Slowing Down

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It struck me yesterday how busy Holy Week is. Especially for pastors and lay members in the church — we have so many services that hold such importance, all squished into a very small window of time.

With so many events taking place, it seems easy to lose sight of each movement of Holy Week. But then again, as I read the Passion Narrative again this week, I realized how easy it is to push past some of the most meaningful moments in the text in an effort to get to the resurrection.

The story of Peter’s betrayal is a text that I have previously rushed through. Jesus had already predicted so much that came true, and Peter’s denial didn’t seem to really move the story forward in any especially distinct way. Yes, Jesus predicting Peter’s denial in Luke 22:31-34, and Peter’s actual denial in Luke 22:54-62 show Jesus’ power to prophesy, as well as Jesus’ unfailing love for Peter. It’s an amazing story, but in the scope of the crucifixion and resurrection I found it easy to skim past.

If we pause and give these verses just a little more attention, we see a much larger narrative at work. We don’t typically tie Jesus’ beating and taunting in with Peter’s denial, but as my husband and I read the text this week he pointed out connections that can change the way we look at this text.

Just after Peter denies knowing Jesus in Luke 22:54-62, the writer begins describing how Jesus’ captors beat and taunted him. The text states in verses 63-65, “The men who were holding Jesus in custody taunted him while they beat him. They blindfolded him and asked him repeatedly, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’ Insulting him, they said many other horrible things against him.”

On the surface it just sounds like they’re mocking him. Like they’re taking one attribute Jesus claimed to have, and daring him to do it again. And in Jesus’ resolve, he holds back and refuses to give in to their taunts.

The text is far more subversive than that. The writer wants us to see that as Peter fulfills Jesus’ prediction of denial, Jesus’ captors dare him to prophesy. Yet Jesus doesn’t need to yell out a new prophecy, because Peter is literally fulfilling one at that very moment.

These are moments that we can miss in the midst of Holy Week and in the chaos of our lives. But they’re sitting in our Holy Book, waiting for us to grasp them. So may we slow down and pay attention today and in the coming days. Because as we prepare to approach the cross and the tomb, we have such greater truths to grasp than even this.

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When Jesus Also Doubted

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I recently came across a post that Rachel Held Evans published in March 2013 called “Holy Week for Doubters.” In it, Rachel describes the questions that many of us fear asking on Holy Week; the deep questions of faith and doubt. Those questions can often catch more of our attention on Holy Week, as we attend numerous services, travel to visit family, suffer through Good Friday, and celebrate on Easter Sunday.

It struck me as I read her post that we are not the only ones who doubt on Holy Week. In fact, Jesus endures a time of great trepidation and doubt just before his arrest. 

After Passover Jesus goes on to the Garden of Gethsemane or to the Mount of Olives, depending on which gospel you’re reading. He retreats there to pray. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts, his prayer time is tumultuous. Particularly in the gospel of Luke, Jesus experiences a moment in which the reality of his circumstances come to the fore, and he is petrified.

Luke 22:41-46 states, “He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. He said, ‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.’ Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” 

I have had a number of times in my life in which I felt the weightiness of doubt. I began asking questions, reading a lot, and wondering what really holds up and stands strong in the end. However, I have never reached such a point of anguish as to begin sweating blood.

Jesus knows his fate in this situation, and doubts his ability to endure it. So he seeks. And the response he receives is a heavenly angel who arrives to give him strength.

Sometimes when we doubt, we need comfort more than answers.

I often describe the spiritual journey as a Jenga tower. Do you remember that game? A series of blocks all stacked upon one another, slowly growing while simultaneously creating more holes. And if you touch the wrong block just a little too hard, the whole tower comes crashing down.

So we resist asking questions, we hold them close to our chests, in an effort to prevent all that we’ve built and all that we believe from falling to pieces.

The beautiful thing, though, is that after those blocks are scattered across the floor, we get to pick them up. And instead of building one tall tower whose pieces all have to fit just right, we can build a house. 

We begin anew with a foundation on the God who understands doubt; the One who once sweat blood in a garden, who once begged for God to change his circumstances. And we create a home. A home that we can change, that we can remodel, and mostly that we can dwell within, knowing that the ground upon which we stand has promised to remain with us always, to the very end of the age.

Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano, and Judas Iscariot

  
 I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard many sermons that focus on Judas Iscariot. And that kind of makes sense. This week I re-read all four accounts of Judas betraying Jesus, and I found them far more shocking than I ever have before.

Typically in the telling of the Passion Narrative, Judas’ betrayal is simply one of the catalysts that leads to Jesus’ arrest. But in the anticipation of the crucifixion and resurrection, I think we can miss this very early and very scandalous element of the story.

Mark’s account of the story is the most concise. In chapter 14, verses 10 and 11 we read, “Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to give Jesus up to them. When they heard it, they were delighted and promised to give him money. So he started looking for an opportunity to turn him in.”

In Luke and John, Judas’ betrayal is Satan’s fault — Luke 22:3 and John 13:2 both state that Satan entered into Judas and encouraged him to betray Jesus. But in Mark and Matthew this takes place completely out of the blue. They’re about to celebrate Passover, but just before that one of Jesus’ faithful disciples decides not just to deny him or to leave him, but to sell him out.

This is the sort of thing that gets prime time on our TV networks these days. Shows like House of Cards and The Sopranos shaped their plots on the themes of loyalty, power, greed, and betrayal, and all of those elements are at work when Judas betrays Jesus.

The difference, though, is that in those shows the person betrayed typically inflicts the punishment the betrayer ultimately suffers. In the biblical text, though, Jesus instead invites his betrayer to dinner. They celebrate Passover at the same table, while Jesus is fully aware of Judas’ deception and abandonment.

Jesus never fails to extend grace, even to those who treat him the worst. In the ultimate act of betrayal, Judas receives Jesus’ welcome rather than his punishment. And while the story doesn’t end well for Judas, Jesus is never the one to inflict harm upon him. 

So may we, as faithful followers of Christ, accept His grace and love today. And may we be mindful this Holy Week of all of the good, the bad, and the difficult moments that led to the Passion of Christ. 

A Guide To Eucharist

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As we approach Holy Week there are a number of texts that will need their fair share of time, so I thought I’d start working through them a bit early. Palm Sunday is tomorrow (you can read about it here or listen to me preach about it here), and I will celebrate it with some friends who are Catholic and decided to return to Nashville to visit for the weekend.

I wasn’t raised Catholic, but my husband was. Between the two of us I think we have, in some form or fashion, participated in almost every Christian denomination. Each denomination has its own nuances in theology and polity (which means how they’re organized and what they do as a group). Communion is one of those topics that has divided congregations due to matters of both theology and polity, and the specificity required to discuss it can make the topic seem daunting. So I thought I’d create a little Guide To The Theology And Polity Of Eucharist as we prepare to approach the Last Supper this week. It’s not Eucharist For Dummies; rather, it’s Eucharist For All of Us Because The Topic Is SO Complex.

A Guide To Eucharist:

Theology

  • Transubstantiation — This is the belief that when a priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substance and the essence of the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the view of the Catholic Church.
  • Consubstantiation — Martin Luther developed this belief in response to the Catholic Church’s understanding of transubstantiation. Rather than believing that the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ, Luther instead said that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. They dwell together. This view also goes by the name “Sacramental Union,” and the Lutheran Church subscribes to this understanding of Eucharist.
  • Receptionism — This is the view that the Holy Spirit can work in the bread and wine to deliver the actual body and blood of Christ to the individual who consumes the elements. Christ’s presence is spiritual, rather than physical, and relies heavily on the faith of the individual who participates in the sacrament. The Presbyterian Church and Reformed traditions hold this understanding of Eucharist.
  • Memorialism — Christ is not present physically or spiritually with the bread and wine; rather, Communion is a time to reflect and remember the life and passion of Christ. Baptists and a number of other denominations follow this view; it also goes by the name Holy Communion and The Lord’s Supper. (For more information on the Theology of Eucharist, click here).

Polity

  • Wine vs. Juice — You’ve heard of Welch’s Grape Juice? It was created as an alternative to wine. Thomas Bramwell Welch was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, which strongly rejected the sale and consumption of alcohol. In 1869 he found a way to stop grape juice from fermenting, and began marketing it to a variety of churches who were also a part of the temperance movement. Some denominations continue to use grape juice because of their stance against alcohol, while other use it out of sensitivity to members who have struggled with addiction. Still, many other churches continue to use wine.
  • Shared Cup — A number of churches serve communion to their congregants from a single cup. The individual receives the bread and either dips the bread into the cup of wine, or drinks from the cup itself. The minister then drinks whatever is leftover in the cup (including the sopping, gooey bits of bread that coagulate in the bottom of the cup).
  • Intinction — If you’re ever at a service and the minister says you will take communion “by intinction,” it means you dip the bread into the cup of wine or juice. A few years ago while I was officiating a Sunday service, I announced that we would take communion by intinction, and the first person who approached the altar grabbed the cup and took a large gulp of it. I was confused, the congregants were confused, and eventually they caught on that they should dip their wafers rather than swigging from the cup.
  • Individual Cups — Mr. Welch is a part of this story as well. When he developed his unfermented grape juice, some churches continued to try to drink the juice from a shared cup. Within a few weeks, the entire congregation would come down with same illness. One of the beautiful properties of wine is that it kills germs — the unfermented juice didn’t. Shortly after committing to using unferemented grape juice, churches realized they couldn’t all drink from the same cup without spreading germs and sickness, so they began either practicing intinction or using individual cups.

I hope this has been a nice primer on the nuances of communion. It certainly did not cover all of the nuances in theology and polity, but perhaps you learned just a little more about the sacrament we celebrate together.

Climbing Trees

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Confession: I was a back-pew sitter for three years of my life. I was young and enthusiastic about the ministry I witnessed at the new, hip church I began attending, but I sat in the back row. I remember feeling welcome in the services, but not in the community. The church was happy to have me attend, to worship, and to hear the sermon, but for some reason each of my attempts to get plugged into a small group, Bible study, or some form of community failed for the first three years of my attendance.

While I read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 this week, I found myself thinking back on that time in the church and identifying with Zacchaeus. You can read the full text here, but this is my summary:

Zacchaeus is a short, little guy, and a tax collector, and he hears that Jesus is coming through their town. He really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowd of people. So he climbs up a tree, and Jesus calls to him and asks to stay in his house. Zaccheaus celebrates the honor of hosting Jesus in his home, but those in his community grumble, stating, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” In response, Zacchaeus declares to the Lord that he gives half of his goods to the poor, and that he has returned four times the amount of any extra money he took from those in his community. And Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

To fully understand this story, we have to understand the job of a tax collector in the 1st Century. To get the job, individuals would submit bids stating that they would collect a certain amount of money, and the person who bid the highest typically got the job. The highest bidders were also often the richest in their communities, because they knew they could use their own wealth if they didn’t meet their quotas. The tax collectors would then often hire out other individuals to collect on their behalf, and that’s why Zacchaeus is specifically cited as “a ruler among tax collectors” — he probably had subordinates working for him. The payment system required the tax collector to give the governor the amount of money he originally bid, and everything left over was his profit. So you can see how the system could get corrupt pretty quickly, and why the community may be ambivalent about helping him out.

Zacchaeus was an outsider — he was the one who collected taxes in his community, and therefore they struggled to trust him. But Zacchaeus flies in the face of their stereotypes and projections, and proclaims that he has gone overboard to remain righteous and just within the parameters of his vocation.

I can’t get over the image of Zacchaeus in the tree. He climbs up there, knowing that he is too little to see over the crowd and knowing the the crowd simply won’t help him. So he dwells up in the tree, waiting for Jesus.

It makes me wonder how many people in our lives and in our communities are waiting up in the trees. They are too fearful to face the crowd below, or the crowd pushed them up there because they didn’t believe or behave the way the crowd wanted them to. And out of their love for Jesus and their fear of the Church, they choose to live in the trees. 

The back row was a nice tree to live in — it gave me the opportunity to witness and to encounter Jesus every week. But can you imagine the sweetness of having a community who pulled me down, embraced me, welcomed me in, and led me to Jesus? I have since been blessed to experience that in a number of other congregations, and the warmth of that acceptance is indescribably good and holy.

So let’s look around us today, let’s peek up into the trees of our lives and our communities, and let’s see who may be yearning to be drawn back in.

Gratitude and Attitude

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We have a funny little saying in our household: “Gratitude and Attitude.”

I came up with it one day while my husband and I were shopping. Early in our relationship I learned that my husband reviles shopping, especially in malls. One day we had to go to a department store to get him new jeans. While he was trying on a variety of pairs in the dressing room, I ran back and forth to return pairs he didn’t want, exchange sizes, and find better styles. I thought I was doing a great job, and frankly, it was quite a bit of work. So when I returned to the dressing room with another armful of jeans, and he let out an audible, “Uuuuggghh,” I pointed my finger at him and stated, “Gratitude, sir. Gratitude and attitude!”

I realize that most people don’t spout self-help maxims in the middle of the menswear department at Macy’s, but that’s beside the point. In that moment, I saw a direct connection between the amount of gratitude we express, and the attitude we present to the world, and I decided share that realization with the fellow shoppers in our vicinity. 

The gospel of Luke depicts a similar scenario in chapter 17, verses 11-19. The text states, On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.'”

So ten men receive healing from Jesus, but only one returns, and he begins “praising God with a loud voice.” The man also happens to be a Samaritan (for more information on the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, read this article). Jews and Samaritans had a virulent relationship; yet, after receiving healing, the Samaritan comes to recognize and praise God.

His attitude changed. In the moments of healing, the Samaritan transformed from a man who was outcast and begging, to a man who was joyful and praising. 

The other nine did not return. We don’t have the ability to know how they felt, or how their attitude and outlook changed after their healing. We do know that they chose not to return to offer gratitude and praise God, though.

So may we instead emulate the Samaritan today. When you feel something bothering you and getting under your skin, take a step back, and perhaps whisper “Gratitude and Attitude.” Choose to be grateful today. Because while everything may not be perfect in any of our lives, each of us has something or someone we can be grateful for. And that one word of gratitude can change how we encounter and praise God in the world around us.

Getting Lost

  
 When my niece was a few months away from turning two, she found a new favorite toy. It was a very large balloon in the shape of the number “50” that my dad received for his birthday. Because my niece loved it so much, we kept it around the house for a few weeks after his birthday celebration. During that time, some friends visited the house while my niece was dragging around her coveted balloon, and they asked her, “Whose balloon is that?” She slyly responded, “Papi’s balloon… Mine, too.”

From an early age we like to claim and to keep track of the things we love. 

This came to mind while I read the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin in Luke 15 this week. If you’re unfamiliar with the parables, you can read them here. Essentially, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one who wandered off; he then shares another parable about a woman who searches her home diligently for one lost coin. Once they find their treasured items, the parables end in celebration.

Most of the sermons I have heard about these texts end with a call for us, as lost sheep and lost coins, to return to the One who left the other 99 sheep and 9 coins to come find us. And that makes sense, given that in verse 7 Jesus explains the parable, stating, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” So we establish that the parables are definitely about our return to the One who shepherds us and keeps us.

I think there’s even more going on here. Parables are meant to have layers of meaning, and there’s another layer staring right at us when we consider that sheep and coins don’t have the capacity to repent. The sheep and the coin didn’t go seeking after their keeper; rather, the keeper took great measures to go find them. While the text states that one of the parable’s points is to encourage repentance and reconciliation, the actual story depicts God seeking us when we’re lost. (For more on this reading of the parables, see chapter 1 of Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus).

And this parable isn’t anomalous. We have examples of God seeking those who are lost throughout the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite examples takes place in Genesis 16. Sarai gave Hagar to Abram as a wife, because Sarai until that point was barren. The text says that when Hagar became pregnant “she no longer respected her mistress” (v. 4), so Sarai “treated her harshly, and she ran away from Sarai.” So we have a pregnant servant who endured such punishment that she preferred to run away into the desert. And that’s where God comes in.

The text says that the Lord’s messenger (which becomes the Lord by v. 13) “found her at a spring in the desert” and asked her, “Where did you come from and where are you going?” She explains that she ran from Sarai, and God instructs her to return home. And then He blesses her, saying,

 “Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (v. 11-12).

God doesn’t bless her with a perfect son who will be kind and gentle and will play well with others. God blesses her by showing up to her in the desert, at a well (for more on women at wells, click here), and listening to her. Not only that, but God tells her to name her son Ishmael, which in Hebrew means, “God hears.” Genesis 16 illuminates the point that no matter where we go, no matter how far we travel, no matter how lost we feel, God will come find us.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin have a lot to say about us repenting and reconciling with God. Even more, though, they want us to realize that God will never leave us nor forsake us. He’s not going to let us remain lost, no matter how far we wander. So may we find comfort and direction today, as Hagar did, that know that God will always seek and find us wherever we may be.