Monday, March 28, 2016

Rewriting Your Story: Trust and Belief

On this first week of Easter, our gospel lesson John 20: 19-31 brings us along on our first visit from the resurrected Jesus, who comes to where the disciples were staying. This is the famous encounter where Thomas is labeled "doubting Thomas." He asks for proof, to touch and see his wounds, in order to believe that it is indeed Jesus standing there.

I'd like to reconsider the fairness of calling Thomas a "doubter"...

The number of times the words "seeing" and "touching"(roughly 8 times) occur in this passage lead me to expect that John the evangelist considers this text to be about "empirical verification." And this is not a phrase that is limited to theological work (a Google search gave me about 2 million usages). I wonder why these terms have become so prominent...

We live in a scientific age. More than ever, we are trained to verify by trusting our experience. Sight and touch are two powerful ways that evidence is given to us to be tested; they help us verify what we are told and what we think.

There is no reason to attack Thomas, and his desire to use his senses in order to verify what he is told, especially because Jesus invites his examination: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Touch and see. Jesus also grants the others in John 20 the same opportunity; practically everyone in this scene has already seen the resurrected Jesus. So why should we be so hard on Thomas for wanting the same opportunity to see Jesus that everyone else had?

But this defense of Thomas does not completely get him off the hook. The real problem with Thomas is not that he desired evidence, but that he did not trust his friends. Throughout the gospel of John, love and trust within the faithful community are the significant expression of the work of Christ in their midst. That is Jesus' goal: to foster a community of love of trust. And Thomas does not do that. His friends, whom he had lived life with for roughly 2 years, tell him "we have seen the Lord," and he does not trust or believe them.

We are called to be that community, too, to trust and believe each other. This does not happen without hard work; it is not automatic. But we can live inside our faithful community with open minds and hearts, ready to trust and believe each other. Too often, I think, we are too suspicious of each other.

Some of us have had our hearts broken, have been betrayed, mistreated, taken advantage of, and trampled on. Even in the church, even by people we share pews with and serve alongside of. The church is not perfect. People are not perfect. But we are stronger together. We can do the work of God, loving God by loving our neighbor, only if we are willing to trust and believe each other.

In my own life, I work best when I am trusted and empowered, and I think that is pretty common. Give someone the freedom to do their best at what they find meaningful, and you'll find someone who exceeds your expectations. Trusting and believing people does that: it empowers them to do their best. Trust says to someone "I expect a lot from you."

So let's not be so hard on Thomas. We have all been there, seeking proof to try and believe what we are told. Jesus invites that. But let's not make that a reason to doubt those in the community of faith. Trust can go a long way, and it did for Thomas. You see, he ended up dying for the faith he had in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and Savior. God rewrote his story, too, from "doubt" to sacrificial faith. May God continue to rewrite your story, too.


Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art:
      Give me a pure heart, that I may see thee;
           a humble heart, that I may hear thee;
           a heart of love, that I may serve thee;
           a heart of faith, that I may abide in thee. Amen.
In Christ,


*Prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal, 392.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Easter: God's Rewrite

This Sunday in worship, I shared with the congregation my struggle with Holy Week. Looking at Palm Sunday, and the week that ensued, I expressed my desire to rewrite the plot. Seeing the week as though it were a film, it contains all the necessary elements for a great story: a compelling protagonist, a believable supporting cast, a vivid central scene, and plenty of drama and tension.

Jesus is the compelling protagonist, and he is a perfect one. He is the Messiah who is laying claim to his city, coming into Jerusalem on a donkey (fulfilling Zachariah 9:9). He is a Savior without pomp. Jesus also displays an uncanny knack for foreknowledge: he knows what is going to happen on Palm Sunday (Luke 19:31-34), and he knows that he is going to Jerusalem to die and be raised up.

The supporting cast of the disciples is very convincing! They honor Jesus by setting him on the donkey, and understand that Jesus is the king, saying ""Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

On Palm Sunday, Jerusalem provides for a vivid central scene. Coming from one side of the holy city, there must have been an imperial procession coming (leather, gold, shimmering armor, horses, banners...) that would make clear who was in charge as many came to the city for Passover. From the other side, a peasant procession, which included Jesus, a donkey, some disciples, peasants, palms, and cloaks, came rolling in to the holy city. This set the stage for the week to come.

The week was full of drama and tension. The words uttered by the disciples: ""Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!" were spoken because that was what Jesus sought to bring to this world. This did not exist in Jerusalem, as made apparent by the Roman occupants there. The Pharisees tell Jesus to "Order your disciples to stop." Drama. Tension.

Later in the week, Jesus goes into the temple to turn the money changers tables. More drama and tension. He even changes the meaning of the Passover meal as he instituted the Last Supper with his disciples. He was betrayed, tried, shamed, and crucified. Drama and Tension.

All of these things make for a great story, and I wish I could change the plot. I wish I could take away what happened to Jesus. I wish he did not have to suffer the shame and the pain of his final days here on earth. I wish I could rewrite the plot....

...But that is exactly what God did. God raised Jesus up from the tomb, giving us the hope of eternal life and relationship with Christ. We have been raised up with Christ. When we seek to follow Jesus and have faith in God through the Holy Spirit, we are living as Easter people. To be Christian is to live a life where Easter is happening all of the time. God is constantly raising us up from something. From death, to life. From fear, to hope; from hate, to love; from violence, to peace; from pain, to comfort.

Let us be raised with Christ. God has rewritten the story.

In Christ,


Monday, March 14, 2016

Holy Week: Then and Now

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the day in which Christians remember Jesus entering into Jerusalem.

Read Luke 19: 28-40. Imagine the scene. Folks there as Jesus did this threw branches, maybe palms, on the ground, a symbolic gesture for ushering the king into the holy city. Some of the people who were there were so carried away by what was happening that they took the clothes off their backs and spread them out on the road in front of him along with the branches, so that the clip-clop, clip-clop of the hooves of the colt he was riding was muffled by shirts, shawls, cloaks spread out there in the dust as maybe even you and I would have spread ours out too if we'd been there because it was a moment with such hope and passion in it. That's what the palms are all about."Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord," the cry goes up. There is dust in the air with the sun turning it that glimmer of gold. Around a bend in the road, there suddenly is Jerusalem. He draws back on the reins, slowing his pace. And he cries.  "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace." Even today, he says, because there are so few days left for Jesus. Then the terror of his vision as he looks at the city and sees not one stone left standing on another. "Because you did not know the time of your visitation," he says. Because we don't know who it is who comes to visit us. Because we do not know what he comes to give. The things that make for peace, that is what he comes to give. The absence of peace within our own skins no less than within our nations testifies to that.For all of its joyful hosannas, Palm Sunday is a day of contrasts.We see it in Jesus, as the ruler of all chooses to ride a donkey (which he had to borrow, by the way). The contrast is also clear in the destination, as the city that welcomes him will later scream for his crucifixion.

We have our own contradictions too, of course. Someone tells us that the best way to achieve peace is through a war. The strong are strengthened by holding off the weak. Parents confront their fears by buying a handgun for the dresser drawer. Schools encourage competition over cooperation. Governments and business seek to win at all costs, even if it bankrupts them. Jesus rides his lowly farm animal through all of it.

"He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4). That is our Palm Sunday hope, and it is our only hope. That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about. The hope that finally by the grace of God the impossible will happen. The hope that Pilate will take him by one hand and Caiaphas by the other, and the Roman soldiers will throw down their spears and the Sanhedrin will bow their heads. The hope that by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the love of Christ, who is Lord of the impossible, the leaders of the enemy nations will draw back from a vision too terrible to name. The hope that you and I also, each in our own puny but crucial way, will work and witness and pray for the things that make for peace.

“His name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord. He is the mighty King, Master of everything; his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord. He’s the great Shepherd, the Rock of all ages, almighty God is he; bow down before him, love and adore him, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord!”* Amen.

In Christ,

Pastor Jack

*”His Name Is Wonderful,” The United Methodist Hymnal 174.

My reflection was helped by the work of  Frederick Buechner's "The things that make for Peace" ( and William Carter's entry in Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, 154.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Prophet Mary

This week, our gospel lesson comes from John 12:1-8, where Mary anoints Jesus. She was doing this to prepare him for his burial, because Jesus' time on earth was running out. Jesus had recently raised Lazaurus from death to life, and he was anticipating his pilgrimage into Jerusalem (what we call "Palm Sunday").

Imagine the scene that Mary and Jesus were in. There was Martha, who had recently made the supreme confession of faith (John 11:27 "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world"). There was Lazarus, whom Jesus wept over, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and who was now trying to figure out how to live the rest of his resurrection life. There was Mary, who sat as Jesus' feet and learned from him (she is also the "ideal disciple" of Luke 10:38-42). This dinner party resembles the many Jesus' attended throughout his ministry, and foreshadows the Last Supper with his disciples.

Mary took the expensive perfume and anointed Jesus' feet with it, brushing or wiping them with her far.This was an extravagant act of devotion. This was also an example of sacrifice, a great example to those there at the house, and to us today. Further, this was also a prophetic act, signaling Jesus' immanent death, anointing him beforehand for burial. This was the traditional act done for those being prepared for burial. Mary, then, could accept and understand what Peter and the other disciples could not: the death of their Master and Messiah. Here was also the action of the ideal disciple: the washing of feet. Jesus received from her what he would soon offer to his disciples as told in John 13.

If you're like me, when you hear the word "prophetic," you think of words. Many times, this is the case. The Old Testament is full of prophets speaking prophetically to their community. Christians can be prophetic by saying the right thing at the right time at the right place to the right people. How, then, is Mary's action at this dinner party prophetic?...

Because it told the truth. Her action was the correct response to the truth she knew about what would happen to Jesus. Although I am sure that this was a hard truth to handle, she did not suppress or ignore it, she lived into it. 

And she was right. Jesus did ultimately go to Jerusalem to die. But then he was raised from the dead. Now, we have the opportunity to "anoint" Jesus everyday by our actions, whether they be works of mercy (e.g. serving), works of piety (e.g. devotion or prayer), or by our words, the truth we tell that witnesses to the love of God. Today, you may do what Mary did. You might not have expensive oil or long hair, but you do have the means to worship Christ: a heart that knows the truth of his love and sacrifice for us. Thanks be to God!

How will you be like Mary this week?


Everlasting God, 
because of your tender mercy toward all people, 
you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, 
to take upon himself our flesh,
and to suffer death upon the cross,
that all should follow the example of his great humility.
Mercifully grant that we may follow the example of his patience
and also be made partakers of his resurrection; 
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

(The Book of Common Prayer, U.S.A., 20th century, alt.)

In Christ,