Easter Day Reflection, 2018

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Social change is often derailed because powerful people place their own status and wealth above the needs of others. That’s the dynamic that killed Jesus.

Jesus came preaching the Rule of God; that is, he was seeking a way of life that is in accord with God’s intention for the world. In this way of life, everyone receives daily bread, healing is available to all, and dignity is the birthright of all people. The Romans, who exercised civil rule over Israel, could not accept the way of Jesus. It threatened their position of power, prestige, and superiority; thus, Jesus had to be stopped.

Jesus was also working to build a religious community based on respect, forgiveness, mercy, and love. He wanted a Temple that was truly a place of prayer for all people, not a means through which the religious elite manipulated others. He wanted teaching and practice that flowed with grace, not condemnation. Jerusalem’s religious leaders could not accept what Jesus was doing. His way threatened their positions of prestige, power, and superiority; thus, Jesus needed to be stopped.

The religious and civil leaders wanted Jesus out of the way. To do that, they misrepresented his teaching, made up stories about him, bribed one of his followers, and executed him. That’s how people of power and prestige sometimes respond to attempts at making a safer and more equitable world. For a time, they succeed. But only for a time. For Christ is risen, and with his resurrection, the Spirit of God is unleashed.

And when that Spirit is unleashed, says the prophet Joel, “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Joel 3:28)

And the prophet Isaiah speaks of reconciliation among enemies, saying, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

And the teenager Mary, filled with God’s Spirit, said, “The Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51b-53)

Christ is risen! Alleluia! He is risen from the dead!

And because he lives, young and old together work for the kind of world he desires, a world of peace and non-violence, a world in which love conquers hate, and a world in which healing and grace abundantly flow.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Lent Devotion, Saturday, March 31, 2018

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(The gospel writer Mark is speaking to us.)

I ended my story of Jesus in a way that many find strange. I left the story open-ended. On the Sunday morning after Jesus’ death, I told of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome going to the tomb of Jesus. There they were met by a young man dressed in a white robe; he told them, “Jesus is not here; he has been raised. Go and tell his disciples to go to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Having told this story, I wrote, “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This ending is my invitation to you to become involved in the story of Jesus. Keep going to Galilee; that is, keep returning to his story again and again and again. Read it. Savor it. Study it. Pray it. Sing it. Tell it. Live it.

Do these things, for this story is the way to a life fully lived, a life of God-trust, neighbor-love, and creation-care.

May you be immersed in the story, and may you receive the blessing that comes from following the way of Jesus.

Thank you, God, for Mark, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to tell the story of your Son. Amen.

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Lent Devotion, Friday, March 30, 2018

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(The gospel writer Mark is speaking to us.)

The strangest story I told in my Gospel was about Jesus and the fig tree. One morning, as were walking to Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry. He approached a fig tree, hoping to find something to eat. But, finding no figs, he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

The next morning, when we passed that way again, the tree had wilted and died!

In between those two occasions, Jesus protested in the Temple. And so the story of the fig tree is a parable about the Temple. The Temple was failing to produce the fruits of God. Its worship had become sterile; it was less a place of prayer, and more a way for the rich and the powerful to control the poor and the weak. The Temple needed to die, so that something new could be born.

That new birth happened in a couple of ways. One was through Jews like myself, who followed Jesus. Another was through Jews who did not follow Jesus, but who developed a way of life centered not on Temple and sacrifice, but on synagogue and rabbinic interpretation.

I grieve the great divide that developed between Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews. Perhaps it was inevitable given the strong feelings people have about religious beliefs. But I wonder: Could we not have maintained mutual respect? Could we not have seen that we were both striving to follow the God of Israel, and God’s intended shalom for the world? I think we could have. But I can’t change history. But you can change the present; you are making the history that others will look back on in the future. You can work for understanding among those who differ from one another. You can focus on a love that transcends differences. You can succeed where so many generations have failed. I hope you do.

God of mercy, give us the wisdom and the courage to befriend those with whom we differ. Lead us to work together, giving praise to you and caring for the well-being of all people. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Thursday, March 29, 2018

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(The gospel writer Mark is speaking to us.)

Jesus explained his Temple protest by saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

“Den of robbers” is a reference to Jeremiah, who had spoken the words several hundred years previously. Jeremiah had spoken in the Temple, yet not the same one that Jesus knew. That first temple had been destroyed. It was a destruction permitted by God because the people of Israel had turned away from God. Their rebellion included taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable, people like foreigners and orphans and widows. In recalling Jeremiah, Jesus was saying to temple leadership: ‟Do not be surprised if this temple, also, is destroyed. For you are not doing what God intends. For you are placing your own power and status above the needs of the poor.”

It was Monday when Jesus staged his protest. At the end of the day he left.  He returned the next day and spoke some more about how religious leaders were failing to follow God’s way. He warned his listeners to watch out for those who parade their religion but do not lift a finger to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. ‟Watch out,” he said, ‟for those who like to walk around in fancy clothes, to bask in the glow of prominent position, and to sit at the head of the table. Yet all the time they are exploiting the weak and the helpless.”

God of justice: Protect us from the danger of using religion to glorify ourselves. Help us to follow your Son in service to others. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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(The gospel writer Mark is speaking to us.)

Yesterday I told you that Jesus staged a protest in the Temple. He explained the purpose of his protest with these words: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

The first sentence of that explanation comes from Isaiah 56. The prophet wrote:

‟Make sure no outsider who now follows God
Ever has occasion to say, ‘God put me in second-class.
I don’t really belong.’
For God says:
‟And as for the outsiders who now follow me,
working for me, loving my name,
and wanting to be my servants–
All who keep Sabbath and don’t defile it,
holding fast to my covenant–
I’ll bring them to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
They’ll be welcome to worship the same as the ‘insiders,’
to bring burnt offerings and sacrifices to my altar.
Oh yes, my house of worship
will be known as a house of prayer for all people.”

By quoting Isaiah, Jesus was saying that worship of God is not the possession of a certain class or group of people. God desires the worship of all people, and we need to organize communities of faith that are open and welcoming to everyone. It’s the Jesus way of doing things.

God of grace, as you have welcomed us into your circle of love, move us to welcome others. Amen.

(Translation of verses of Isaiah 56 is from “The Message” by Eugene Peterson.)

Lent Devotion, Tuesday, March 27, 2018

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(The gospel writer Mark is speaking to us.)

“Finally, some action!” That’s what I thought to myself the day after Jesus entered Jerusalem. We had returned to the Temple, and Jesus went to work! In my Gospel, I described it this way: “He began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” (Mark 11:15-16)

Surely now, I thought, Jesus would announce that he was taking charge. Surely, he would call down angels from heaven and show his power! Surely, now we would sit with him at seats of authority! Surely now all those who opposed his way would be driven from the land. I trembled with excitement, thinking that at long last, we were getting our way, that we would control the Temple and of the government, and that finally—finally!—we would be in charge.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when Jesus suddenly left the Temple. He wasn’t interested in claiming power for himself. He was rather protesting what the Temple had become. Tomorrow I’ll tell you what his protest was all about.

Heavenly Father, forgive us for the times we have thought that, because we follow you, we should be in charge. Forgive our lust for power. Forgive our desire to force our ways upon others. Send your Spirit into our midst and teach us to follow the non-violent way of your Son. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Monday, March 26, 2018

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(The gospel writer Mark is speaking to us.)

As I said earlier, Jesus was silent during his ride toward Jerusalem. Once we got to the city itself, I expected all heaven to break loose. Jesus, I thought, would clearly and loudly speak, and work his power.

But that’s not what happened. Jesus said nothing, and in silence made his way to the Temple. He stood quietly, not saying a word, just looking around. He seemed to be soaking up everything that he could see, attentively noticing everything in front of him. Then he finally spoke. He said, “Let us be going. We’ll come back tomorrow.” And we went back to Bethany for the night.

I was so disappointed! I thought this was the time Jesus would claim his kingly power. But I should have known that would not happen. Jesus had plainly told us, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him,  and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

But we didn’t want to believe it. We wanted the power and the honor and the glory. And we wanted it now.

I’ve since realized that’s not the way Jesus works.

Lord Jesus, teach us that your way is obedience to God, even at the cost of suffering and death. Amen.