Sunday, April 12, 2015

Come to Believe

Come to Believe from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

1 John1:1-2:2
1We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us - 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not know what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

John 20:19-31
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has send me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin) one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him,”My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The day of Resurrection is a big deal in the life of the church. It's traditionally the highest attended worship service of the year. We have special music and decorate the sanctuary, sometimes the service may even run a little long...

The resurrection is a big deal in the life of the church, so much so that Easter is not just a single day, but a season! Mary's discovery of the empty tomb kicks off fifty days of resurrection joy, a joy so great that by the time we begin worship on the second Sunday of Easter, scripture has not caught up with us, and we join the disciples gathered behind locked doors on the evening of the same day Jesus rose from the dead.

The footrace to the tomb began a week ago for us, but for the disciples it happened early this morning. Peter and the beloved disciple have seen that the tomb was empty, but they have not seen the risen Jesus. "When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” Reaching back to the Genesis 1 account of creation, we see the light of the world appear on the first day of a world made new through the cross and the empty tomb. On the first day, Jesus came and stood among them in a locked room.

Fear drives us into locked rooms more often than we might like to admit. Sometimes we lock ourselves in because we’re worried what might happen if we came out, sometimes forces outside our control push us into those locked rooms. For the disciples, it was the very real fear of persecution for who they were, who God had created them and called them to be, that locked them in that room. But if the power of sin and death couldn’t stop Jesus from being with us, what are a few fears and a simple lock.

In the midst of our fear on the evening of that day, the first day of the week, Jesus gives us a gift, “Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’” Surrounded by turmoil and a world that is being reshaped around our risen Lord, the fearful disciples are first and foremost given peace. God is still working on us, just as God did not abandon us to the mess we had made of the world, so God does not leave us alone in our fear. Taken out of their fear and given peace, the disciples are able to see Christ as who he is, the Word made flesh, the Son of God, and Jesus of Nazareth, their Lord, their master, their teacher, their friend. “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

In two verses, the disciples have gone from closeting themselves away in a locked room somewhere to rejoicing! But Jesus isn’t done with them yet: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” It is a little silly to rejoice in a room that is still locked. God is still working on the disciples, teaching them how to live in a world remade by the resurrection. Their fear has turned to peace, and then to rejoicing, but it’s not enough to stay in their locked room, Jesus is sending them out into the world. Not only is God still working on them, God is working through them through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But not all of them were gathered there that day. Not all of them received the peace of Christ, not all of them had the opportunity to rejoice when they saw the Lord. The disciples received the Holy Spirit and a commission to leave their locked doors and go into God’s world among God’s people, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas gets a bad rap for this. The phrase “doubting Thomas” crept into our language and is thrown around any time someone is wrongfully unsupportive of a person or idea. Scripture, on the other hand, does not refer to Thomas as “doubter.” Jesus does not condemn his unbelief. Thomas was not locked in the same house as the other disciples when Jesus appeared among them. Scripture doesn’t tell us why Thomas was absent from this fearful gathering of the faithful, it just said he wasn’t there to experience the risen Lord.

He’s only asking for the same gift the other disciples have received. After Jesus said “Peace be with you… he showed them his hands and his side.” Thomas only wants the same experience as the rest of the disciples before he is expected to believe this amazing and crazy story of resurrection. It would be easy for us to condemn him for his lack of faith, to just write him off as an unbelieving sinner, but God’s not done with Thomas.

Now the Bible story and our story catch up to one another, a week has gone by since Jesus first appeared to his disciples, and we find ourselves gathered in this house of worship. The disciples, likewise, “were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Even though Thomas insisted on the same proof the disciples had already seen, he continued to gather with them, and seven days later Jesus appeared to them again, bringing greetings in the same manner as the last time he appeared to them.

This time it’s an appearance just for Thomas, bringing the resurrection into his skepticism, intervening directly into the life of someone on whom God is still working. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.’” In the midst of our doubt, Jesus appears and invites us to experience him and to set aside the fear that causes us to lock ourselves inside, to set aside the doubt that keeps us from experiencing how the world has changed. Jesus chases Thomas down because God is still working on him, and will work through him to proclaim the resurrection and the glory of God. Thomas is invited to do as he said he would, to place his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in Jesus’s side.

But when faced with the risen Christ, Thomas doesn’t need to reach out for proof. “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” In spite of all his fear, all his doubt, Thomas joyfully proclaims the identity of Jesus Christ. We call him doubting, and he calls out “My Lord and my God!” Even in unbelief, even behind closed doors, or in a room locked by fear, God is still working on us so that we can proclaim to the world who Jesus of Nazareth is: “My Lord and my God!”

With Thomas’s heartfelt confession of faith, I imagine Jesus giving an affection chuckle as he says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This affectionate reply and blessing is the heart of this passage, because all of the disciples have seen Jesus at this point. The blessing is for the generations of Christians who come after, who have come to believe through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the church.

Coming to believe is a process, just as the disciples gathered in fear, moved to peace, then joy, and then were sent out, so too we are in a process of coming out of our fear-locked rooms. God is still working on us, and continues to guide us in faith even though our salvation has long-since been accomplished. We are coming to believe so that we can learn to live in a world remade by resurrection, where we don’t have to fear death, because we know our redeemer lives, even though he died.

We cannot imagine what God can do, and we cannot imagine what God is doing through us in a world that’s still figuring out how to live its redemption. We know the stories of those who have gone before us, and we know that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” God’s reach stretches out beyond what we have read and into what we are living. “But these are written sot hat you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

We have the life of the risen Lord, it’s already given to us. As we come to believe more and more, we are more able to trust it and stretch Easter from a single Sunday to a season, and then to a new way of living as people who are not slaves to sin or death or fear. We have been sent out by the one who came out of the empty tomb.

The tomb was empty that first Easter morning, and 2000 years later the tomb is still empty. Therefore let us trust this good news, and live as people of the resurrection, not because we have seen everything, but because of the blessing of having not seen, and yet coming to believe. We have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and on that sure foundation we, the people of God can stand and proclaim the true salvation, crying out in joy, “My Lord, and my God!”

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Teacher! (Holy Week III)

Teacher! (Holy Week III) from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 25:6-9
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is cast over all nations; 
8He will swallow up death forever. Then the LORD GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
9It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrapping lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
  1. We started this Holy Week with a parade.
    1. Baptism-wilderness-entry-upper room-cross.
    2. We are by no means prepared for the empty tomb.
  2. We come to Jesus in the dark. 
    1. “Human interpretation (or misunderstanding) of the empty tomb does not determine its significance.”
  3. Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because she’s not expecting him. She’s expecting fear and grief. Not even the appearance of the two angels can re-form Mary’s anguish into joy. But as soon as Jesus calls her name, everything in her changes. “Rabbouni! (which means Teacher)”
  4. At the moment of resurrection, even before any disciples have seen or believed or spread the good news, everything has changed and it cannot go back to the way it was. 
    1. “The close bond between disciple and teacher cannot be resumed on the old terms.”
  5. "For it is he and no other, Jesus the son of God, who is the representative man, the second Adam…Because he has an identity, mankind has identity, each man in his particularity as the adopted brother of Jesus.”
  6. Jesus not only calls Mary by her name, he calls us also, and sends us back to the community to connect with other disciples around this scary-good news. He calls us out into the world and calls us around this table where all persons are fed, body and soul.
  7. We have died to sin and joined in Christ’s resurrection! All those expectations have fallen away in that death. Now all that’s left is a re-formed person able to be the self that God created. We have the freedom to echo Mary's original proclamation of the gospel: "I have seen The Lord." We may not have seen him in he he flesh, but we have seen him in the body that gathers around this table to be fed body and soul by his presence among us. With the full assurance of the gospel and God's resurrecting presence among us, we proclaim throughout all the ages that Jesus Christ is Risen today. Alleluia, amen.

Happy Easter!

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall—though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly—be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control    
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in Thy life-book 1 my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day.

-John Donne, Resurrection

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Take This Cup (Holy Week II)

Take This Cup from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Exodus 12:1-14
1The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of the month; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year old male; you may take it from the sheep or the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD

Thanks be to God

Mark 14:22-25, 32-42

22While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25Truly, I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

32They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35And going a little further, he threw himself on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come to the time of trial; for the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

This is the Word of the LORD

Thanks be to God.

After the noisiness of Palm Sunday fades, our expectations of the LORD sour us against Jesus of Nazareth. Against the backdrop of Passover, the shared story of God freeing our spiritual ancestors and us from oppression, Jesus’s apparent tolerance of the empire that reigns is all the more offensive. We almost accused accuse hm of being who we want him to be, ignoring who he is, and attempt to box him in with our expectations. We accuse him of being the Moral Absolute that represents the silent majority. We accuse him of being the socially reforming rebel who overturns those who would hold us back from our version of justice. We place him in a box that fits our own biases. Yet he doesn’t fit in any of those boxes, and has broken all of them between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. So by the time we reach the Passover celebration, the bitter herb reflects both the tears we wept while we were slaves in Egypt and the bitterness in our own hearts that Jesus of Nazareth has not done as we expected.

And yet, beneath the surface, the Passover and Passion Pageants are playing out just past what we can perceive, beyond what we expect. At the edge of despair, God is bringing us together to celebrate the Passover, and to participate in the way God sets us free from our bondage to sin.

Jesus gathers his disciples together at a table where the dishes from Passover have not even been cleared. There’s a little leftover bread, a little leftover wine, and a cup. We have all told the story of how once we were slaves in Egypt, but God brought us out with a mighty hand. “Then Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” The same Jesus who has systematically avoided all the titles that prophets and crowds have hurled at his feet now becomes the lamb who will be slaughtered for Passover. In his last days, Jesus of Nazareth meets us around a table.

From the Passover table, we travel to the Garden of Gethsemane, and once again we encounter Jesus in a more intimate way than the gospels have shown us previously. We meet him in agony. Many commentators suggest that Jesus’s prayer gave him encouragement, or strength. However, God whom Jesus calls “Abba, Father,” is utterly silent. There is no voice from heaven proclaiming “This is my son, the beloved.” Only the darkness of the garden, and only Jesus’s voice is heard. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.

A brief prayer in the midst of distress, agitation, and deep grief, even to death.  Jesus reaches out with an honest plea, like many of laments we have reached for over our Lenten journey, and they bubble up again here in Jesus of Nazareth’s final hours. Jesus is bound to know what awaited him, he knows what the cup “of the covenant, which is poured out for many” would look like.

Yet, like the psalmist’s laments, he remains faithful, and chooses to obey God’s will for him. “The agony of Jesus’s prayer lies…in the irony that what God wills is what Jesus’s own enemies are conspiring.” The betrayal cannot, will not be averted. For God has chosen this Jesus of Nazareth, and has chosen to strike him down with the cross.  “Fully human, Jesus knows the inner struggle of the will. He refuses to abandon the will of God, and in this decision the die is cast.” Jesus is obedient to the will of the LORD, even if God’s will means Jesus joins the firstborn of all the Egyptians and is struck down, by being lifted up on the cross.

No matter the cup, salvation, new covenant, or the cruciform suffering and death that awaits Jesus of Nazareth, it’s too much for a person to handle all at once. Here in the garden, Jesus has to stop taking from this cup and come up for air a few times. Maybe the good news of Maundy Thursday is that we do not have to suffer through despair alone. After all, Jesus gathered us around the table and invited us to the garden together. Maybe the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone?

And yet, that’s not the cup which Jesus is given. Jesus must enter into this despair alone. Jesus reaches out to his disciples, leaving them a short distance away as he struggles with the cup God has provided him. He returns three times to them, weary from struggling over his impending suffering.

God has given us the story of Passover so that we might remember that God brought us out with a mighty hand. God has given us the Psalms of Lament so that we might faithfully grieve and struggle with a world that does not know how to be free from sin. God has charged us to take this cup, which is the “blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.” Even God remains silent as Jesus struggles by himself, with the fate of the world in the balance. 

One thing is certain: only Jesus of Nazareth is capable of taking this cup. And we, the disciples, cannot even help him along the way.

Yet we are connected to it nevertheless, because it was our cup to begin with.

The cup is past taking though, and so Jesus returns from his grieving-prayer and finds us sleeping. “Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed unto the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Long Awaited, Yet Unexpected (Holy Week I)

Long Awaited, Yet Unexpected from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Psalm 31:14-24
But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”
15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumfounded to Sheol.
18Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24be stong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”

4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 

7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it.; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut int eh fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

A month and a half ago we followed Jesus out into the wilderness. We set out on forty days of Lenten Lament, reading the Psalms that plea with God to make things right again. We wrestled with grief, sin, injustice, and the harshness of being abandoned. Why would a father drive his beloved son out into the wilderness? Why would a loving God let us live in a world filled with lament?

Maybe the hardship of the wilderness, and learning to live with our discomfort, is an act of love. Perhaps the wilderness of our Lenten Lament prepares us to parade back into Jerusalem singing God’s praises. Perhaps there is holiness to be found as we return from wandering in temptation and take our place in God’s temple once again.

We followed Jesus into the wilderness this Lent. We sat in our lament for a whole season, taking on the struggles of this life as we look to the coming of God's kingdom. Now we grasp palm fronds in celebration that Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem has finally arrived! The long anticipated Messiah is at hand! "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

We begin in a town called Bethany, approaching Jerusalem. the disciples are full of energy, they can sense that something amazing is about to happen. Mark's gospel is full of the word "immediately." But here, outside the gates of Jerusalem, time slows down. Mark's "immediately" is set aside and it takes us four chapters to cover one week. It's as if the whole gospel were in a headlong rush to arrive at this point. We can see it begin to unfold at Bethphage, and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives.

The setting established, Jesus looks around and needs to make some last minute preparation for the days ahead. "He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” The gospel doesn't tell us if this is a pre-arranged code or an example of divine foreknowledge. It just tells us that the disciples are sent, and everything happens just as Jesus told them.

The colt is ambiguous. It could either be a horse or a donkey. If it’s a horse, it’s a regal symbol, the conquering king. The Roman Governor would have arrived on a horse, ready to oversee crowd control during the huge festival that celebrates Jewish liberation from worldly empires. He is the representative of Caesar, and brings the full authority of Rome with him. If Jesus arrives on a horse-colt, he is undermining that image. If, on the other hand, the colt is a donkey, it shows how Jesus of Nazareth will soon bear the burden of the world. A donkey is a beast of burden, with no overt nobility. It’s a work animal, not a regal one.

Perhaps the gospel writer is intentionally vague, our uncertainty about Mark's meaning connecting us with the disciples who don’t understand Jesus's teachings about himself. This long-anticipated king, who would restore Israel to the greatness it enjoyed under David, rides in on a colt, rather than a royal warhorse. “No reader should miss the implication: David’s great kingdom was built on bloodshed and military might. This new king, in contrast, enters humbly, on a colt, and will very soon shed no blood but his own.” The long-anticipated king is arriving, yet his manner will be quite unexpected.

With the colt acquired, Jesus heads down into the city, with his followers in front of and behind him. “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” Yet in spite of the way being prepared, the cheers are only coming from Jesus’s followers, those who went ahead and those who followed. Perhaps this is less a kingly triumphal entry than a rabbi and his obnoxious rabble.

Mark’s Jesus has spent the entire gospel telling folks to say nothing. Word has, predictably, not gotten around. Jesus enters the city in silence. He does not wave to adoring crowds, he does not bestow imperial favors. He rides in on a lowly colt. His silence rises above the noise of the disciples, and unsettles our expectant hearts. We have come together after following Jesus into the wilderness. We have gathered outside Jerusalem to join the procession as his parade brings and end to out lament.

Yet this long-anticipated king enters in an unexpected way to save us in an unexpected way. “Mark depicts an entry which is triumphal only for Jesus’s followers who have not yet understood his destiny as the Son of Man.” The disciples want the triumph of a conquering king, their expectation is that the occupation of Palestine would end. Jerusalem would be free, ruled by God’s anointed. Their expectation is that the temple will be rededicated and God’s people will once again be a nation!

Spoiler Alert: That’s not what happens. Jesus of Nazareth does not lead mighty armies, he does not lead the people in rebellion against Rome from the back of his colt. He does not carry the parade to the seat of Imperial Authority and declare himself God’s anointed King of Israel and Judah. Instead, Jesus enters the temple.

What do we expect of Jesus? Like the disciples, do we anticipate the arrival of Jesus to mean political upheaval until those who agree with us are back in power? Do we expect that the coming of the Messiah brings a return to the glory of former days? Do we anticipate that God’s anointed will bring us to new righteousness and justice?

Do we expect that the radical change will be centered in the church? After all, the parade is just the beginning. “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.” Perhaps the temple is the place for the grand gesture? Surely, with the High Priest present the temple will flourish again. The offering plates will the full and the temple will be seen as a truly holy place by all. We anticipate Jesus’s in breaking into our worship and spiritual practices to set our hearts aflame. We wait expectantly for his word, his action.

Then, unexpectedly, “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Seriously? After that big entrance you’re going to head back out of town to where you’re staying? Jesus looks around in the temple, then turns around and leaves. He goes back to Bethany each night until Passover begins! It’s like he’s teasing us out into the streets, standing apart from our expectations of him, standing in line with the will his Father has for him.

Jesus’s actions send a clear message; he’s not here to magically fix all our problems. He’s here to obey God. Jesus comes to Jerusalem to glorify God, not to make us feel better. No wonder our “Hosanna’s” turn so quickly into “Crucify him.” Our long anticipated, yet unexpected Savior is not focused on us, or the crowds, or the temple, or the Empire. Jesus of Nazareth remains focused on God.

Jesus is not who we want him to be. He is who he is, and no expectation on our part can substitute for his identity. “The figure of Jesus emerges more and more as one whose mission it is to enact and suffer his singular destiny, while the kingdom of God and the Son of Man who embodies it with its authority fade into the background.” We expected the triumphal entry to bring us joy, to carry us out of the lament that has left us weary after these forty days of lent, after a lifetime of wilderness. We yearn for the long-anticipated joy of God’s intervention in our world. But in our longing, we have forgotten: You’ve got to fill up the cross before you can empty the tomb.

Yet our longing persists! Why would a loving God bring us out of the wilderness only to leave Jerusalem and head back up to Bethany? Why would we have this huge to-do as the one we have called Messiah entered Jerusalem, only to have nothing change by the end of the day? Why would God bring us out of our lament only to leave us outside the Holy City filled with disappointment?

Oh God, you who have walked alongside us throughout our whole lives, throughout our whole history, can’t you see that the people are suffering under Roman rule? Can't you see that Palestine is occupied, and needs a liberator? Oh LORD, why do these injustices persist when you could right all things wrongs in a moment?

And yet, O God, you are holy. You have brought us from the shapeless void into your created order. You have molded us from a tribe into a people, from slaves into a nation, from exile into restoration. You have heard our lament, and we know the long-anticipated day of praise will come.

Yet in spite of our palm-waving, praise-filled parade, it is not this day. We are captives, O LORD, and yet you allow us to remain in bondage. We have followed you to the gates of Jerusalem, and beyond. We have followed you to the temple, because we remember the wonders you have done in our sight in the past.

We have seen the great things you have done, we have seen you act through Jesus of Nazareth, and through your church. For that reason we praise you, O God. We proceed before you and follow behind, holding a parade to celebrate that Truth of your intervention in this world.

Yet still we raise our lament, because our expectations do not match what we see around us. We see death, and captivity, and suffering, and injustice. Because you have not acted, we feel abandoned. Great God! Carry us through our lament, that we may know the joy of your promise.

Save us, O God, for the pomp of Palm Sunday still leaves us unfulfilled. Save us, O LORD, for you are our creator, redeemer, sustainer. You are our long-anticipated, yet unexpected, Savior and God. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

(Rhythm of) Forsaken and Rescued ( Psalm 22)

(Rhythm of) Forsaken and Rescued from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

John 12:20-33
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven. "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 30Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 22
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

3Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8"Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver - let him rescue the one in whom he delights!"

9Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
12Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13They open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water, and and my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
15My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
18They divide my clothing among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

19But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
21Save me from the mouth of the lion! 

From the horns of the wold oxen you have rescued me.
22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
28For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about The Lord,
31And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.In the rhythm of the church’s life, we are wandering in the wilderness of lent, and we are carrying our laments to the foot of the cross. It’s a rhythm that echoes the experience of God’s people throughout the centuries, moving from forsaken to rescued, exile to restoration, darkness to light. That rhythm carries us through our lives, and it carries us from lent into the parade of Palm Sunday, to the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, and the world-wrecking death of Good Friday, and into the joy of Easter.

We know the end of this story. We know the cry from the cross is answered with the call of the empty tomb. We know that "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?..." becomes "From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me." We know that the wilderness laments of our lenten journey lead us to us to the promised-land praise of our Easter destination. We also know that we can't skip to the end. Our feelings of forsakenness demand expression. The only one to whom we can express them is God, who has rescued us in the past. We cry out in faith that our redeemer hears us; and will rescue us again.

So we don't want to be still, though we know that I AM is God. We want to skip ahead to the end, the the feeling better. In lament we don't want want to be still because we are sitting in the midst of our trauma, unpacked and laid bare in the middle of the road, covered in embarrassment, our world is wrecked by tragedy.

It's obvious, in the rhythm of this psalm, that it wasn't written in one sitting. It loops around on itself, crying in agony, then asserting faith, then enduring mockery, then remembering God's providential claim on the psalmist's own life. Then midway, a herd of metaphors displaying every dangerous animal out to destroy and devour. The person who wrote this psalm, traditionally identified as David, seemingly came back to it again and again, adding a few lines at a time as the struggles of this world overwhelm his ability to cope.

Then, halfway through a verse, interrupted in the suddenness of a breath, the rhythm changes. The psalmist announces his rescue and reaches out in praise for the remaining third of the psalm. His praise is unequivocally pointed at God, his rescuer. His story has joined the throngs of others reaching back to before the foundation of the world of God's loving and mighty hand.

We are not in the throes of joyous praise yet. Our rhythm carries us towards it, but we can’t disrupt the rhythm by skipping ahead. To do so would leave our praises hollow, and our spirits just as empty.

As many of y'all know, before I was called here, I worked as a Chaplain at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. Chaplains are not the miracle workers that nurses are, neither are they medical experts like Doctors. We're a caring and guiding presence that helps people to stay whole, even as their lives and bodies are broken. I was privileged to walk alongside patients and families through some of the most difficult and holy moments in a human life. Some days, though, helping others to bear their burdens meant I took some of their struggle on myself.

We had just finished our morning staff meeting, and I volunteered to watch the pager until lunch. Around 10:00, it went off, calling me to visit with a family in the Neuro-ICU waiting area. I grabbed a bible and a notepad, straightened my tie, and walked upstairs to a room where families wait to see how severe their loved one's brain damage is.

The patient's brain damage was severe. Wife, teenaged son, younger daughter were in one corner of the waiting room. I introduced myself and sat with them, and asked them what happened.

Husband, father, son, hard worker, deacon in his congregation. He had gone outside during a storm after worship the previous Sunday to cover their lawnmower when he was struck by lightning. He wasn't going to get better. His brain had died, and the hospital was merely keeping his body functioning. The family was struggling with whether they should withdraw care, and let his body die too. Underneath that, though, the family was struggling with where God was in the midst of this world-wrecking tragedy. I had no words that would fix it for them. I had no technique to ease their pain.

In that waiting room, we didn't need words of praise or promise. We needed words of lament. The wife who became a widow, the mother who became a single parent, the daughter-in-law who became a reminder of a lost son needed the cry, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” The grieving widow needed the words of a lamenting psalmist who asked “ it was that God, who had always dealt mercifully with his people, should now, forgetting as it were his own nature, thus leave a miserable man without any...solace."

When we are walking through lament, joyous praises are projected on our imagination by Psalm 22. But if all we can reach out and touch is our own ensnaring mess, we are locked into lament, and cannot let go of our cries just to recite praises that feel empty. At some point in the rhythm of being God’s people, we will all need to cry out in desperation with the faith-shaped words of the psalmist.

I can't ignore the fact that our crucified Lord quotes this psalm just before he dies. In agony and abject abandonment, he reaches back into his tradition and finds words to express his pain, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."

Some folks argue that in calling out this first verse, Jesus is referencing the entire psalm, and that even though he has taken on our sins and abandonment for the moment, he knows that there is triumph and praise at the end.

The folks who make that claim are faithful, brilliant, and love Jesus. They've written books and articles and many of them have spent more time interpreting scripture than I have. But I disagree with them.

I think when Jesus quotes the opening lines of this psalm, he is in the middle of the cry of the abandoned one. If he was reaching for the assurance, he could have found his way to Psalm 22's more familiar neighbor, and murmured on the cross, "The LORD is my shepherd..."  I think Jesus's dying prayer was not meant to point us to praise, but to weep with abandon alongside every person who was afflicted. "Jesus is not questioning the existence of God or the power of God...he is questioning the silence of the one whom he calls 'My God.’" I think Jesus's use of this psalm gives it a special weight: in the depths of human suffering, in world-wrecking pain, in the corners of waiting rooms where the once tightly knit family feels traumatically cut off, Jesus is there with them, sharing their lament.

But from his perspective of praise, and from his memory of his own despair, the psalmist reaches out with hope, announcing that God did not disdain the affliction of the afflicted. The afflicted one is saved because God took notice of their struggle, of their pain, of their very real suffering. God takes notice when the psalmist cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." God takes notice when Christ cries with a loud voice on the cross, God takes notice when we cry out from the depths of our despair. "God must invariably be present in any of the hells that human beings can create on the earth.” Even in the rhythm which takes us out into the wilderness and brings us back, God is present. 

Verse 24 gives us a promise that even when we feel abandoned, God does not reject us, or even our pain. God hears our cries and promises that our forsaken laments will one day shift to rescued praise. But until they do, God can take on our lament, and does not hide his face from us. God does not abhor the rhythm that brings us to lament, but sends his son to join us in our affliction, and returns us home with Christ so that we may know that God rescues us, and "proclaim God's deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it."

Jesus uses this psalm of lament on the cross because he is in agony, and feels abandoned by his Father. So when, along our Lenten journey, we find our heads bowed in sorrow and our hearts are breaking, we're in good company. Jesus walks with us through the rhythm of our lament, all the way to the end. And even if all we can see is the shadow of the cross, we know the end is not death, it's resurrection.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Rise Up

Rise Up from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

John 2:13-22 (113)
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. he also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 12 (608)
To the leader: according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.
1Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
2They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts,
4those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own - who is our master?”
5”Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
6The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
7You, O LORD, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever.
8On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

For the past three weeks, we've been looking at the Psalms of Lament. We've seen the writers of scripture struggle with grief in Psalm 77, with their own sin in Psalm 25, and this week Psalm 12 looks out at a frightening world that is full of injustice.

On a Sunday where we have some new faces, it is perhaps a bit risky to grab hold of a text like this one. This is not the friendliest passage of scripture. I don’t know about y’all, but at first glance it doesn’t make me feel very good. I’d be a far sight happier with a friendly passage that gives me a pat on the back and tells me how wonderful and special I am.

But ignoring the messed up stuff going on around us doesn’t make it go away. There’s a time to read joy, there’s a time to read comfort, and there’s a time to read lament. We read this Psalm because it helps us to approach the darkness of the world. We read the darkness of the world through the lens of this Psalm because it gives us a promise that the darkness is not all there is, even when we’re caught up in the pain of living in a broken world. “Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind.”

I told a story not too long ago, at a meeting of our regional governing body, Presbytery. I told them about how once upon a time, when I was studying to be a minister, I would look at my classmates and rank them according to how "real" I thought their call was. I’d never say it to them, but I’d think it awfully hard. “Really, you think God called you to ministry? Wouldn’t you know it, the more folks had in common with me, the higher I would rank them?

I looked around at the state of the church, and of these future, and often current, leaders of the church, and I arrogantly put myself in a place to judge their worthiness. “Really, you think God called you to ministry?”

Then one day a thought occurred to me as clearly as if the Holy Spirit had whispered it in my ear. "You know some of them would say the same thing about you, right?" I had spent so much time in judgement over the flaws of my fellow travelers, I had totally overlooked my own flaws. Truth be told, I'm pretty confident I judged others to avoid looking at my own flaws. 

I was speaking with a double heart, with the flattering lips that the Psalmist describes in verse 2. I saw that the church was hurting, and I saw that the community at my seminary was strained, and instead of reaching out with compassion and healing, I sat in cynical and patronizing judgment over them. Preacher-type folks are just as stuck in the mess of the world, or at least this Preacher-type person is.

When verses three and four tell us “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own - who is our master?’” I can’t claim that I don’t fall under that category, I think all of us have fallen victim to our baser instincts from time to time, and have lied to ourselves and others.

In our tradition, there's an idea called the "Total Depravity of Man," which basically says that we are unable to save ourselves. Left to our own devices, we will chose selfishness and brokenness every time. We make messes we cannot clean up, and push others down so that we can feel as though we're higher than they are. Left to our own devices, humans are pretty terrible to one another. "Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly," includes us, when we’re left to our own devices.

But we are not left to our own devices. God intervenes in our lives and does good things through us. ”Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.” The lament over the sin-sick souls who people the world is real, but in the midst of the wickedness and vileness that cross our lives from time to time, this psalm reaches past the mess in front of it and grasps for God. God is acting, even though humans have a remarkable ability to make messes, God's power to redeem and protect us is far and away stronger than our ability to mess it up.

God protects the poor and the needy, God redeems his fallen people, God receives our lament, but does not abandon us to it. In the face of injustice, God acts. “”Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.” The LORD will rise up, and give the poor and the needy the protection, the safety, the justice for which they long.

In our tradition, there’s a concept called “Unconditional Election,” which means that God doesn’t save us because we deserve it, but because God wants us. God’s intervention is not an obligation, it’s a gesture of love that will not let us go. “‘I will now rise up,’ says the LORD,” not because we have earned it, but because we need it. God blazes a path through the wickedness and vileness in the world and establishes justice for all people. “You, O LORD, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever.” We’re not immune to the wickedness and vileness of the world, but we belong to the God who rescues us from it. Just because you notice that everything's not alright doesn't mean you're not part of the problem. When the LORD rises up on behalf of the poor and needy, maybe some of us need to sit down and get out of God's way. That way we can follow God rather than get run over. 

The route through which God is traveling, rising up on behalf of the poor and needy, doesn’t necessarily destroy the wicked, instead it destroys wickedness. That’s the power of the cross, towards which we are headed during this season of Lament. The cross doesn’t smite the wicked, it purifies them, it purifies us, according to the promises of the LORD. The writer of Psalm 12 looks out onto the world and laments that he sees “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind,” but he also sees that God is still out there, still headed toward the fulfillment of the promised justice.

God will rise up to protect the poor and needy, and to cleanse the wicked, and we are all of those. We are poor, we are needy, we are wicked, and we are claimed by God. Therefore let us rise up also, following in God’s path, though we may find reason to lament along the way to the cross, we will also find protection, and justice, and our redemption, on the other side of the cross.