Category Archives: Bible

Jesus is Dangerous

This post (longer than most) is based on a sermon I gave last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran in Lindstrom, MN based on Luke and Mark’s Gospels.  I dressed in a “Biblical” costume and told the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of Levi, a priest in the temple of Jerusalem.  Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, I seek to move the congregation beyond mere observation. 

Levi enters from side door, speaking to unseen persons behind him.

Just a minute.  I agree something must be done and I will help, but first I have to meet with the visitors.   Maybe I can get their support.

(Turning to the congregation to greet them) Good Morning.

My name is Levi and I am one of the priests who serves here in the Temple of Jerusalem.  On behalf of High Priest Caiaphas, I want to welcome you to the Passover festival here in Jerusalem.

I know that some of you have come a long way to be here in Jerusalem and this is your first time in this magnificent Temple.  I hope you are impressed with the huge stones and craftsmanship.

I must apologize for being a bit late. You see we have a problem.  A big problem and it is growing.  You might think it is just a problem for the priest and servants of the temple.  But it is a problem for each of you as well.

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem By Berthold Werner - Own work, Public Domain,

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  By Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain,

First just a bit of background.  This temple has been here for more than 50 years, built by the great King Herod.  It reminds us of the great temple built by King Solomon, a thousand years ago, but Solomon’s temple was destroyed centuries ago and the second was built over its foundation.

As you know temples are important.  They give us a sense of calm and peace in an age of great uncertainty.   I am guessing most of you came here today to find some peace and calm, some rest for your soul.  Here in the rituals and music of the temple we can feel safe; we are able to block out the terrible evils of the world.  Like the dread Roman army that occupies our land.  Or for you it might be the problems in your families or work or at school or with friends.  We can escape for a time.

We need places like this temple to find rest for our weary soul.  In a sense, to find oil to replenish our lamps.  The temple can be a safe haven, a safe harbor, in a dangerous world.

But that is our problem.  Danger has come here, into the temple itself.

The danger is a man named Jesus of Nazareth.   A troublemaker first class, that we need to take care of.

I heard of Jesus several months ago.  There were reports coming from Galilee, that province up north, about a man doing miracles and teaching.  A prophet like John the Baptist.  Stories and rumors of his deeds came to our attention, but we, the priests, ignored them.  We have sufficient problems keeping a great institution like the Temple running to worry about some crackpot prophet in distant Galilee.

Oh a few scribes were sent to observe him, to test him. And I am sure he is a crackpot.  For example, this Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins.   Just who does he think he is?  Only God can do that, and only when we have a sacrifice here in the temple.  Jesus seems to think he could speak for God.   How could he be a prophet, nothing good can come from Nazareth, that tiny insignificant town.

The stories kept growing.  5,000 people fed, a lake storm quieted.  But you know how people like to embellish the truth.   I am sure none of you would fall for such preposterous rumors.

I and the other priests tried to ignore these stories and Jesus.  To talk about him only seem to inflame the crowds.  But then last Sunday, our hands were forced.  We have to deal with him, because he came here to Jerusalem.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem

And in no quiet way either.   He came like a king, riding a donkey. I bet some of you saw it.  As you well know, there are always huge crowds coming to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  And the crowd, like foolish children, cut down palm branches and took off their robes and laid them in the street.   They shout Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna means “save us.”  How could Jesus possibly save us?

I certainly hope none of you were shouting his name or cutting down palm branches.  I hope none of you were drawn into his promises and claims.

Jesus is dangerous and to be avoided at all cost.

Then after the parade, Jesus came into our temple and cleaned out all the money changers and sellers of turtle-dove and lambs.  He threw over table and pushed people out of the courtyard.  He made some speech about how this is to be a house of prayer.  Well certainly we can pray here, but how are we to do our business without the money changers to take the filthy Roman coins and exchange them for proper Jewish coins?  Or how are people to make a sacrifice for Passover without sheep or turtle-dove.  I see that none you are carrying a turtle-dove with you.  There is a practical side to running a temple after all.

“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” by New Zealand artist Michael Smither, 1972 (Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, New Zealand)

Jesus is dangerous and he has stirred up the crowds.  Some think he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.  Last night I was a supper with Simon, my cousin.  Jesus was there as well.  I told Simon not to invite him, but Simon went ahead in spite of my advice.  I looked Jesus over carefully. He was a simple ordinary man.  He ate with two hands, he drank wine, he even laughed at Simon’s bad jokes. Nothing unusual there.

anointing_jesusNothing unusual until a woman from the street came into the room.  She is not the proper woman I would allow into my home.  She carried an alabaster jar of perfume. I could tell this was not some cheap perfume, but the very expensive kind. She walked right up to Jesus, broke open the bottle and poured the whole bottle on his head, just like he were a king.  I immediately object to this waste of money.  I said, “This ointment is a waste.  It could have sold for several thousands of dollars and the money given to the poor.”   I thought for sure Jesus would join in my rebuttal.  He would see the waste.

But no, He rebukes me and gives praise to the woman. That she has done a very good deed.

Good deed, my eye.

Jesus should not be anointed.  He should be locked away in prison.

You know what he said about the temple.  One of his disciples told me that he said, “This temple will be destroyed.”  This beautiful, magnificent temple destroyed.  God forbid.

How can we worship God without a temple, without the institution?

Where are you to go to offer sacrifice for God’s forgiveness if the temple is destroyed?  How will you know you are forgiven unless blood is shed?

For Jesus to talk about the temple being destroyed, he should die!

That is what we were discussing back there before I greeted you.

How to stop Jesus!  Stop him from making more trouble.

And most of us agreed, he must die.

Oh we could execute him by stoning him to death for blaspheme against God, as Jewish law permits.  But the crowd may interfere.

So someone had the idea, “Let’s take him to Pontius Pilate. (Pilate is the Roman Governor), “We can use Jesus’ claim as King as the reason to execute him.”  After all the Roman form of execution, crucifixion, is such a horrible way to die.  But it will show all his followers that Jesus is a fake King.

The Crucifixion by Matthias GrunewaldDon’t you think it would be fitting for King Jesus to have the cross as his throne?

And after he is dead, we can go after all his disciples.

All his disciples, except for one.  One who was smart enough to come to us and help us.  I met him at Simon’s dinner last night. The disciple agreed to find an opportune time to turn on Jesus, when the crowd is not around.  A smart man, that Judas Iscariot.  You can learn from him.

Which leads me back to you.  What role will you play in this unfolding story?

I am sure most of you see the danger in Jesus.

Do you really want a King who tears down temples and says that God is free to go anywhere, be anywhere?

Don’t you feel safe with God here in this box, where you can come for comfort and support?

Do you really want God out there in your everyday world, in every nook and cranny of your life, who can surprise and disrupt your lives? Won’t you prefer to run your own life?

One thing I will guarantee.

garden tombBy the end of this week, Jesus will be dead and buried in a cold dark tomb.

And that will be the end of his story and his mission.

And within a few months his name will be forgotten.

I see some skeptical looks on your faces.

Do some of you actually believe Jesus’ talk about rising from the dead?

Don’t be so foolish?  How many resurrected people have you met?

The resurrection of Jesus is as likely as this magnificent temple being destroyed.  It will not happen.  Trust me.

I must go.  I need to meet that very smart man Judas and pay him for his help.

Remember, I have warned you.  Jesus is dangerous.  He could turn your life upside down and inside out.

Are you sure you want him as your king?

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Home for the Holidays?

My college was 3000 miles from my home.  Naturally I flew during the short winter break.   Once I was in Minneapolis for a connecting flight but a snow storm swelled and all flights were cancelled.   I remember looking out at the night, watching the snow swirl and wondering if I would get home for Christmas.

That memory has power today as I reflect on how many people in our world have no shelter.  The Syrian refugee crisis has made the homeless a daily part of our news cycle.   Economic and political refugees from Mexico and Central America continue to seek a home in our nation.  Aid agencies and churches seek to serve the homeless in our affluent cities.

Nativity by artist Shelia Diemert

And at the heart of my pondering is the story of Christmas itself.   A young couple forced by political powers to make a journey to Bethlehem.  There Mary gave birth to her son in a stable, because they had no place to stay.  A short time later the new family was forced to flee to Egypt because King Herod felt threatened, insecure.   Being homeless seems to be a key part of the ancient Christmas narrative.

Or at least it makes me ponder, just what is home?  Is it a place, a shelter, a palace or a shack?  Or a set of relationships?  As Robert Frost wrote, Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.   Or is home knowing your place in the universe?

As I read the Gospels, Jesus rarely had a permanent residence.  His early life in Nazareth is not described.  He himself said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).  What he did have was a network of friends, disciples, supporters, family.  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).

The value of home ownership in our society is clear.  I have supported Habitat for Humanity for years and have seen the power a house can have for a family. To be without shelter is tragic.   But a house is not always “home.”  As another old proverb says, Home is where the heart is.   Where we feel connected and loved and our fears dissipate.  Jesus probably felt at home wherever he went, because he lived connected to God and others.   That same interconnection is for all creation, including you and me.

Eventually that snow storm in Minneapolis passed and flights resumed to Seattle.   I made it home for Christmas and celebrated with family and friends.  Yet the memory of that layover serves as a reminder that I remain connected to Christ and others wherever I am.  My truest home rests in Christ Jesus.

Where do you find your truest sense of home?

Healing at the Center

Centering Prayer is saving my mind while healing my soul.

IMG_20140812_190249_047-EFFECTS

St. Paul Monastery in Minnesota

I just returned from a five-day silent retreat at the St. Paul Monastery.  I practiced Lectio Devina (a form of prayerful reading and conversation).  I was familiar with the practice – we use a form of it during our staff meetings at Resurrection – yet the monastic practice strengthened my love of God and God’s Word.

Jesus in the Center of Prayer

Jesus in the Center of Prayer

However the most profound part of the week was the practice of Centering Prayer.  Each morning at 7 am we sat together for an hour simply breathing and praying our holy word.  We repeated it again at 10 and at 3.  Too many it sounds incredibly boring.   For me, it was drinking from the river of the water of life (Revelation 22:1).   It was simply resting or floating in God’s gracious love. Emptying the mind so God’s love could fill it.  Not just thinking about God’s love, but actually resting in it.

Oh, my mind fought the emptiness.  My thoughts and feelings would race from one idea to the next.  The river seemed to be covered with all kinds of flotsam and debris.  “What is happening at church?”  “Why did I say that to her?” “What will we have for lunch.” This would happen hundreds of time during the quiet.   Each time I caught the thought skipping across the surface, I let it go and return to my breath and my word.  To simply BE in God.

Henri Nouwen wrote in Here and Now, 1994

The real enemies of our life are the “oughts” and the “ifs.” They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and the now. God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful. When Jesus spoke about God, he always spoke about God as being where and when we are. “When you see me, you see God. When you hear me you hear God.” God is not someone who was or will be, but the One who is, and who is for me in the present moment. That’s why Jesus came to wipe away the burden of the past and the worries for the future. He wants us to discover God right where we are, here and now.

Centering prayer is a form of mindfulness practice, living in the current moment.

Fire Creek was ablaze with color.

At times I missed the beauty that surrounded me

I discovered my real need for this last summer when I was backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail.   I had looked forward to the trip for months and was in absolutely beautiful alpine country, yet my mind kept racing back to worries in Minnesota or to past actions that I regretted or wished I could change.   Here I was in the place I wanted to be, and my mind could not stay there!    I knew I needed help.

This past spring I took Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class which is a secular form of Buddhist meditation practices.  It was incredibly helpful.  The Centering Prayer has similarities to meditation, yet centers the practice in the love of God in Christ Jesus.   That has been healing.

Now next week, I head back out to Washington state to do another section of the PCT.  I will continue my practice of Centering Prayer and Lectio Devina.  I trust that my mind will be able to stay on the trail with my body this year.

How does prayer touch your life?

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray.

Experience Maundy Thursday

This evening at Resurrection Lutheran Church our Maundy Thursday worship will include participatory prayer stations where worshipers will experience the story of Jesus’ final hours. The worship will begin in our familiar pattern of singing, call to worship, scripture reading and sermon. The pattern will change during the Lord’s Supper. Instead of simply coming forward for communion, worshipers will have the choice of participating in four different prayer/story stations. People will be free to move about the worship area, engaging in the stations for as long as they desire. The stations are as follows:

communion_elementsHoly Communion
Holy Thursday is the night when Jesus transformed the Passover meal into our meal of Holy Communion. People can come to the altar for the bread and wine of communion. There will be kneelers available for those who would like to kneel as they receive.

 

Washing of Feet Station

Washing of Feet
During the supper, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, as sign of loving service. Worshipers will have the opportunity to either wash the feet of a family member or have their feet washed by a staff member or others.  Warm water, basins and towels will be provided.

 

 

Garden of Gethsemane stationGarden of Gethsemane
After the supper, Jesus and his disciple went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Worshipers are encouraged to pray for the whole Christian church around the world. They can light a candle and mark a nation on a world map for which they are praying.

 

 

 

christ mocked by soldier, bloch

 

Trail of Jesus
While praying in the garden, Jesus was arrested and taken to the High Priest Caiaphas and later Governor Pilate for trial. He was beaten and mocked, dressed in a purple robe and a crown of thorns. People will have time to reflect on Jesus’ suffering while confessing their own sin and recognizing that our baptism both connects us to Jesus’ suffering while forgiving us our sins.

Silent Reflection
If a worshipers prefer not to participate in the stations, they can sit in their seat and pray while reflecting on a series of audiovisual paintings and photographs are displayed on the video screens.

The purpose of each station is to make the story of Jesus come alive for us, that we are participants in Christ’s story. People can choose to participate in all stations or simply stay at one the whole time (about 12 minutes).

The worship will conclude with a song and blessing. We will gather again on Good Friday evening to remember Jesus’ crucifixion.

Lord Jesus, let us walk with you this day.

Family, Business or Army?

This past Sunday Resurrection Lutheran Church had its annual meeting. The meeting is stipulated in our constitution so that we can conduct the business of the church: review and pass a budget, elect officers and hear staff reports. On the surface this can seem fairly dry. Yet beneath the surface, vital vibrant ministry is going on.

For example, the discussion of the budget is really a question of stewardship and priorities. Where do we as a congregation want to invest ourselves? How does the stewardship of our physical church building compare with our stewardship of our outreach and mission in the world?

The Family of God gathers at the Table

The Family of God gathers at the Table

Many people compare the church to a FAMILY, which can be helpful metaphor. We are brother and sisters in Christ (Mark 4:34). As a family we care for each other and support each other in time of need. In a family, the focus is often on the most vulnerable, the “weakest” such as a our children or infirmed. Love is central to a good family.

Stewardship involves opening our wallets

Stewardship involves opening our wallets

But the church is not simply a family. Another valid metaphor is the church is a BUSINESS.  It has finances to raise, property to maintain, staff to hire, and budgets to negotiate. We have constitutions and bylaws to uphold. One thing to remember is that this is a “business” ultimately owned by God; we are stewards or overseers who manage God’s resources for God’s purposes. “It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (I Cor. 4:2). As stewards, we are called to examine the finances as God’s money. Trust is key to good business. 

Feed My Starving Children has unique "helmets" for service

Feed My Starving Children has unique “helmets” for service

But there is a third priority: mission. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Here the metaphor is that the church is like an ARMY, charging forward into a broken, dangerous world to bring the light of God. The church is not simply a country club that enjoys each other company, nor a business that has a balance budget. The church has a mission to carry God’s message of love, grace and justice out into a world that is broken and hurt.  Preparing meals for overseas shipment at Feed My Starving Children is one place our Army serves.  Courage is vital to mission.

At Resurrection we describe that mission as calling all people to a vibrant life of faith in Christ.

In a healthy congregation, all three -family, business, army- compete for attention. Some members are clamoring for more dollars spent on caring and educating our members (especially our children and youth). Others are sharpening their pencil to make sure we are not spending beyond our means and that we are being good stewards of our resources. And others will be pointing out the door, wondering how we will become God’s hands and feet in God’s mission for the world. We need all three to converse to function well.

Our annual meeting is the opportunity to have that conversation: how we are fulfilling our mission, managing our finances and caring for one another?

Which metaphor (family, business, army) is your passion?

Lord Jesus, empowers us to work together for your kingdom.

Next: How Worship links all three.

Experience the Way

Christina with her sister Suzanne and holding nephew Jack

Christina with her sister Suzanne and holding nephew Jack

My daughter, Christina, was not quite three. She was waking up from a nap and my wife noticed that she did not seem fully responsive. Christina’s eyes were open and she was breathing, but her face was blank and she did not respond to any touch or sound. This persisted for a few minutes, so we called 911 and an ambulance came. We rushed off to the children’s hospital, uncertain what was happening, but praying for God’s intervention.

I think about that ambulance ride, when I read the story (John 4:46-54) of the royal official whose son was ill. The official traveled more than twenty miles by foot to Jesus and “begged him to come down and heal his son.” The official was someone who normally gave orders and told people what to do. Begging was not part of his daily life—especially with a wandering, controversial preacher. Yet he was desperate to help his son and if begging was necessary, he would do it.

Many parents would do the same. I know my prayers in the ambulance were a form of begging, “God, help my daughter.” It was raw and real and I waited for God to hear me.

Jesus’ response to the official sounds ambivalent, almost callous, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” It sounds like it is meant for the crowd that surrounded Jesus and not for the official.

Yet the father persisted. As I said he was desperate. “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.”

I hear and empathize with this father’s plea. At times God seems distant and silent, yet I persist in my prayer for God’s assistance.

Jesus responded, “Go, your son will live.”

This is not what the father asked. He wanted Jesus to come with him, to be present and touch his son. I would want the same. I want Jesus to be physically present, reassuring me as much as my child.

Yet the official believed the word of Jesus. He started on his way, not knowing what would happen, but simply trusting in the promise of Jesus. I wonder what thoughts and feelings he experienced as he walked towards home. (I let you read the story to discover how it concludes.)

Sometimes the WAY seems isolated and cold.

Sometimes the WAY seems isolated and cold.

Many parents live right there in the story.  We are walking the way, unsure of the future.  We have the promise of God’s love and healing, but are uncertain how it will unfold. We walk, trusting in the promise of God for our children and for ourselves. We are on the way, but the way seems dark and cheerless.

Shortly after my daughter arrived at the hospital, we met with doctors and discovered that she had experienced a mild form of epileptic seizure, something that could be treated with a prescription. They assured us that she would grow out of it. And she has.

Still I remember clearly that feeling as we drove to the hospital, the begging quality of my prayer and the simple trust in the promise of God’s love. We all walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  We try to remember that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6)

When have you walked by faith and not by sight?

Lord Jesus, I believe, help me in my unbelief.

Jesus the Poet

The Gospel of John is the current focus of my preaching. I am excited, challenged and transformed by the Word of God encountered in John. The powerful language, metaphors and word images stir new thoughts and perspectives. I cannot read John passively; I am called into an encounter with Jesus.

From the start, John uses poetic symbols and metaphors to describe Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar, writes,

John’s use of symbolic language is extraordinarily powerful. His images are often “archetypal” (literally, imprinted in human psyches from the beginning). They flow out of the depths of human experience and longing. We see this with great clarity in the “I am” statements that he attributes to Jesus:

“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). The archetypal image is darkness and light and it close relative blindness and seeing. The image is not only in John’s prologue, but also in the story of Nicodemus (John 3), who comes to Jesus “by night” —he is still in the dark. In John 9, the overcoming of blindness and Jesus as the “light of the world” are juxtaposed. (Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, p. 305-306)

John’s use of metaphor can often be confusing and unsettling—that is his intention. Take the story of Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus is a religious leader, a Pharisee, who comes to talk with Jesus by night. He starts with a clear declaration of respect, “Rabbi, we know that you are teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus calls Jesus Rabbi—teacher—and Nic appear ready to learn.

But Jesus’ use of language seems only to confuse Nic. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or again)” Nic does not catch the true impact of Jesus. He is not simply a teacher who give more data, but rather God who give birth to a new cosmos. Nic responds, “How does someone climb back up into his mom’s uterus?”

Nic comes to Jesus like an engineer or scientist, wanting the new set of blueprints for remodeling one’s life. Jesus responds like a fiery poet, burning down Nic’s safe path to religious enlightenment with the declaration that one needs a fresh birth (implying the death of the old and a new birth with a new perspective?). Like a poet Jesus uses dramatic graphic language: birth from above, born of water and Spirit, the wind blows where it will. All this leaves Nic confused, questioning, wondering, “How can these things be?”

As a reader, I am often like Nic, wrestling with questions and concepts. I need to die to my simple approach that wants to fit Jesus into my life. Rather Jesus comes to “break open” my religious perspective and start a new creation in my life. The new creation is not always clear, but I know that staying close to the poet Jesus, I will find the way, the truth and life.

Lord Jesus, speak your word of new birth for me today.