Most Unusual Holy Weeks

2020 will certainly go down in the books as one of the most unusual Holy Week’s in history. Most churches will be virtually empty on Easter even as they are virtually and spiritually connected. With plenty of time to reflect on all kinds of things lately I have pondered Holy Week’s past. This one is very strange, and being retired I’m sure it is 100 times weirder and more difficult for my many colleagues engaged in active parish ministry.

I don’t remember if I’ve ever missed being physically in church on Easter in my entire life. Even as a child I remember my parents getting me up when it was still very dark outside to go to a bonafide sunrise service at our small country church. So worshipping on-line tomorrow will be a unique experience in my nearly 3/4 of a century of Easters. It has felt strange all week for me because due to technological concerns our church has actually “done” our worship all out of sequence. Our musicians actually have been recording music for Sundays on Tuesdays ever since in-person worship was canceled by COVID-19. And the pastors have been recording Scripture, prayers and sermons on Thursdays. Most weeks that’s been ok, although since I’ve been doing the pastoral prayers I must admit that I have frequently thought of something that should be included in the prayer for Sunday on Friday or Saturday, and then I remember, “Oh, yeah, that prayer is already done.”

But this week was even more disjointed liturgically. When I was in the Sanctuary on Thursday afternoon the big cross that hangs over our altar table was already fully bedecked in Easter Lillies. But then on Good Friday evening when we live-streame our Tenebrae service the lillies were gone and the Sanctuary was bathed in semi-darkness. It just felt weird. And I know even though our congregation will be worshiping together on-line Easter morning it won’t begin to match the feeling of being in an overflow congregation with our tradition of singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” to close the celebration of resurrection.

But in remembering other out of the ordinary Holy Weeks I inevitably thought about one that was more challenging even than 2020, although in a much different way. On April Fool’s Day 1993 I got one of those phone calls one never hopes to get. It was the cruelest April Fools Day “joke” I’ve ever gotten or ever hope to get. My mom, a healthy 70 year old that had never been sick in her life was in the hospital with what was either a stroke or a brain tumor. I was so dumbfounded I didn’t know which to hope was the correct diagnosis. My mother had always been the strongest member of our family, our rock. She was so tough she had her tonsils taken out sometime in her 40’s in the doctor’s office! And now with no previous symptoms she was in serious trouble. It turns out she had a glioblastoma brain tumor just like the one that killed her own mother seven years earlier. In fact her reaction when told of her condition was, “Just like Mom.”

Those kinds of brain tumors back then especially were never a good prognosis, and I don’t think they are even today 27 years later. Mom’s was so far advanced before she knew anything was wrong that just 3 days later on Palm Sunday we went down to visit her before her scheduled surgery on Monday morning only to find when we arrived that they were prepping her that evening for emergency surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. She made it through the surgery but was never the same again and died 3 months later.

That would be enough to complicate any pastor’s Holy Week, but it was far from the only curve ball fate threw my way that week. My mother-in-law was also in failing health. She was a few years older than my mom and had been in a nursing home for about 3 years, but her congestive heart failure was getting progressively worse that spring. So on Wednesday, while I was still out of town with my dad and sisters holding down the waiting room between brief visits with my mother I got word that my mother-in-law had died.

So a good friend drove a couple of hours to pick me up on Wednesday evening. I preached and led a Maundy Thursday service, and on Good Friday we drive a couple of more hours to bury my wife’s mother. And on Easter Sunday I preached about resurrection. It was one of the hardest but most meaningful Easter’s I can remember, but it was also one of the most meaningful. I wasn’t going through any routine rituals when I preached about death and resurrection. Those were not abstract concepts for me that April 1993 but very concrete realities.

And so they are again 27 years later. The pall of death hangs over all of us during this pandemic. The mind-boggling ever-increasing numbers of people killed by this awful virus make it impossible for most of us to avoid consideration of our mortality. Even when we try to ignore it the pull of the news reports is hard to resist. The images of exhausted nurses, gurneys in crowded hallways, lonely patients in nursing home windows, and mass graves cannot be erased from our individual and collective memories. We wake up every morning hoping it’s all a bad dream, only to find it is just another ground hog day on a continuous loop. Only the numbers change.

I’m writing this at 9:30 pm EDT, just a few hours earlier than when my parents roused me from sleep, not to find my Easter basket, but to go again to proclaim the good news that has sustained people of faith in hard times for 2000 years — Christ is Risen! He is risen Indeed! And because of what those words mean to us on an existential level so much deeper than Easter finery and lilies and chocolate bunnies, we will wake up tomorrow and carry on because there is something stronger in the human spirit than death.

Hallelujah! Amen.

Spring Cleaning the Temple

One of the most dramatic stories in the Holy Week narrative is what we know as Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Matthew’s Gospel describes it like this: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

I had forgotten until I looked it up that John’s Gospel puts this incident, not during Jesus’ last week on earth, but right at the beginning of his Gospel in John 2:14-16. In either place it is the most dramatic challenge Jesus makes to the religious authority and practice of his day. He often rhetorically calls into question the “old” ways of doing things in radical ways, but here he goes a little Rambo and drives the money changers physically out of the temple.

As one of my seminary professors cautioned me long ago we should not take this story as typical of Jesus’ behavior. In fact it is so powerful because it stands in stark contrast to almost all of what we know about Jesus’ personality and character. He teaches loving enemies and turning our cheeks, going the extra mile, and laying down one’s life for a friend. But here he’s had enough and takes bold action that certainly won him no friends among the temple authorities. But Jesus is more concerned with doing what’s right that winning popularity contests, and immediately after the above description Matthew tells us in the very next verse that Jesus reverts right back to his usual compassionate self: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

But what struck me most in looking at this story today was a slight difference in the translation of one phrase. I grew up mostly hearing stories from the Synoptic Gospels where the phrase “Den of thieves” is used to describe the money changer temple. But John uses a different term. In John Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

I love exploring the Scriptures because every time I do it I can be surprised by hearing something I’ve missed before or maybe just wasn’t ready for. But my Ah Hah moment today was how this story speaks to the pandemic crisis we’re in. We’ve all been struggling at one level or another with balancing our concerns for health and survival of this plague with the economic impact it is having on the marketplace. Some are feeling that pain much more than others, and my heart breaks for them. But I suspect even as he comforts the unemployed and those who have lost their livelihood, Jesus is really angry at those who have price-gauged and tried to profit off of the suffering of others.

I applaud the companies that have donated essential goods and services to defeat this invisible enemy, but woe to any who have done insider trading or hoarded supplies. Woe to any who have put economic decisions or political priorities ahead of life-saving, sacrificial decisions that will flatten the curve and save thousands of lives. Woe to those who refuse to stay at home and practice physical distancing to engage in their own unnecessary activities. Woe to churches that have continued to gather in large groups against all advice from medical experts.

The Easter message is that we will get through this plague, but the Jesus I know says we will get through it sooner and more of us will survive if we drive the money-changers out who worship the idol of the marketplace more than the God of love and compassion.

Monday morning, Holy Week

I just did the math and estimated that I have gotten out of bed approximately 3700 times on a Monday morning. Wish I hadn’t done that – the math that is, although if I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom I might have pulled up the covers and stayed put. One of the hard things about retirement is the lack of a “normal” routine. The hardest days are often those that are also the best part of retirement—the ones where there’s nothing I “have” to do. Nothing on the calendar at all so the day is completely unstructured, a blank canvas staring back at me wondering what will be on it by the end of the day? Needless to say that’s an especially unusual kind of Monday for a retired pastor who remembers Holy Week as one of the busiest of the year.

I imagine Jesus didn’t want to get up and head back into Jerusalem that last Monday either. He had spent the night with friends in Bethany because of Mary and Martha’s hospitality, but also because it was safer there than in Jerusalem where powerful people wanted him dead. There the city sanitation workers were cleaning up the palm branches and leftover cloaks from the parade route Jesus had followed the day before. The crowds may have been hung over with joy and anticipation from the triumphal entry on Sunday, but Jesus knew what was coming or at least had a pretty good idea.

Imagine the internal debate! “My work here isn’t finished. The disciples aren’t nearly ready to take over! There’s so much more I need to do here. I won’t be able to heal anyone or teach anyone if I’m in jail or dead!”
Doing the right thing when the easy thing is so tempting; when all your friends are telling you to play it safe. To do requires the courage to be—to be true to oneself and to the one who gives us life. To do the peaceful thing in the face of fearful, hateful power requires first being at peace; being full of peace that is deeper than fear and stronger than doubt. That’s the energy that got Jesus out of bed that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and on that Friday that seemed the worst of all Fridays ever.

His soul was full of an eternal peace that calms the storm at sea and the even bigger storms in our hearts that threaten to drive us into hiding when we most need to grab Monday morning by the neck and say “Bring it On!”

Blinded by our expectations?

One of the most consistent  things about our interactions with Jesus is our failure to recognize who he is. We too often are caught unaware and when it’s too late we sing a sad refrain with Mahalia Jackson, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was!”  From his birth in a barn to his hanging out with sinners, to his  refusal to defend himself in the garden or before Pilate, Jesus refuses to show up how and where we expect him to. His entry into Jerusalem  is not in a stretch limo  befitting a king but in a beat up old Volkswagen beetle. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday change their tune to “Crucify him!” only five days later because he isn’t the conquering hero they were expecting.

Those expectations are understandable for people who were oppressed and dying for liberation.   We might guess  those strangers who lined the streets of Jerusalem had not spent time with Jesus. Their failure to recognize who he really is may be understandable.   But what about those disciples who are closest to him who had spent three years listening to his teaching and watching the way he healed the sick and comforted those who were excluded by society?   They too deny and betray and hide when their expectations are not met.  Have they never heard the words of Isaiah who tells us that the Messiah will not be a worldly ruler but a suffering servant?  (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  Or like us have they chosen only to hear and believe what they want?  We are expecting Rambo and we get Gandhi instead!

Even Mary Magdalene who stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross and was one of the first to go to the tomb doesn’t recognize Jesus on Easter morning!   This woman who was one of the most devoted and loyal disciples  mistakes Jesus for a gardener!  (John 20:11-18).  How could someone who owed so much  to Jesus fail to recognize him at this most triumphant moment?  Is it not because of her expectations?  She went to the tomb to minister to a corpse and instead is the very first to encounter the resurrected Christ!

How often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst, in the least of God’s children around us? Whom do we expect to encounter  when we go to the tomb this Sunday? Will we recognize the risen Christ?  What we know from past experience is that he probably won’t appear the way we expect him to. So let’s go with eyes and hearts wide open  to see what our amazing God is up to this Easter!

Not With Swords, Matthew 26:52

Tuesday of Holy Week 2016 and we awake again to news of unspeakable violence – this time in Brussels. My heart breaks for the victims, of course, but it also aches for all of us who now suffer from a new wave of fear, anger and despair. The death toll will be much higher than whatever the final gruesome body count is in Belgium because fear and anger will spawn new and very natural responses of revenge. Violence begets violence. We know, but we seem powerless to respond in any other way. I get that, but I also know that if we continue down that wide well-traveled road the only destination is more destruction.

If we demand an eye for an eye, blood for blood, it will not make us safer. We have the power as some have suggested to bomb the enemy into oblivion and in doing so we would lose our soul. Terrorism would win and it would be reborn somewhere else while we waste our resources on more instruments of death instead of spending our time and money and energy on education and humanitarian efforts that make for peace and understanding.
I would suggest we use this latest attack as a motivation to take the passion of Holy Week more seriously. Let’s ask the hard questions about what Jesus’ death and resurrection really mean in a world gone mad in 2016. Is it more than an ancient story we re-enact in bad bathrobe dramas? Is it more than jumping easily from Palm Sunday to Easter morning because the middle part of the story is too hard to swallow?

I believe that the popular substitutionary atonement theology of the cross is largely to blame for our failure to apply the hard parts of the Gospel to our lives. The abridged version of that theology says that Christ died in our place as a substitute for our sins in order to offer eternal salvation to everyone who accepts Christ as his or her Savior. There are several problems with that theology, but the basic one is that it lets us off the hook too easily so we don’t have to take the hard truths of Jesus’ teaching seriously. It makes the cross something Jesus did once and for all, but that Gospel ignores the fact that the Scriptures tell us multiple times that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Luke even adds we have to do it “daily.”

Jesus doesn’t need or want worshippers or Sunday only Christians, he wants followers; and that means just what it says—imitating how he lived and practicing what he taught. And here’s the intersection between Brussels and Gethsemane that we don’t want to hear. Matthew (26: 47-56) tells us that when they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night “one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” He doesn’t invoke the second amendment or argue for peace through strength. He says, “My way is not the way of the world. The way of the sword has never brought peace and it never will because one cannot bring life through the instruments of death.”

We don’t want to hear it because we’re afraid, but we must grow some ears that can hear Christ’s truth before it is too late and the way of the sword continues to fester and spread like a plague. Doing the right thing is easy for most of us when there is little to lose by doing so. Jesus followers do it when it’s seemingly impossible and impractical according to the ways of the world. Real Jesus followers make hard choices when everyone around them and their own instincts insist on the way of the sword.

It comes down to practicing what Jesus preached even when it’s unbelievably difficult. For example, in both the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus says we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). It’s very easy to say that in a safe sermon by the seashore or from a comfortable pulpit. I’ve preached and taught those words hundreds of times, but how often have I lived them when the going got really rough? Jesus does. As he is about to be arrested and most certainly executed, he lives what he taught. With his earthly life on the line he is true to the eternal truth he came to show us and says, “Put away your sword.”

That’s the Gospel, the good news, during this Holy Week when the sword seems to be winning. Is cheek turning and pacifism practical? Will it work against a hurricane of hate? We don’t know because it has never really been tried on any global scale. A few martyrs have followed Jesus’ example, and they inspire us from afar. But Brussels is real life here and now, and if we let the way of the sword prevail again, if we let fear and anger triumph over peace and love, even for our enemies, then terror wins and Jesus loses.

I don’t pretend to have the faith I need to lay down my life for my faith. But I wrestle with these hard truths from Holy Week because I still believe deep in my soul that it is the way and the truth and the life. The way of the sword has been tried forever in human history, and it has failed to bring about a lasting peace. Jesus followers are called to wrestle with both the words and example of Christ who is still saying to us during this Holy Week “Put away your sword.”

I don’t have the answers, but we who call ourselves Christians must wrestle with the questions. We desperately need meaningful dialogue on this topic. Please share any thoughts or suggestions or questions you have about what peacemaking looks like on a personal or global scale for you.

“A Borrower and a Lender Be,” A Holy Week Sermon on Matthew 21:1-13

Suppose you went out to get in your car at the mall or after church next Sunday or even in your driveway and a couple of strangers were looking it over. When you ask them what they’re doing they say, “Please give us your keys.” I’m guessing the first question you would ask is, “Why?” And when they say, “Because the Lord has need of it,” would you just hand over the keys or would you more likely call the cops?

That’s what the Gospels tell us Jesus did to “borrow” a donkey in preparation for his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We are so familiar with the Holy Week narratives that we often fail to grasp the radical nature of what this story tells us about Jesus and what got him crucified. John Robert McFarland grabbed my attention on this matter in an article in The Christian Century way back in 1990 entitled “Go Steal Me a Donkey.”

This is not Sweet Little Jesus holding lambs and children in his arms. Healing the sick and loving people don’t get you crucified, but challenging the political and economic foundations that society is built upon will get one in a lot of hot water immediately. These verses from Matthew 21 are bookended by donkey stealing and Jesus physically turning over tables in the temple and driving the money changers out because they have claimed what belongs to God for their own purposes. This Jesus is not a wimp. He is one with the courage to challenge anyone and anything that is contrary to God’s wills and to pay the price for his convictions.

Tax day in the US fell within Holy Week this year, and that makes looking at Jesus’ theology of economics even more real. In “Go Steal Me a Donkey” McFarland points out that both socialists and capitalists claim Jesus, but he isn’t either. The former believe in collective ownership of property and the latter in individual ownership. Jesus believes everything belongs to God. In the very next chapter of Matthew (22:15-22) the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the tax issue. They try to trap him with a question about whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gives a clever politically correct answer. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That sounds like a safe answer, but Jesus’ actions tell us he knows the bottom line on his 1040 for the IRS would be a big fat zero.

Would he get audited? You bet, but he would do it anyway. Why would he do that knowing the trouble it would cause? Because he knows everything belongs to God, including donkeys and upper rooms in which to celebrate the Passover. Jesus borrows what he needs because it all belongs to God. There’s an old adage about borrowing that is so familiar we often think it should be in the Bible. But “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is not biblical. It actually comes from Polonius in “Hamlet,” not Jesus. In fact, what Jesus says about borrowing and lending is a direct contraction of Shakespeare. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:34).

Jesus borrows: a manger for a cradle, boats to teach in, houses to heal in, and a tomb to be buried in. He doesn’t ask for what he needs, he commands. When he borrows his disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, Now!” No time to bury the dead. Do they leave their families and their livelihood in exchange for some promise of great wealth and fame? No, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” When he borrows Peter and Andrew from their fishing nets, when James and John leave their father Zebedee in his boat, when Levi leaves the tax office, do you think Jesus plans on returning them? When you borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake, do take the sugar out of the cake and return it? I hope we don’t return a used Kleenex after we “borrow” it! When Jesus claims us followers and disciples, there’s no turning back. It’s for keeps, because everything, including you and me, belongs to God–always has, always will.

That’s the bad news. What we think is ours isn’t. We are just stewards and caretakers of what belongs to God, and what’s worse is that selfishly trying to cling to what is “ours” will keep us out of the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It’s why Pope Francis is cracking down on Bishops who build multi-million dollar mansions for themselves while millions starve.

But here’s the good news. We can borrow freely from God whatever we need in life. God gives us Jesus as an example of what that ultimate borrowing of things that really matter in life looks like; and Holy Week is the best example ever of how that works. We see it demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry, but it is concentrated in those final days of his life between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We’ve seen it when Jesus is napping in the boat during a storm. His disciples are freaking out, but Jesus is sound asleep because he has borrowed the peace of God. When those same disciples try to talk him into homesteading on the mountain of Transfiguration where it’s safe and comfortable, Jesus borrows the courage from God to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross; and he never looks back.

When he is confronted with physical violence and arrest in Jerusalem, he borrows the peace of God again not to resist violence with more violence. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not for his own safety and comfort, but he borrows integrity and obedience from God as he prays “Not my will but your will be done.” And then on that dark Friday afternoon, the supreme gift of grace is borrowed again when he says, “Father forgive them” to the men who have nailed him to that cruel cross. Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” and that’s significant. In mortal agony from those wounds, I believe it was humanly impossible for that amazing compassion to come from Jesus himself, just as it is often impossible for us to forgive those who hurt us badly. Jesus couldn’t forgive them, but he knew someone who could–and that he was free to borrow that strength and grace from his God.

We know that source of grace as well, and we are invited to borrow from that eternal God whenever and wherever we want with no interest and no expectation to repay the debt. The borrowing Messiah of Holy Week teaches us that when we are free of possessions that possess us, when we are free of fears and insecurities from the cares of trying to control our own lives, then we are free to live and free to die. Because we know everything belongs to God, including us, now and forever. Holy Week and Easter invite us again to borrow the gift of grace, the gift of new life.

Adapted from a sermon preached at New Life United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH, Palm Sunday 2014.