Friday, March 29, 2013

I Thirst

I Thirst.  The sixth word from the cross.  We all need water.  Life cannot be sustained without it.  No doubt Jesus needed water--surely he was very thirsty.  I find it likely that his last drink was his fourth cup of wine at the end of his passover feast with meal was a long celebration (each section of the ritual includes its own symbolic cup of wine).  They would have finished around midnight, then they traveled to olive garden--actually it was the garden of the olive press (or we know Gethsemane). Then after a long night, and before a longer day, Jesus went off to pray... long enough that Peter, James and John each fell asleep on three different occasions.  For as many as three hours Jesus prayed in the garden.  When at around 3 am--Jesus was arrested (shortly before dawn).  Peter watched the abusive questioning from a distance until the break of dawn when the cock crowed.  I don't suspect the priest who questioned him gave Jesus any water.

Then early in the morning the mob moves to Pilate's headquarters, where he was handed over to the hands of his torturers--I can't see them offering water between the beatings and the mocking.  Surely by noon the sleep deprived Jesus, who has not had a drink in about 12 hours... (of course wine is more likely to dehydrate a person than hydrate them) Jesus must thirst.  Tired dehydrated, and beaten, he was nailed to the cross.  Breathing must have been labored, no doubt causing dry mouth.  Precious fluids dripping from his wrists and feet.  Finally, having had enough--"I thirst."

We assume that he meant, "I thirst for water."  But he didn't say "Water," he said--"Thirst."

During better days--during his teaching ministry, Jesus met a woman at Jacob's well.  He asked her for water--but she challenged him--who are you a Jewish Rabbi to ask me a Samaritan woman for a drink of water?  You remember this story...  You remember his response.  "If you had asked me for a drink, I would have given you living water and you would never thirst again!"  And the thirsty woman said, "Give me this water!"

Could the source of living water--the source of that which once sipped a person is never thirsty again... could that source ever be thirsty for water?

Also, during better days--during his teaching ministry, as the crowds gathered in Galilee, Jesus went up on a mountain and began to teach--and at one point said, "Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled!

Might it be that Jesus' "I thirst" was not a cry for water, but for righteousness?  After all--it is the sixth word--there is only one word remaining.  Why does he, after 15 hours of dehydration, nearing the moment when John says Jesus commended his spirit to God... why does he now need water?  But the crowd--the very people who are crucifying him.  The ones about whom he just recently prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do..."  those very people who stand in need of forgiveness offer him a drink--they raise up a sponge that has been dipped in sour wine.

When I hear sour wine, I think of well known phrase--sour grapes. it seems to me that grapes are to wine as sour grapes are to sour wine...  And so I recall one last scripture... the prophet Jeremiah spoke about sour grapes.  He said there was a day coming when children would no longer eat the sour grapes of their ancestors--they would no longer be punished for the sins of their parents.  Rather they would only be accountable for their own sins--they would eat their own sour grapes.

When Jesus speaks the sixth word from the cross, "I thirst," his thirst is quenched not with life giving water, but with sour wine--sour wine offered by sinners.  The people to whom the sour wine belonged handed over the juice of sour grapes--the fruit of their sin to the one who said "I thirst."

Perhaps they meant for the sour wine to be a final humiliation.  It could be that they intended it to be symbolic of the supossed "Sins" for which they believed they crucified him.  Maybe they thought it would dull the pain.  Whatever their intentions, I must believe that through the sour wine, they quenched his thirst.  Its the only thirst that Jesus ever promised would be quenched--a thirst for righteousness.  By giving him the sour wine, they hand over the sour grapes that belong to all of us--the fruit of our sin, and Jesus is quenched.  By taking on the sin of those who crucified him, the sin of all of us, he has created a path for righteousness.

We need not feel sorry for Jesus today.  We need not mourn his death, or feel particularly guilty.  Today we need only be grateful.  Thanks be to the God who sent his Son whose desire, whose thirst in the moment of great dehydration was not for water, but for righteousness.  And from the cross he cried out I thirst, and we quenched his thirst by raising our sinfulness, our brokenness--our sour grapes up to his lips, he drank the cup that was prepared for him, and was filled as he created a path of righteousness for us.  Praise be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Night Before The Night Before.

I find it fruitful to meditate on the days not revealed in scripture.  As Wednesday comes to a close, I consider the time that passed between the triumphal entry on Sunday and the Passover celebration Thursday night.  We are not told much about this time.  Surely they are doing the things they do.  John does indicate that Jesus continued to teach during this time.  In fact at some point between the triumphant entry and the Passover meal, Jesus was teaching about his death:
The light is with you for a little longer.  Walk while you have the light so that the darkness may not overtake you.  If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.  While you have the light , believe in the light so that you may become children of light. (John 12: 35-36)
 Despite clear teachings about his death, the disciples do not seem to know what is coming.  They continue along: listening, learning, following, defending, praising--but not understanding the cross on the horizon.  They have the light, but do not realize that darkness is coming.  However, they continue to walk with the light while it remains.

Maybe you have had times in your life where it felt like the light of Christ was stronger than at other times.  Sometimes the Christian walk feels like a walk in the darkness--that the light we once knew (when we were children, when we were at a retreat, when we were with a special someone) has been extinguished.  And in the moments of darkness we feel as abandoned as the disciples must have felt on Friday evening and through all of Saturday.  Without the light we are all lost--wondering and unsure of where to turn, because we simply cannot see.

I believe that the Christian walk is one that goes through periods of darkness as well and periods of new dawn.  We experience cycles of triumph (like on Palm Sunday), mystery (like on Thursday), despair (like on Friday), and new life (the day of Resurrection)!

The thing is, we can only make it through the experience of darkness (like on Friday) if we take advantage of the light When the light is with us.

I used to do a lot of camping and was a staff member at a camp in Indiana for six summers.  I knew the trails there with my eyes closed.  Literally, I could carefully navigate a 1/4 mile of trail in the dead of night with no guidance but the feel of the rocks beneath my feet.  I had walked with the light while I had the light, then in the light's absence, I still had the advantage of the light for having walked with it while I could.

Jesus says that when we walk with him (the light) we become children of the light.  That we can exist in the darkness--in his apparent absence, because we will have become connected to the light.  The way to navigate Good Friday experiences is to rely on experiences of resurrection, celebration, and mystery.  So while we wait for the peak of holy week--let us remember to walk with the light while we have the chance in order to make it through the darkness that we know is coming... for when you walk in the footsteps of Christ you can expect that a cross is in your future.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

To Know and Be Known

I recently shared with a Duke Basketball fan that while I was at Duke Divinity School, I used to sit with the basketball team at the football games.  This is technically true, but it could be read that I had a closer connection to JJ Redick, Mike Dunleavy and Jason Williams than is accurate.  The full truth is Duke Football was terrible--much worse than it is now.  Very few people went to the games, so those who went all sat very close together.  On multiple occasions I would find my empty bench near the 50 yard line, then the basketball team might show up for a bit finding the empty bench a row or two in front of where I was sitting.

Someone might ask--did you know those guys!?  Well... sure.  I recognized them when they walked by on campus.  I know some basic facts about them--the same facts anyone might find out about a public figure.  But the question that might be more to the point is whether or not they knew me... no, they did not.

To know a person is one thing--but unless that person also knows you, there is no relationship.

If we use this model to understand our relationship with God, then we are the famous ones.  We are the ones whose life is entirely public.  For whether or not we "know God," God knows us.  Jesus taught his disciples to fear nothing because they were valuable and known to God.  "Even the hairs on your head are all counted.  Don't be afraid..." (Matthew 10: 30-31).

In light of this--the only barrier to our having a full thriving relationship with God--our Creator, and Redeemer--the one who already knows us and longs after us is our awareness--our recognition of the work God is already doing in us, through us, and around us.  Where have you noticed God recently?  Let us not be oblivious to God's works of love and mercy surrounding us!  We are known by God, let us be sure to also take the time to get to know God.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Loving to Death

Emily Rapp is currently on the book tour circuit for "The Still Point of the Turning World."  It is the story of her experience raising a son who at the age of nine months was diagnosed with the terminal degenerative Tay Sachs Disease. She then spent the next couple of years pouring herself into nurturing and caring for a child who would pass away before preschool.

Typically when we love our children both in the present moment, but also with an eye to the future.  We make personal sacrifices that are ultimately for their long term gain.  We are patient as they learn and grow because we imagine the beautiful future for which we are preparing them--they are both children in the present and adults in training with an eye to the future.  I remember holding my screaming infant all night, sleeping less than an hour myself (Kristin did this far more often and for that I bow to her).  We did it because we believed it was important that our child know deep within that no matter what, good times or bad, we would be there for her.  We hope there is some subconscious remembrance of this during the teen years.

What must it mean to love without any hope for the future--to love, sacrifice, and prepare... when death is certain and not in the distant future?

We run into this in the church sometime.  We run programs, do ministries without any guarantee of future connection.  Some bemoan that while we offer a thrift clothing store, most if not all connections made through it will not lead to a Sunday morning worshiper connecting with God and growing in our community.  We might meet the needs of stay-at home moms, or single parents, or the poor, or children in the community, but there is not always a return on our investment, or so it seems.

I suspect we could learn something about unconditional love from Mrs. Rapp.  Who must have grown to understand loving in the present for the sake of the present.  Love is not an investment, from which we expect a return.  Nor is love insurance, which will give us a measure of security.  Love is a gift--it is given in the moment for the sake of that moment.

Our children may never remember the loving sacrifices we make for them.  They may not return the favor when we are old and feeble... but that does not negate the love we showed, because love was our gift for that moment.

Those to whom and with whom our churches minister may not "return the favor."  They may never join us for worship, they may never become financial contributors, they may never join a ministry team, but that does not negate the love we showed, because our gift is for the moment.  And God invites us to show that love moment after moment after moment...

It is not deserved, it is not always reciprocated.  It is a gift.  It is grace.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Transition Begins

This Sunday it was announced that I am leaving Somers Point and will become the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Thorofare (West Deptford, NJ).

As one might expect, this is both sad and exciting.  It is always difficult to say goodbye to good friends and partners in ministry.  But it is also exciting to move forward into new relationships and new possibilities.  In some ways these times of pastoral transition are unique moments in our lives where significant change happens relatively quickly.  In other ways, it seems that all of us are always in transition.

My six year old was a baby when we came to Somers Point, my 3 year old was not yet born.  Kristin still had her entire dissertation ahead of her, and by the time we arrive in St. Paul's she will have her degree in hand.  In short, we are not even the same family that we were five years ago.

During those same five years The Somers Point Church has also transitioned.  The composition of Sunday morning worship is entirely different than it was not long ago.  A room that was storage transitioned into an intimate worship space, then clothing store.  We began Worship by the Bay, we started Tuesday night basketball for a group of young men in need of a place to go.  Even now as we prepare for my departure, we are transitioning basketball night into a community night where we reach entire families in our community.  This only scratches the surface--life is always developing.

The same is true in St. Paul's, Thorofare.  Over the past five years there has been such growth and vitality that in someways it is not the same church it once ways.  This is the nature of life--it is the nature of effective ministry.  We are always growing, always transitioning into greater reflections of God.

How are you transitioning?  In what ways have you grown and developed?  In what ways are you preparing for the growth, development, and changes that lie ahead of you--in your life and in your church?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Remember Jesus

Below Jeff Vanderstelt preaches that people need to stop trying to be Jesus:

For those of you who did not watch the video (others may skip this paragraph), The basic argument is that only Jesus is Jesus.  After his resurrection, he breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples and told them as the Father sent me, so I send you..."  He says people need to stop trying to be Jesus, and simply be Spirit-filled disciples who point people to the one and only Jesus.

On the one hand, I'm not sure the distinction between being Jesus and being a Spirit-filled disciple is consequential.  After all, it is through the Spirit that Jesus dwells in us, and so works through us.  In fact, I am reminded of what Paul told the Corinthians, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ..."

However... this did remind me of Shane Claiborne's visit to the Cape-Atlantic District last week.

Among many things Shane shared, one statement stood out to me, and I have thought much about it recently...  "As disciples we are to live lives that remind the world of Jesus."  After all, among Jesus' last words to the disciples before the cross was, "Do this in remembrance of me."

Too often we feel limited by the fact that we are only human.  Or perhaps you might say, "Well, I'm not Jesus."  Indeed you are not - neither and I.  There is only one incarnate Son of God.  And yet through him, we have all been adopted as sons and daughters of God.  Have you ever spent time with a child and been reminded of their parents?

May others see us, our work, the way we treat one another, the way we love one another--and think... who does that remind me of???  Oh yes...  that's just like Jesus.  Its a high calling, sure--but that's why he didn't leave us to do it on our own.  First he breathed the Holy Spirit.  And Paul said, it is not me, but the power of Christ at work within me...  May we all live lives worthy of imitation!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Streams in the Dessert

One of the scriptures for this week comes from Isaiah 43: 19-20:
Look!  I'm doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don't you recognize it?  I'm making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness. The beasts of the field, the jackals and ostriches, will honor me, because I have put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness to give water to my people.
As it turns out--this is not just a metaphor.  When the snow on Mt. Hermon melts int Northern Israel, the water flows south through the Judean Wilderness (Negev Desert).  This creates very dangerous flash floods--"water in the desert, streams in the wilderness."  On of the more amazing things to witness on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is the large water cisterns that have since ancient times collected this water in order that the people might use the water God gave them in the midst of the wilderness.

How is God quenching you in the midst of your wilderness?  Where is God doing a new thing?  "Don't you recognize it?"

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Meant to Thrive

For the first time in our lives, my wife and I have finally managed to keep two plants alive for two years.  We bought one for our daughter and one for our son.  We allowed them to pick the plants, along with the help of  our local plant expert who identified both as low maintenance and hard to kill (one is in fact a cactus).  We've tried--neglecting them on multiple occasions, but in each case, with little work, both were restored.

What I've found in my limited experience as a botanist, is that there is no middle ground for plants.  They are always thriving or dying.  When in good soil, appropriately watered (not too much, nor too little), correct amount of space and sunlight--plants do well.  In fact--it is almost like they care for themselves, creating their own food stretching for the sunlight.  When the plant is not thriving--you don't need a plant doctor to tell you something is wrong.  Quite obviously the plant is dying.  It droops, turns from vibrant green to brown it no longer reaches for the sun--and if it is a fruiting plant, it produces no fruit.

This week's Gospel lesson (Luke 13:6...) is Jesus' parable about the vineyard owner looking over a fig tree for the third year in a row to see that it continues to bear no fruit.  Like I said, I'm no botanist.  For this reason, I do not know an orange tree is an orange tree unless there are oranges on it.  You can tell me that I have a cherry tree, but if it has no cherries, I'm not sure I will believe you.  You might say, well its not the season for cherries--or well, your climate doesn't support the production of the fruit--but it is a cherry tree--even so I struggle to see it--for me cherries are what make cherry trees cherry trees.  Apparently Jesus agreed. If the fig tree bears no figs, it is of no use--cut it down.  Luckily for the fig tree, the gardener is not quick to despair--but Lord, give me one more year--let me tend to it--give it new soil--pay close attention to it--then if it bears no fruit, we will cut it down.

I believe the tree in this story are our ministries.  The ministries of the church, the ministries we all take on personally.  And during the Lenten season, it is time that we consider our ministries--look at the trees we've planted, watered, and cared for--are they bearing fruit?  Are they thriving?  No?--then its time to cut them down--or rather perhaps redouble our efforts truly commit to nurturing them this year in preparation for next year's evaluation.  It is not enough that we work the garden--God expects fruit.  God expects thriving.  Anything less is death.  The fig tree can claim to be a fig tree, but without figs... I'm not buying it, and neither is God.

"And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control," (Galatians 5: 22-23).  Where these are not cultivated there is no Spirit; such ministries either require new focus and attention, or they need to disappear.  Where is God calling you to garden this year?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Freedom is Oppressive

I've read reports this week that Iceland is seeking to ban internet pornography.  The arguments in a western democracy are well rehearsed and predictable.  On the one side, freedom is our core shared principle, and there is no freedom more sacred than speech... and this material has been protected as speech.  On the other hand is the broad accessibility of internet material, and our fear that certain material will harmful--particularly to the young.

That is the interesting thing about this particular law.  It cites violence as its primary locus of concern.  Halla Gunnarsdottir, a political adviser to Iceland's interior ministry told the Christian Science Monitor, "When a 12-year old types 'porn' into Google, he or she is not going to find photos of naked women out on a country field, but very hardcore and brutal violence."

Historically there are limits to free speech, when the speech causes harm to others.  You cannot yell "Fire" in a crowded theater, etc.  In New Jersey, recent laws against bullying restrict certain kinds of harmful speech that are apparently not protected by our constitutional freedoms.

The harmfulness of pornography cannot be underestimated.  Iceland is focusing on "violent" varieties of  pornography--but I would question whether there are any other types.  When we misunderstand the nature of our bodies great harm is done not only to children who may come across inappropriate images, but to the subjects who become convinced that nudity is their most marketable gift and viewers whose perceptions of healthy sexuality are significantly warped.  

The fact that Iceland's proposed legislation will likely be thwarted is an important reminder that western values are not necessarily representative of the ways of God's coming reign.  Pornography will likely continue to be protected free speech in Iceland and the rest of the "western world"--but let us not be confused--freedom can be oppressive, and as long as perversion of human sexuality is protected by free speech, there will be victims.  For more about the victims and what you can do to help, see Beauty for Ashes Ministries.