A 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.

524013_10100263836785808_2011523557_nThe 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 the tomb, 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.

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When 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.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

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

holy_9038cToday 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.

I Have Seen the Lord – Sermon for Easter, 2012

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (response)

Two nights ago, some of us gathered in the sanctuary here for Good Friday services. Together we read the story of the Passion, Christ’s trial, crucifixion, death, and burial together.

We did something new this year. Instead of just one person reading the Gospel, we split it up, and took parts, and read it with different voices. We sat with each other and listened. And after the service some of you told me that you really heard the story in a way you never had before, and it profoundly affected you.

It did me too. The story about how Christ’s love and compassion for us all was so threatening to some that they would kill him. The story about how God became human like you and I, and told us how to live and how to treat one another, and the world wouldn’t hear it. The story of how the world sometimes does its worst to those who deserve anything but.

It’s a hard story to hear. It gets to us. But not long after the story ended, like the rest of you, I got in my car, and went home, and had dinner, and started getting ready for Easter morning.

Two thousand years after the Christ’s death, we have that luxury. We have the luxury of being what some call “Easter people”. We know how the story plays out, and we know that Jesus does not stay in the tomb. As much as the story affects us when we hear it again, we have that consolation. Good Friday is not the end.

Now at this point you may be saying, “You’re right…Good Friday is not the end. So stop preaching the Good Friday sermon and get on with the Easter one.” And I will.

But before I do, I want you to think about this. What if you didn’t know? What if you were hearing the story I read you this morning for the first time? What if you had lost your friend who was love embodied, and you’d driven back home not with hope, but with a gut-wrenching sorrow?

That’s what his friends were going through. He was their teacher, and they were his disciples, but they were also his friends. And they had loved him. Even the ones who couldn’t bear to stay with him for the end, they loved him.

They loved him so much, that as soon as they could they went back to his grave. Maybe just to be close to him. They were good Jews, so they would never have gone to a grave on the Sabbath, but as soon as they could they went. Mary first.

She got there and the stone that had sealed the tomb was gone. And she looked in and so was Jesus. And she runs to Simon Peter and John and tells them, and they race each other to the tomb and look inside.

Nothing. Just a few cloths that had wrapped the body.

Simon Peter and John leave Mary there. She stays, weeping, until she hears a voice: “Why are you crying?” She thinks it’s the gardner. She says, “If you took him away, if you have him, just tell me. I’ll take him myself.”

And then the voice says her name, Mary, and she knows. She cries out, “Rabbi”. And she knows it is him. And Jesus picks her, the one who stayed, and wept, and searched, and sends her to tell the other disciples what she has seen.

Mary is the first witness to the risen Christ, the first to testify to what she has seen. The first to get to share the good news.

It’s an awesome task to be given. To see the risen Christ, and to be told by him to spread the word. Don’t keep it to yourself. Go…tell the ones who need to hear it the most, the ones mourning and in pain, that I am risen. Go and tell them, suffering and pain and hate and death did not win.

Mary got to do it first. She went and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

She was the first one Christ asked to do it. But that doesn’t mean she was the last to get the job. Because every person who would follow the risen Christ gets the same assignment. Everyone who would call themselves a Christian gets asked to do the same thing as Mary: go to the ones who need to hear it the most, and tell them you have seen the risen Christ.

It was an important job two thousand years ago, when the disciples mourned for the one they thought they had lost. But it’s still an important one today.

As much as we are Easter people, much of the time we still live in a Good Friday world. We’re still a world that chooses violence, and fear, and hate, too much of the time. Though Christ is risen, we often choose to act in the exact opposite way than what he taught us.

That means that on most mornings, a fair number of people are feeling the same way the disciples must have been that morning. They’re wondering where hope has gone. They’re crying out for another way. They’re listening for any news that suffering doesn’t win. That death doesn’t get the last word. That God is so good, and so full of grace, that God doesn’t give up on the world, and the stone rolls away from the tomb.

There is a world that needs to hear that. Maybe even you need to hear that. I know there are days when I need to hear that. And I don’t think I’m alone.

And that’s what the Easter story teaches me. That love wins. And that people need to hear that. And also, that I’m one of those people.

To be a Christian is to be a witness to the Resurrection. And that’s not always easy. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to get sidetracked.

But that’s why it’s so important to put yourself in the places where you know you will hear the Resurrection story again and again.

I’m sometimes asked what the point of coming to church is. Does God love us more if we come, or get angry at us if we don’t? And my answer is, “no”. I don’t think God has some sort of a church attendance checklist.

Instead, I think this: I think church matters because it’s a community of witnesses to the Resurrection. I think it matters because when I see new life, when I see Resurrection, I know I can’t keep it to myself. I have to run and tell the ones I love who need to hear it the most.

And I think it matters because sometimes, when all of life feels a lot like Good Friday, I need to go to a place where I can hear there is an Easter. I need to go where other witnesses are running to from the tomb, shouting with Mary, “I have seen the Lord.”

I need that. I think we all do. I think we all need a place where we can tell the story together. Just like we told it together, and really heard it in a new way on Good Friday, how much more powerful can the story of Easter be when we deliberately tell it together? We need to tell the story of love that triumphs over everything. We need to tell the story of the Easter that comes after Good Friday. We need to tell the story of new life where none was thought possible. And we need to tell it together. Because each of us holds a piece of that story, and each of those pieces needs to be heard.

I’m thankful for all the little Resurrection stories I’ve heard over the past year. Thankful for all the reminders that Good Friday isn’t the end of the story, and that Easter is real. I’ve heard a hundred different Easter stories in this congregation this year. And most weren’t in April.

I’ve heard of new babies born, and those who were given up for dead regaining life. I’ve heard of new families begun, and old relationships mended. I’ve heard of marathons run, and addictions overcome. I’ve heard of judgements being discarded, and anger being transformed. I’ve heard of cancer in remission, and the indomitable spirit of those who aren’t but still fight. I’ve heard of two churches becoming one, and new witnesses walking in the doors. And I’ve heard of those who once were lost but now are found, and those who helped a valley that was nearly washed away to rise again. And those are just the stories of the ones who were here. There are so many others we still want to know.

We’ve celebrated Easter in this church nearly every week. And we’ve celebrated it in our hearts even more. Don’t let anyone tell you that those weren’t Resurrections. They were, because God was there giving new life in each one of them. And I look at each one and say, “I have seen the Lord.” May it be so this year, in Easter, and everyday.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen…

A Prayer for Good Friday

Let us pray:

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.

Tonight 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 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 tonight, 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.

Lent, Mud Season, and Making Room for the Mess

The other day I stepped onto my driveway and my duck boot sunk down in mud deeper than my ankle. I knew it was the start of mud season here in Vermont, that mythical fifth season between winter and spring when mud covers everything. Our dirt roads turn to mud, our shoes are coated, and our pant cuffs show tell-tale signs. The mud gets everywhere.

I didn’t know about mud season until I moved here two years ago. People explained to me that the ground freezes so hard in the winter that it’s still not thawed when the piles of snow start to melt in early spring. The water has no way to go back down into the ground, so it stays on the surface, mixing with the dirt and making a mess of everything.

That’s fitting for Lent, which most years conveniently overlaps the mud.

In Lent we face the parts of our spiritual life that are the messiest, thickest, and the most inconvenient. We often find that even if we can hide the mess from others, we can’t hide it from ourselves. Like mud, it gets everywhere.

It is the mud season of our souls. The time when when look deeply at what’s inside of us, and start to find the places that we are trying to keep frozen and impenetrable to God’s grace. We all have them. They’re filled with fear, anger, prejudice, resentments. It’s easier when we keep them hidden and frozen because we know that once they see the light and start to melt we won’t be able to control the fallout. I think that’s why we are often so reluctant to really dive head first into Lent. Deep down we know that letting God into the deepest parts of our soul can make things messy.

It’s not surprising that Christians are so wary of the mess. We learn it from the very institutions dedicated to nurturing our faith. In the church we often prefer the neat, bright, and convenient to the reality that life is messy, and hard, and imperfect. We err on the side of keeping the surface clean, rather than digging deeper.

It’s why we don’t talk about the hard stuff in many churches. It’s why instead of having honest, life-changing, deep discussions, we often dwell on what’s easy to agree upon, or what is so inoffensive to anyone that it is uninspiring. We don’t talk about addiction, or depression, or economic justice, or inclusion of LGBT people, or any other topic that might cause division, even though there are many for whom talking about any one of those things would be a lifeline. Instead we create a church culture that is the spiritual equivalent of keeping up appearances.

People have come to believe church is a place where we want you show up in your Sunday best, rather than with mud on your shoes. I think that’s one reason churches are a lot more packed on Easter morning than on Good Friday, or any other day than Lent. We’ve taught church goers that we know how to find God on the best of days. But we rarely talk about how to find God on worst of them.

Which is why maybe we need the mud. Maybe we need the mess. Maybe we need the season where on the surface everything looks like it’s going to hell, but deep down we’re opening ourselves up to something new.

I’ve never seen a thriving church that hasn’t at some point in their life together been willing to risk letting God’s grace disrupt everything. They heard about the members they would lose. They heard about the donations that would dry up. They heard the cautions. And then they did it anyway. And new life sprang up.

I’ve often found that the most vital churches are the places that do Lent the best. They’re the places that don’t shy away from acknowledging the messiness of the spiritual life that, regardless of whether or not we’re talking about it, we’re all experiencing anyway. They become the churches that journey with parishioners as they go through their own spiritual mud seasons. And those parishioners become the ones who turn that place into something vital. Something life-giving. Something that has a lot to do with Resurrection.

I’ve been watching the people around where I live. They’re Vermonters. They’re used to things being messy. And so they also know what happens when the earth thaws, the water recedes, and spring breaks forth. This time of year sweetness comes in the maple syrup being cooked down from sap in sugar houses, and new signs of life come as nature wakes up. They know that after things get messy, they get good.

It’s taught me a lot about what Lent can be for the church. It can be the time hearts thaw the way the earth does, old barriers to God’s love melt away, what’s unknown is allowed in, and new life emerges in us all.

It can get muddy, but God can do incredible things with that mud.