Journey Through Lent: Day 39 (Good Friday)

524013_10100263836785808_2011523557_nA prayer for Good Friday:

Prince of Peace, redeemer of us all, crucified God, we have gathered at the foot of the cross, and at the entrance to the tomb, and we have rolled the stone across it.

The world sometimes does it’s worst, even to those who don’t deserve it. You know that, because you once lived as one of us, loved as one of us, and died as one of us.

Today we leave, as your disciples did centuries ago, knowing our friend is gone, and that a good man has died.

The ones who knew you and loved you could find no consolation that night. They mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have looked for mercy that didn’t seem to come.

And yet, some would dare to look for hope…

God, as you send us out into the world today, stay close to us. As we wrestle with the big questions, as we ask why there is pain, why there is suffering, why there is loss, do not leave us alone. Help us to find you in our hours of greatest doubt.

And at the right hour, draw us back together. To gather at the tomb. To look for the light. To look for you. For hope, for you, we will be waiting. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 38 (Maundy Thursday)

521304_10100263452964988_715142070_nYou can also find this post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/maundy-thursday-and-the-love-mandate_b_2941615.html

The most common question I get asked during Holy Week is about this night, the Thursday before Easter. People get Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: What does “Maundy” mean?

It’s a good question. Who uses the term “maundy” in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those of us inside, it might just sound like a church service where we know we should want to go to it, but we have no idea why.

But before I talk about what the word means, I want to go back to that story we read from the Gospel. In it Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his 12 disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or an eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of nonviolence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness and the kindness and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities, and clergy of his day, than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead, he was with the ones he loved most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday.” We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death” or “make sure there’s payback” or “don’t let them get away with this … strike back.”

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It probably wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t get Nielsen ratings. The story wouldn’t soar to the top of the New York Times best-sellers list today. But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence and hatred and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday” or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday.”

Because this is a message we Christians all need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to just check it off as another night in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Christ said other people would know us: by how we love one another.

Maybe it would help us remember. Maybe it would help us remember not just what this night is about, but maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the front of our head, Christ’s dream for us would come true.

Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Christ’s disciples by the fact we put a Christian fish sticker on our car. Or wore a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be know by what we said about what we believed. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by our what we voted for, or against. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by the anger some Christians express on the evening news, or the mean-spiritedness others show in their day-to-day lives. Maybe instead we would just be known by the one thing Christ wanted us to be known for: by how we love.

In a few minutes we will be celebrating Communion together, and you’ll hear me repeat the words of institution, the phrases we are told Christ used as he broke bread and gave it to his disciples for the first time, on this same night many years ago. I’ll say to you that “on the night Christ was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.”

You hear that all the time here, and if you are like me, you are uplifted by it.

But what if you heard this just as often too? “On the night Christ was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'”

We don’t say that often in service. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. It’s no coincidence Christ said these things on the night of his last supper, but we sometimes forget the say the words.

This year, let’s not forget. Between this Maundy Thursday and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But here in the church, we can give Christ nothing less. Tonight, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Christ’s love for us, and to bring that feast out to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. By our love, they would already know. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Days 35-37 (Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week)

Today is my weekly pastor’s sabbath. It’s the one day each week that I try to keep completely devoid of parish-related work. Except for emergencies, I don’t do anything pastoral. But tomorrow my “work week” starts again. And this is my busiest week of the year. It’s Holy Week, and in the run-up to Easter there are Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services to plan an officiate, Easter egg hunts to organize, Easter Sunday preparations to be made, and a seemingly never-ending list of details that need to be crossed off between now and Sunday.

It’s hard to sit here and not do any of those things. I know I could get a head start on them. I could maybe even knock out the special worship bulletins for all the services in the next few hours. Or, I could call the Scripture readers and make sure they are all ready. I could go over the hymns with the organist. I’ve already slipped once and emailed a parishioner back anyway.

But I’m resisting. Because the point of Holy Week isn’t about being as busy as possible. It’s about making room for God in our lives. And no matter how many important things that I think I have to do, nothing is more important than that.

The gift of sabbath, whether we take it on Sunday, or on another day of the week, is that it allows us the chance to not bow down to false idols. Money, demands on our time, and anxiety all take a back seat to the time we spend with God and those we love. And during Holy Week in particular, we have a chance to take small sabbaths along the way.

Maundy Thursday worship might cut into our usual evening routine, but by going anyway, we tell ourselves, and the world, that nothing is worth more than our time with God. The same is true on Good Friday, when services might cut into our workday, or on any other day this week when we feel torn between the demands of work and chores and the opportunity for sabbath.

I know it’s a struggle. I live that struggle every Monday on my days off. I’ve gotten better, but I’m nowhere close to perfect. But, when I really take my sabbath, I find myself more focused, more energized, and more ready to handle the demands of the rest of the week.

During Holy Week, that sabbath time is even more important. If we really pause to worship, and to pay attention to what is spiritually happening, we will find ourselves ready for Easter in ways we could not have imagined. It’s tempting to dismiss Holy Week services as “one more thing to do”. So, think about this instead. Think about Holy Week as “one more thing not to do”. Think of it as a chance to break the chains binding us to what doesn’t really matter, and choosing instead a life free of that bondage.

And then, take a night off…and come to church.

Journey Through Lent: Days 33-34

When we think about our lives, and we think about our life budget, not just our financial budget, but the whole real thing of our time and talents and heart and compassion, is it balanced?

I ask that like there’s a finite limit of resources there, and like they all have to be put in the right line items, but things like love and compassion are not finite, so let me rephrase: does the budget of your life reflect the sort of person you believe God is calling you to be? If you were to look at where what you have, in every sense of the word, goes…would you like what you saw?

One of the challenges and blessings of Lent is that we are asked to take an accounting. We’re not being audited from the outside. Instead, we are asked to open up the books of our lives, take a look, and see if they match the person that we want to be. Or that we claim to be. And then, if they don’t, we try to figure out how to make everything reconcile.

And reconciliation, being reconciled, is what Lent is all about. Lent is about taking account of our relationship with God, and making the changes necessary to ensure that our actions line up with God’s will for us. It’s about balancing the real budget of our lives in ways that align with what we truly believe. It’s a continuous process, but it’s one that we can commit to in earnest in Lent. So why not this Lent? God is waiting for us to be reconciled, and to live a truly rich life.

Journey Through Lent: Day 32

Many Christians are preparing for Easter, which is coming up in just a few days on March 31st. It’s one of the few things that Christians churches agree on and celebrate in common, and on Easter Sunday every church in this valley will be celebrating the good news of new life.

But as universally true as that might sound not all Christian churches will be celebrating on the 31st. Orthodox Christians, the second largest Christian denominational group after Roman Catholics, won’t be celebrating Easter until May 5th. Orthodox Christians follow a different calendar from Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, which means often times we celebrate Easter (and Christmas) on other days.

So, who’s right? I mean, there can’t really be two Easter’s right? Doesn’t someone have to be wrong?

When I was growing up in the South, I often heard people who attended certain Christian churches in town tell me that Catholics “weren’t really Christians”. That always struck me as odd. My own immediate family wasn’t Catholic, but most of my extended family was, and I knew them to be good Christian people.

Later on I heard others say the same thing about my own religious tradition for a variety of reasons. Some were old arguments like the fact we baptize babies instead of adults. Others were newer, like the fact we allow women to preach and gays and lesbians to marry. And because of that, despite the fact I’ve given my life to serving Christ, I’ve been told repeatedly I’m not a “real Christian”.

And this is what I’ve learned along the way: “real Christians” don’t all look, think, talk, or worship the same way. And if anyone tells me they have the market on Christian truth cornered, that’s enough to make me wary. The truth of the matter is that good Christians disagree on any number of thing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians.

Nearly 400 years ago, the people who would later form my own Congregational tradition landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were escaping a place that told them that there was only one way to be Christian. But the church they started here in New England at first repeated the mistakes of those who had forced them out of England. They persecuted other Christians who didn’t agree with their own version of Christianity, and they said they weren’t “real Christians”.

We now understand that they were very wrong. That’s one reason why the church that is now descended from them, the United Church of Christ, is wary about judging the validity of the Christian faith of others. We understand that with each new generation there are new challenges, and new understandings of what it means to be Christian. We are open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and to the presence of Christ in other churches.

For that reason, I’ve found Christ while attending Mass at the Catholic parish in Brattleboro. I’ve seen him while worshipping at Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. I’ve felt him while visiting Orthodox cathedrals. And I’ve known he was close while worshipping at my own UCC parish. I’ve found that if you open your heart up to Christ’s love, you can find him all over the place.

Come March 31st, like churches in many places, my church will celebrate the holiest day of our year. But I’ll keep in mind those other Christians who are still waiting for their Easter. And I’ll also keep in mind those Christians whose understandings of what it means to be faithful are so different from my own.

My only hope is that they might do the same for me, and for other Christians whose faith might look different than their own. I’ve always believed that a desire to see Christ in others is a true mark of a Christian. Perhaps the same is true for seeing Christ in the churches of others as well.

Journey Through Lent: Days 29-31

250jesuschristsuperstarWhen I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain. And every pastor I know is aware that when we announce the extra services, there is a near-auditory sigh.

But the reality is that it’s the week between the two Sundays that really teaches us who we are, and who we can be. We can be the crowd that shouts loud welcomes on Sunday, but then stays away when times get hard. Or we can be the people who journey with Christ in the hardest times, and who never turn our backs on him. Holy Week is our chance to proclaim with our time who we really are, and it is our chance to get our priorities straight.  This is our chance to not just be the crowd, but to stand out from the crowd.

This Holy Week, take the challenge of walking the whole path. Make a complete journey. And you’ll find on Sunday that Easter will be that much more meaningful.

Journey Through Lent: Day 23

figtreeWhen I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.

As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.

Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?

If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”

And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.

But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.

God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.

That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.

That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. In Lent we are called to repentance. And repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.

Lent: Day 22

483800_10151280061801787_100771127_n(Note: I’m posting this a day late, but it’s lateness is due to being very sick. Sorry for any inconvenience.)

Friday afternoon I started to lose my voice. I’d been sick for about a day, but now I was having trouble even talking. By Saturday, my voice was all but gone. As much as I tried to force out words, they just wouldn’t come.

When a preacher loses their voice on a Saturday, the first response is panic: “How will I preach?” “What if I can’t?” “Who will?” I realized pretty quickly that, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t lead Sunday worship. Or, rather, others realized that for me. My wife was the first to tell me I couldn’t, followed by the chair of my deacons. They were also the first to offer to fill in the gaps, and make sure the service still went off without a hitch.
So, this morning, while my congregation was gathering across the street, I slept in. It was the first time I had ever missed preaching for illness. And, it felt really weird. I wanted to go. I wanted to preach the sermon I’d be working over in my head all week. I wanted to do what pastors do.
But sometimes what we think we are supposed to do, and what we can actually do, are not aligned. And yet, somehow, everything works out. And we realize that while we may be valuable, we are not indispensable. Because, in the end, God provides.
The service went on, the sermon was preached, the people worshiped, and the preacher stayed in bed and got better. And somewhere along the way, the Lenten truth came through: we may think we are capable of great things, but in the end we are able to do even greater things in community. Christ knew that. It’s why he surrounded himself with disciples. And, it’s why he asked his disciples to stay committed to one another later on.
When one needs community, others are always there. Sometimes, even when we don’t want to need them. Learning to accept the strength of community is sometimes hard for those of us who are self-sufficient types. But sometimes that community ends up holding us up (or just sending us back to bed) when we need it the most.

Journey Through Lent: Day 21

Carvaggio's "Incredulity of St. Thomas"

Carvaggio’s “Incredulity of St. Thomas”

We all doubt. At least all of us who see faith as a journey, and not a one time stop. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone around us seems to have seen him. We may even feel a bit ashamed of our doubt.

I wonder if Thomas did that first week. Why couldn’t he just accept what the others said? Why did he have to see for himself? I wonder if the next Sunday he thought about not going back. He wasn’t “one of them” anymore. He was the doubter. The one who hadn’t seen.

And yet, he went back. And maybe he went back because he had loved Jesus so much that he needed to hear them talk about him, even if he wasn’t so convinced it was true yet. Maybe he went back because it was easier than being alone. Maybe he went back because he thought maybe, just maybe, Jesus would come again. For whatever reason, we went back to that community in his hour of greatest doubt, just like many of you come here every week, and that day Jesus showed up and he believed.

Doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our once comfortable places and into a new, and better, world. Doubt can be the ticket that starts our journey to new life. It can be a sign not of the absence of God, but of God working in us to do something new.

I’ll close with this. During the time in my life of greatest doubt I went to a lecture by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. I know I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but it’s worth sharing again as we talk about journeying in faith while filled with doubt.

He was talking about the parting of the Red Sea and how we have this movie version in our heads where Moses lifted his arms and you could see across to the other side. The reality, he says, was more like this: the people put one foot into the water, tentatively, and the waters rolled back a little. And then they put another foot down, and the waters rolled back more. And so on, and so on, until they found they had safely reached the other shore.

It’s the same with doubt. You won’t see to the other shore. And you don’t have to. God is already there. And God is with you in the waters. Doubt as much as you need to, but leave just enough room for the faith that God will show you the next right step. And just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the life of doubt, and that’s the life of faith. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 20

IMG_0001Today is the twentieth day of Lent. (Sundays don’t count towards the forty days.) You are exactly half-way through. What started not so long ago on Ash Wednesday is heading towards Holy Week, and to Easter morning.

I don’t much like half-way points. I’m a procrastinator, so they were always somewhat meaningless to me. In school a teacher would say “by this point you should be halfway done with writing your paper” and I’d say to myself, “oh, right, the paper…I should get on that.”

Seriously, I wrote my wedding vows the morning of the service.

So, the mid-way part of Lent doesn’t work for me as some sort of measure. For some Christians it does. Today they are saying “I’m halfway there….just twenty days left until I can eat meat/drink coffee/mainline sugar/log on to Facebook again.”

And, if that works for you, great. But for those of us who are procrastinators, now is as good a time as any. Even if you didn’t get on board back on Ash Wednesday, it’s not too late. You can still commit to making this a holy Lent. Because, the richest part of Lent is still to come.

So, use this halfway mark as you will. Make it a mile marker to show how far you’ve come. Or, use it as a place to reboot, and refocus. Commit to running this race through the Passion that is to come, and with the passion that comes with wanting to be there in the hardest hours. Just as is true with the whole of the Christian journey, it doesn’t matter when you started. It only matters where you are now, and where you are headed.