheek, who in spite of her near constant pain tried to soothe herself, and was responsive to the gentle sound of your voice and touch, even when there were so few places you could touch her.  I think she must have been the most well-read 8 week old on the planet.

What you have described is Eliana, a girl with her own personality in spite of her EB, a unique human being who was not defined by her disease. God created Eliana. God created her in God’s image. From the very beginning God knew her and God loved her. While her skin disorder made her life difficult and painful, she was formed wonderfully, and you, her parents, were able to see how extraordinarily she was knit together, how remarkable and complex she was. She was, in spite of her disease, in spite of her short life, a precious human life with consciousness and will and the ability to connect with those few people who were able to come to know her.

And she was loved. Oh, was she loved. She was loved by mama and papa, Grampa Frank and and Gramma Luann, Grampa Jim and Gramma Sheryl, Aunt Shannon, Uncle Tim and Aunt Stacey, nurses Kate and Ursula and Sara and Stephanie, Dr. Henna, Dr. Mancini, Dr. Chamlin. Oh, that child was loved. And not because she was any of those amazing things that appear in her obituary. She was loved because of her life. Your love for Eliana allowed you to see those amazing things in her. The mutual love of child to parent and back again brought joy to you and to everyone who got to know Eliana.

That joy is muted today because the sad truth is we are not intended to bury our babies. I have no words to make sense of why we have to do that. For all of my faith and all of my theology, I have never been able to put together a cogent explanation for the kind of suffering that Eliana experienced, and the suffering of parents who lose their children.

At first glance, the gospel lesson has little to say to those who are grieving the death of a child. Jesus is enjoying a little verbal sparring with a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. They happen to be at the old well of Jacob in the middle of the day. Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman should be talking to each other. Yet the conversation goes on and in response to the woman’s questions and yearnings, Jesus talks about water and thirst and the possibility of never being thirsty again and about how one’s deep thirst can be slaked by a water that brings eternal life.

On April 7, on the morning before she went to surgery to have a feeding tube inserted, Eliana was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Though it wasn’t an abundance of water, it was water with the Word that brought to your precious daughter the gushing springs of life. It wasn’t exactly the baptism that you had imagined. It was not at church, and beautiful Eliana traded a lacy white baptismal dress for Aqua-phor soaked dressings that wrapped her wounds. Still, in the application of water of from a tiny plastic vial along with the words of the gospel, it was living water; it was water that gave her springs of life with God.

When we mention this promise of eternal life, though, I hope we won’t immediately and automatically fall into the pious platitudes that offer little help when our grief is so raw. “Well, she’s in a better place,” some are quick to say.  I say that being held in her parents arms would be a fine place. There is truth in the promise of eternal life. We don’t have to speak of Eliana as if she has disappeared, disintegrated into nothing. She lives, having passed through the gateway of death into life in God’s nearer presence. God has welcomed her with the loving arms of one who says, “Fear not, precious little girl. I have called you, Eliana, and you are mine.” The pain that was so much a part of her life her on this side of the river is over. She has been made whole. Her baptismal promises she has received in all their fullness.

Those promises, true though they may be, seem small consolation in the face of Eliana’s death. Her death came way too soon and it leaves us feeling empty and cheated. I’m not ready to hear words that tie it all together in a nice clean bow so that now we are expected to make sense of it all and move on.

So many people were praying for a miracle. Frankly, I would have settled for less than a miracle. I would have settled for a little luck and a little time.  Those gifts were not given. And I can’t for the life of me imagine why. If asking God for healing is something we are allowed to do, then why are some prayers answered and others not? Another theological conundrum for which I have no answer.

Is that why you chose the passage from Romans? Because words for prayers have run dry after the one thing you so desperately prayed for has been denied?

The Spirit will hold you up. The Spirit will gather your sighs and your cries, your bone-deep sobs and your anger and the sadness and take them to God and God will hold them in God’s heart, loving you in the midst of what is inexplicable. The promise that the Spirit will hold you is nearly identical to the strong and gentle words of the prophet: “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Somehow God was with Eliana through her ordeal and she has had her homecoming. Somehow God is with you in the midst of facing her loss. And here’s what gives those promises their teeth, what makes them more than nice, empty words.  When God chose to come among us in Christ, God risked becoming vulnerable to all that this broken and fallen word might have to offer. In the last days of his life, Jesus experienced the worst that a broken and fallen world could throw at him: abuse, and beating and mockery and finally a cruel, torturous death. There is no place we can go where God has not already been; there is no horror we can experience that God has not already endured. In Eliana’s cries of pain, God was not distant but by her side. In your grief and sorrow, God has not abandoned you, but is in fact carrying you. When you pass through such unspeakable loss, God says, I will be with you, I will carry you.

Look around you Chris and Liz. Look around you at the community that has carried you and promises to carry you into the future. When you can’t believe, they will believe for you; when you can’t pray, they will pray for you. When you don’t feel like taking even one step, they will be here to walk with you. The loving arms of God hold you fast through the people of Acacia Park Lutheran Church, Faith Lutheran Church, your family, your friends and all the others gathered here today. We are holding you today.

In a few moments, you will be invited to this table to receive the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We will sing. With saints and angels we will sing. We sing because that’s what we do when there is nothing else that we can do. For a brief moment, the curtain that separates us from those who have already crossed over is opened and we join the saints and angels in their song. Eliana is singing that song, and we sing with her. She is enjoying that feast of victory at the banquet table of the Lamb. When we receive our morsel of bread and taste of wine, we join her at table, she eating the feast of victory, and we a meal in which God promises to sustain us for the journey that for us is not yet over. In the bread and wine comes the promise one more time: when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

Which Jesus?

Jesusicon

As young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, I served at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches. We used to have regular meetings of all the Lutheran clergy in the area, both Missouri and ELCA. One of the the guys who was almost always there was Priit Rebane, an older pastor who served the historic ELCA church in downtown St. Pete. I had the greatest respect for Priit.  He was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and to me, simply oozed pastoral wisdom out of very pore of his being. Priit was the kind of pastor I wanted to be some day. At one of our meetings, he told a story. (Priit, if you ever read this, I hope you’ll forgive inaccuracies; it was 25 years ago, and the particulars are a little fuzzy, but this is how I remember it.) He told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination.  He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. By his own estimation, he was a young theological hot shot, headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His grandmother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.”

At our Night Prayer service last night, we read from the Gospel of John about some Greek seekers who asked a couple of Jesus’ followers to introduce them. “We wish to see Jesus.”

For those gathering in devotion this week, it’s easy to see ourselves in those wanting to get more of Jesus than a mere glimpse. In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. So, we want to see Jesus.

But what should we tell one another and the world about Jesus this week? In all the conflicting reports of who Jesus was, what he wanted, and what he was trying to accomplish, it doesn’t appear to be as easy as, “Tell them about Jesus.”  By all estimations, he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, gave his followers an example to follow. Some would argue even that he was a zealot, or a gentle man who inadvertently got caught up in the politics of the times.

In his own words, Jesus invites us to see something different. Last night we read how, as he approached his own impending death, the image he wanted people to behold was his being lifted up, his moment of glory (John 12). He invites us to view the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. He invites us to see his enthronement as king of the universe.

Yet that glorification comes as he ascends the throne of the cross. In that cruel, paradoxical enthronement, we are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity and creation.

“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all things to myself.”  That’s the thing. In his death, he was drawing all people, all things, into the restored unity of God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the whole world.

I think that’s pretty important in these days when too many of us who identity ourselves with Jesus are seeking to create divides — between the good and the bad, the sinners and the righteous, those who get it and those who don’t, those who stand for biblical values and those who don’t, those who welcome and those who don’t, those who are racist and those who aren’t, those who are Christian and those who aren’t — to pause for a moment and realize that we’re getting it way wrong. His intention was not to create divides, however well-intentioned we might be. His intention was to draw us to God. All of us. Period.

Maybe that’s the Jesus that Priit’s grandmother was looking for. It’s the image that I hope gets burned into our being this week, the image that gets so seared into our minds and our hearts that it starts to issue in the way we behave. That would really be something.

Reflecting on the Flood, Part 2

rushingwater1In this space last week, I reflected on the story of the Great Flood, suggesting that, above all, it’s a story about God and not about floods and geology and arks and animals. In that post I argued for a view of God that is based, not on God’s anger, but God’s grief over human sin.

When we get to the other side of the The Great Flood, Noah and his family have been spared and God makes a promise never to abandon that which God has created.

One of the startling reports from the Genesis text is that before and after, nothing has changed on the part of humanity. Before the Flood, God “saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth.” (6:5); after the Flood, God still makes the same judgment, “for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (8:21)  The cataclysm of a great flood has done nothing to change the inclination of humanity to rebel against God’s purpose and will. If there is any hope for the future, it will not be found in any change in the human heart apart from the touch of the love and grace of God.  Hope for the future depends on God doing something. Human beings are not, apparently, capable of saving themselves. We cannot, in the end, rise above our calculated self-interest.

Yet this humanity that has been created in God’s image is still regarded by God as good. God yet gives an affirmation about the value and the dignity of human life and human work. “Never again,” is what God says. (9:11)  What has changed is not anything in the human heart. What has changed is the heart of God.

What has also changed is the formula. We seem to be hard-wired for a formula that says wrongdoing must exact a proportional punishment.  An eye for an eye, and all that.  But in the Flood story, God breaks the one to one connection between guilt and punishment. Death and destruction are still real; evil has not disappeared. But after the Flood, death and destruction are no longer rooted in the anger of God, and they are not God’s necessary and inevitable response to wrongdoing.

These reflections are particularly timely for a couple of reasons. First, in the church, we are coming close to the annual Holy Week commemoration of the events of Christ’s last week, culminating in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. I still hear, far too often, about Christ’s death as the punishment wrought by an angry God for the sin of humanity. It’s just not a helpful way to talk about or think about Christ’s death, nor is it consistent with the picture of God that courses through Scripture, going all the way back to what we learn about God from from the Flood.  Christ’s death and resurrection certainly bring salvation to all humanity, but not in the one-dimensional “payment to an angry Father” schema that is so pervasive in popular western Christianity.

Second, I think it’s particularly important to say in a world where violence and retribution hold sway. The picture of God presented here, a picture which finds its fulfillment and sharpest focus in Jesus, offers another way for us to live together. It is not necessary that punishment be meted out in proportion to the crime, especially when punishment is not a deterrent, and when the drive for punishment completely overshadows any thought of rehabilitation. The current world stage is as much proof as we need that retribution solves nothing; in fact, it serves to escalate the violence and increase the suffering and death of mostly innocent people.  Early yesterday morning, two police officers were shot outside the Ferguson, Missouri City Hall. Retribution? You kill one of ours and we’ll kill one of yours?  Who knows? We still haven’t shed our tendency toward violence and bloodshed; it must still grieve God.

For all of that, I’m grateful to be on the receiving end of a gracious God and still hope that in the peaceable kingdom that is coming in our midst, the same grace might have something to do with how we live with each other.

“Jesus Died on the Cross to Save Me from My Sins” Is Not Enough

cross

For those of us who have been around the Christian tradition in North America for any length of time, Good Friday has always been about the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross to save us. Since I was a child, I have heard the theological soundbite, “Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” And that is true, as far as it goes.

But a faithful reading of the New Testament witness suggests that there was something bigger going on. If Jesus’ entire ministry was about bringing in the reign of God, then what happened on the cross certainly has to be bigger than the personal forgiveness of my sins or anyone else’s. Yes, Jesus healed individuals, and proclaimed to individuals the forgiveness of their sins. I’m not trying to deny or minimize any of that. When he did that, however, those miracles and those proclamations were signs pointing to the larger work that he came to do: to bring in the reign of God. If there was something cosmic going on in Jesus’ life and ministry, then it seems reasonable to believe that something larger was also going on in his death. “For God so loved the world. . .”

For whatever reason (it probably has something to do with what I’ve been reading the past several months) those larger implications of Jesus’ death have filled my reflections, my prayers, and my writing this Holy Week. Those reflections become so hauntingly sharp and troubling as I look around at the world. For instance:

  • In the month or so since the disappearance of the Malaysian jet, the search for debris from the wreckage has brought to our collective consciousness just how filled with garbage the oceans are. Every time we have thought we have located some of the wreckage, it has turned out to be more floating garbage — the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of what has already sunk and lies at the bottom.
  • We’re witnessing a classic international power-grab in the tension between Russia and the Ukraine.
  • The capsizing of a ferry filled with high school students off the coast of Korea, the increase in kidnapping of girls from boarding schools in Nigeria, the violent last weekend in the City of Chicago, and on and on and on.
  • The civil war in Syria in which the Assad regime seems willing to pay an extraordinarily steep price to maintain their hold on power — the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents and the decimation of their country.
  • The gradual, and nearly complete, transition in our own country from a democracy to an oligarchy, confirmed by yet one more decision by the U. S. Supreme Court removing the limits on how much individuals can contribute to political campaigns.

For me, these are clearly signs of a broken and fallen world that is not only full of pain and struggle, but is full of evil.

If what Jesus did on the cross did anything at all, it must have something to do with God’s intentions to overcome sin and evil on a grand scale. And I can ’t believe that it’s only eschatological, that it will only come in that grand chase scene at the end of this long movie that we call time. So, what is happening? Does Jesus’ death make any difference for the sin and evil of humanity on this grand scale?

I don’t know that I have any clear answers. What I know and trust and believe — we don’t call that “clear answers,” we call that faith — is that God must have done something in the cross that still remains hidden. And that what Jesus did for me personally on the cross must have something to do with my part in that larger work that God is even now doing.
(And if you’re interested and in the area, that’s exactly what we will be reflecting on this evening at our Good Friday Liturgy of the Cross.)

And It’s Only Monday

Monday in HW

At our place, we do church. No, we really. We do church. Especially this time of the year. Holy Week. It’s the annual rehearsal of the events that stand at the heart of the Christian Faith. It begins with Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter Sunday; and there’s a whole lot of really good stuff in between.

It’s not uncommon in Roman Catholic and mainline churches to have a Maundy Thursday services and a Good Friday service. The Easter Vigil is not quite as common, but maybe it’s being done a little more often than it used to be.

But what about Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week? Really? You’re supposed to do that, too? A lot of folks are surprised that there are actually lessons appointed for those days, as if someone somewhere actually expected there to be worship on those nights.

So, years and years ago, I decided that in the parishes I serve, we will worship every day during Holy Week. We will read those lessons. We will build those bridges between Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and Golgotha and the Sunday morning garden. And am I ever glad we do.

It seems that with each passing year, those Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday services become more important to me. Each of those days bring us a lesson from John 12 and 13, the precursors to the more familiar lessons read later in the week.  Each of them in their own way help set up what comes later.

For instance, tonight we read the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and then wiping his feet with her hair. Of course, the burial ointment points to his death and ultimately, to his resurrection. But to have the chance to reflect on that right now, at this moment in time, to let that drama build to Friday and Saturday and Sunday, adds a depth to the entire arc of Holy Week experience.

Tonight one of our staff members did a brilliant job of making those connections (You can read her sermon here:  http://www.creativefamilyministry.com/1/post/2014/04/monday-of-holy-week-john-121-11.html.)  Mary’s brother, Lazarus, had just been raised by Jesus. In fact, calling Lazarus out of the grave was one of the precipitating factors for the antipathy that Jesus would soon encounter from the religious leaders. So imagine that Mary was using some of the same ointment that she had used on her brother. And imagine her using that ointment knowing the  connection she had already seen between death and life and Jesus. And imagine that Mary has somehow taken to heart Jesus’ own several predictions about his impending death. And imagine that Mary pours that fragrant ointment on Jesus’ feet with some foreboding that his own words are about to come true.

There will be death. As there has been. As there always will be. But Jesus’ death will be something different. There will be resurrection. It’s only Monday. I don’t want to get there too soon. But there will be resurrection.

And that’s good to know. Because in my own sin and failings; in my own disappointments and shattered dreams; in my own attempts to cross the boundaries of my creatureliness to be God; there must be death. It just has to be that way if there is any hope of life. And the burial spices that prefigure Jesus’ death also more powerful point to resurrection. Already. And it’s only Monday.