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We Were There

His name was Alan, and he’d been a member of our church for many years; at least he’d been there since before I was pastor. I had come to ask him if he might consider becoming a deacon.  And after a long, long silence, he looked at me and with a tone of voice I’m still not sure was half-joking or wholly serious, he answered, “Well, I’m very honored… but I’m not sure you want someone like me to be a Deacon.”

Not sure of how I should respond, I asked him how that could be, and he said, “You see, in my last church, I once walked out of a Passion Play.  I’d been given the part of Pilate, and the most important thing I had to do as Pilate was to send Jesus to be crucified – but I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it!  I knew it was just a play, and this was just a part I was supposed to play, but to think that this man Pilate could have sentenced God’s own Son to death… to that kind of a death, that was too much.  It literally hurt to think about it!

“Maybe it hit too close to home, I don’t know,” Alan went on, “but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words… but I didn’t want any part of it… so I just walked out, and left them all high and stranded.”

Now, being the pastor, I probably said something benign like, “that’s OK, Alan; you can still be a Deacon…”  But what I still wish to this day I’d said was, “YES!    You really understand, don’t you?  You totally get what happened!  It’s like YOU WERE THERE!”

You see, the truth is that we all tend to gloss over this part of the story.  If we attend to it at all, as we usually do about now, our habit is nonetheless to keep a safe and polite distance. After all, we say to ourselves, it’s an ancient narrative, something that happened in a place a world away 2,000 years ago and long before any of us were around; it really doesn’t have any direct relevance to today’s world.  Moreover, it’s also a horrific story; the violence that’s depicted there is heinous and unthinkable, and the ending is tragic! And after Palm Sunday last week and coming up on Easter now, it’s really not the kind of uplifting story we want to hear about now.  And besides, we may even conclude, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, does it?  This crucifixion story has nothing to do with how we live our lives here and now; the bottom line? We weren’t there!

Of course, if we had been there, it’d been different:

We wouldn’t have fallen away like the spineless disciples; and we certainly wouldn’t have denied knowing Jesus, like Peter;

And we wouldn’t have been shouting with the rest of the crowd to crucify him; I’d like to think we’d be the ones who were out there still crying out for all we’re worth, “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

And I know we wouldn’t have stood idly by and watched the powers-that-be and their thug soldiers beat Jesus and mock him.  We’d have done everything we could to save him, or if we couldn’t do that, then at least we’d gone with him….

But, of course, that’s not really worth thinking about because we weren’t there!

Or were we?

We need to remember that ultimately, what we remember this week is not about an isolated travesty of justice and faithlessness on the part of a very few people in the rather smallish city of Jerusalem during a Passover celebration some 2,000 years ago.  Historically speaking, this is how it all unfolded, but in every other way, what happened is not that small. What we remember tonight is about human sin.  It’s about the kind of atrocities that humanity is capable of, and how quickly and easily even the most seemingly innocent among us are drawn in.

It’s about death; yes, the death of a man on a cross, a man who was the Son of God.  But it’s also about our death, yours and mine, the death we have earned, the death we greatly deserve.

It’s about Jesus, yes; but in a very real way, it’s about you and me; about our hearts and our propensity to go against them time after time after time.

And it’s about all those times when we say and do all the things which we know we should not do, even if it’s denying Jesus.  Even if it’s joining with the mob when they shout “Crucify him.” Even if it’s cheering when Pilate gives the order.

There is one difference between us and the disciples, however.  You remember how during supper when Jesus said to them, one of you will betray me, and the disciples all answer, “Is it I?  Could it be me?  Not me, Lord…?” Here’s the difference: we don’t have to ask; we already know.

When we have the chance to speak our faith or to act on it, but like Peter, choose instead to keep mum about it, in some small way or another, we deny him.

When we take the path of least resistance, like so many of the disciples, or put ourselves and our personal gain over God, like Judas, we betray him.

When we persist, again and again, in walking our own road rather than the way of the cross, we crucify him.

We were there.  We are there.

And the reason that we’re here tonight is because there is grace that comes in knowing it, confessing it, and above all, in accepting his gift of pardon and salvation for our part in it.

Remember, Jesus went to the cross not to condemn us, but to save us. So as we draw nearer to the cross, let us be honest about it and remember who we are… and above all, let us remember who Jesus is.

Amen.

c. 2013 and 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2018 in Holy Week, Jesus, Reflections, Sermon

 

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Table Talk

“In Remembrance of Me,”by Walter Rane

 

(a meditation for Maundy Thursday, based on Matthew 26:17-29)

It’s actually a very quiet and disarmingly gentle way to begin what is almost certainly the most distressing story that’s ever been told:  “When it was evening,” Matthew writes, “[Jesus] took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’”

I’m discovering that one of the many benefits of having adult children is that mealtime is not always as chaotic as it once was!  Granted, it’s still very busy, especially on holidays and especially when you live in a small parsonage and all three of the kids and their significant others have come to celebrate; oftentimes it’s nothing short of a miracle (and a testament to my wife’s great culinary and preparatory skills) that we even manage to be able to sit down and eat at all!  But that said, compared to the days when we were regularly distracted  with high chairs, fussy toddlers and projectile peas (!), even the craziest of holiday feasts (and trust me, we’ve seen a few!) seem relatively calm in comparison! I know that someday grandchildren will enter into this mix, and things will again become wonderfully crazy (!), but for now I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed these quiet, leisurely meals with my family.

The best part, however – at least for me – has always been the conversation that happens around the table; honestly, when our kids are around it’s what I look forward to the most!  There’s lots of teasing and laughter – a multitude of very bad jokes, most courtesy of yours truly – and a whole lot of reminiscing about beloved people and of days gone by.  And sooner or later there’s also lots of discussion and sharing about matters of life and living, hopes and dreams… even a smattering of things relating to politics and religion!  And inevitably it goes on and on, long after dessert! The conversation can often be, as they say, “sparkling” and as light as air; other times things can get really deep and intense as we “hash it all out.” But the great thing is that there’s always a lot of love as we share together; along with, I might add, much hope and anticipation for everything that awaits each one of the people sitting around that table as the future unfolds.

I’ve been thinking about those mealtime conversations in relation to that passage from Matthew we just shared, the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples on that fateful night of betrayal and desertion; a meal that as I alluded before sets the stage for the rest of the Passion story that’s to follow.  Truthfully, speaking biblically, historically and theologically, there’s a whole lot to consider about this particular text; but I have to be honest with you here.  For as long as I can remember, my thoughts about this account of Jesus’ “last supper” have always centered first on, well, atmosphere… what it must have been like for those disciples to be there with Jesus sharing that meal on that night; but most of all, what the mealtime conversation must have been like!

Now, remember this was the Passover meal, so you know that so much of the “feasting” was steeped in generations of cherished tradition; the kind of faith-fueled ritual that continues on even today amongst those of the Jewish faith.  So understand that in the midst of the meal, there are no words spoken, no songs sung, no prayers prayed that do not stand for something important.  But beyond this, there most certainly had to have been a great deal of casual conversation; and that’s where my fascination lies.

Simply put, I wonder what they all talked about!  Did they speak about the day just past? Were they laughing together about some funny thing they’d seen or about something cute said by one of the children that were lingering about?  Did they comment on the parables Jesus had shared with the gathered crowds along the streets of Jerusalem (backtrack in Matthew’s gospel and you’ll find that there’s some rich storytelling there!); did they ask Jesus for some clarification on some point or another?  Or were they whispering to one another about the look of consternation on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees that always seemed to be there on the periphery, ever and always hanging on to Jesus’ every word, seeking new ways to trip him up?  And were they quietly acknowledging some of the gossip they might have heard about a plot to arrest Jesus, and did that have anything to do with what Jesus had been saying about the Son of Man being delivered into the hands of sinners?

In many ways, it was probably more of the same kind of “table talk” they’d engaged in every evening for all these many months they’d been following Jesus… except tonight it was different.  Because tonight, right in the middle of dinner, here’s Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me.”  And even as the disciples, one by one, are all answering this by saying, “Surely not I, Lord?”  Jesus “doubles down,” so to speak, by adding “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me… [and] woe to that one by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would be better for that one not to have been born,” words that certainly catch the attention of Judas, who at that very moment was seeking the proper moment to make his move.

Not your typical mealtime conversation, to be sure; but one that, as it turned out, needed to happen, and one that would serve to lift up for them and for us the infinite importance of what happened next.

Because then Jesus, again “while they were eating,” took a loaf of bread, blessed and broke it, and then gave it to his disciples, saying, “this is my body.”  And afterward he took a cup, blessed the fruit of the vine within, and gave this to them, proclaiming that this represented his blood – his blood (!)“poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

And there was more: but as Jesus continued to speak, talking about how this was going to be the last time they’d share wine together until the coming of his Father’s kingdom,  I’m sure that the disciples had to have been feeling utter confusion:  Could Jesus actually be saying what it sounds like what he’s saying? What does he mean, someone’s going to betray him?  Is he accusing us?  Surely he knows us better than that!  We’d never betray him, even if something does happen!

Of course, something was going to happen, and very soon: something sad and horrible and repulsive and filled with anguish and despair.  There was about to be more darkness in the world than humanity had ever experienced and would ever experience again.  And as Jesus spoke these words around the table, perhaps now those confused disciples had begun to get some inkling of it; but they couldn’t possibly understand; not yet.

Which is what makes this strange promise Jesus made regarding the bread and wine so important.  Because in the memory of this strange meal they’d just shared, perhaps the disciples would begin to understand, if only in a glimmer, what Jesus was about to do for them and for all of humanity and for you and me.  Perhaps it was Jesus’ promise in the bread and cup that would give them some scant comfort in the next few desperate hours and the couple of dark days that were to follow; maybe it would be the single thing that reminded them of the eternal truth of Jesus’ words even in those moments that seemed the most hopeless.

Or maybe not… at least for them; truthfully, I suspect that by Friday afternoon the disciples were so scattered so despairing and so without hope, they simply went into hiding and didn’t think about anything at all except the thudding pain of their own grieving hearts.  Eventually, later on when everything had changed… well, then they’d remember; but not yet… not now.

For us, however, it’s different.  We are also the recipients of Jesus’ promise the people of Jesus’ long ago promise at the table of blessing, and maybe… just maybe, as together we remember that night of betrayal and desertion and as we walk the way of the cross tonight, remembering  in shame the many ways that we were there as they crucified our Lord, you and I will find our comfort and peace in the assurance that Jesus himself gave that he would be with us always and ever; bringing forgiveness, grace and saving love, even unto the end of the age.

It seems to me that this is the truly good news of what is a very difficult and painful night; and it ours in Jesus, our Savior.

So let us now come to the table of blessing, and let us feast together; engaging in the good conversation of God’s enduring spirit and infinite love, so that we might then go with him to Gethsemane and beyond.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and Amen.

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Communion, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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The Pages In-Between

And so now it’s Holy Week, the last few days of the Lenten season that brings us to the celebration of Easter.  This is the time in which the Christian church remembers the central event of its faith: the sacrifice that one Jesus of Nazareth – who was Son of God and Son of Man – made on a wooden cross at a place called Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem; and it is, to say the very least, a time of heavy reckoning.

The old and familiar story that we’re telling over these next few days remains both powerful and disturbing: it begins with joyous hosanna shouting but leads inevitably to betrayal and desertion, abject humiliation, horrific violence and an agonizing death. This is the gospel story, it’s the Passion story, and it’s our Lord’s story; but in a larger sense it’s our story as well: a sad and stark reminder of the reality of human sin and the fact that it was us, you and me, that Jesus came to save. Yes, it’s a hard, short season of the Christian year; if Lent is indeed a journey as we so often describe it, then the steps taken during Holy Week are certainly the most difficult.

It’s no real surprise, then, that as Christians we’re very good at Palm Sunday and even better at Easter, but not so great at dealing with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Simply put, we prefer the joy and triumph over the sacrifice and pain; we love waving palms and shouting alleluias at the empty tomb far more than we care to hear about Peter’s denials and the crown of thorns cutting into Jesus’ head.  It’s as though since we already know and love the story’s end, we decide to “fast-forward” through the hard details in order to get there – we seek to move from triumph to victory without ever having to deal with the passion in-between.

This is a sad truth reflected by the relatively low numbers of people who come to church on Holy Week for special services of worship and other events.   It’s very interesting to me, and true of every congregation of which I’ve been a part over the years; that even though our pews are typically filled on Sunday mornings as Easter approaches, it’s a considerably smaller group that comes for communion and the service of Tenebrae on Maundy Thursday, and often a downright tiny fellowship that gathers for prayer and meditation on Good Friday!

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the number of people that matters, but rather the presence of God among those who worship together. But what does concern me is what those people who stay home during Holy Week are missing: a greater understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and what that continues to mean to you and me today.  It’s the experience that helps us to better and more joyfully appreciate what all the Easter morning alleluias are all about!

Once when I was in what used to be called junior high school – seventh grade, if I remember correctly – I was assigned to read a short story and then write a report on it. I forget now exactly what the story was supposed to be about, but I do remember reading it and not understanding any of it!  In fact, I was so confused that I couldn’t even manage to write a report that made any kind of sense; and what made things worse is that many of my classmates were raving about what a great story it was!  It turned out that someone who’d had the book before me had torn out a couple of key pages in the middle that set the stage for everything else that was to come; only when I was able to read the whole story from beginning to end could I understand  or appreciate how wonderful it really was.

Likewise, when we don’t confront the whole Passion story – prayerfully and deliberately encountering all the pages in-between Palm Sunday and Easter Morning – we are apt to miss all the wonder, beauty and power of it; not to mention missing the divine opportunity to fully embrace what Christ did for us on that cross so many years ago.

I’ve long been fond of saying that you can’t get to Easter without first going through Good Friday; but more and more these days I’m realizing that the truth is that while you might get to Easter alright, without stopping at the foot of the cross on Friday you are likely to miss the Savior, and that, friends, would be tragic.  What we do together as a people of faith on this truly holy week is to walk with Jesus where he leads: from life to death to life. It’s a true spiritual pilgrimage that happens amidst the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup just as those closest to him first did so long ago; as well as in our prayerful retelling of the old, old story as lights are extinguished and the reality of our place in that story is revealed.  It’s a journey made in song and speech, with silence and in tears, and in remembrance that “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) 

A hard road for any of us to travel, to be sure; but it’s only on this pilgrimage that come Sunday morning we’ll truly be able to greet the sunrise and shout joyfully from our whole hearts that “He is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!”

So let the pilgrimage begin.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in Church, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Reflections, Worship

 

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