Weekly Lessons and Sermon
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always
acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Easter III: Hope for the Downcast
Easter III Acts 2:14a, 36-41
April 26, 2020 1 Peter 1:17-23
Lessons for each Sunday can found at this link
Let us pray: God of Wonder, as we celebrate Christ’s risen presence among us today,
we pray that you would talk to us as we journey along life’s way, and so move in us that we may claim all of your promises as our own. Open our eyes and quicken our hearts. We ask this in the name of our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
These last weeks and days, one consistent thing I’ve been hearing a lot is that many people are really struggling with negative and pessimistic thoughts. Which is totally understandable. Today for those of us in Wisconsin it’s been pretty much more than 30 days that we’ve been ordered to stay home – people haven’t been able to go to church or receive any of the Sacraments; work and school has shut down and people are working remotely – so many things have seemingly ground to a halt. Unlike when a massive snowstorm hits which we can kind of enjoy being forced to shut down for a few days and the opportunity to catch up on things around our homes, crash a bit, this is completely different. The uncertainty around all of this most especially, when or how will it all end has many feeling unnerved and very discombobulated. Add that to people’s desire to keep informed and end up watching every minute of every news conference and getting sucked into watching hours of coverage that regurgitates and argues over what we just heard – it’s understandable that people are in a depressed state.
For those of us struggling with these realities, today’s Gospel couldn’t come at a better time. We hear the story about the disciples who encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. It’s one of my favorite Gospel scenes that I probably go back to the most. Especially right now – because we can relate to the two disciples who St. Luke describes as “looking downcast.” For them, they have just as good reason (if not more) than we do. Good Friday was just two days earlier. Jesus had been their hope – they had seen Him do amazing things; in Him they had expected the unexpected would be possible. There was no limit to the possibilities and potential they imagined, since everything so far had been far greater than they could have ever considered or conceived. Good Friday – the betrayals, the denials, the brutal way Jesus was tortured and killed in the most gruesome of ways for all the world to see – it shattered them. They were completely unnerved, shocked, disappointed, disgusted, and afraid.
So much so – that the Easter news doesn’t register or click for them. That’s what always fascinates me about this passage. As Jesus edges up to them as they are walking along – and they don’t recognize it’s Him – Jesus casually asks them (I kind of imagine Jesus is smiling to himself as He does so) “what are you talking about – what’s going on?” They immediately recount the horrors, but they add “some women from our group, however, have astounded us, they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find His body. They came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive…others went to the tomb and found things just as the women described…but they did not see him.”
So they heard the good news. Which is why I find it so important and relevant.
Because they confess to Jesus Himself (although they don’t realize it’s Him yet) that they don’t believe it. Even though the witnesses had been verified by other witnesses -- and they had no reason not to believe – they didn’t. We know this because their response to this news was to leave town. They were giving in to their fear and their despair. Jesus is blunt, some counselors would argue Jesus is harsh even – “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” He’s trying to snap them out of the narrative that they’ve let play over and over in their hearts and minds – a narrative that spoke words of fear, of anxiety, of death… making them think they got Jesus, they’re going to get you too…better run for your lives. He’s trying to shatter those voices they’ve let into their heads and does so by going through the History of God’s goodness to His people -- as Luke describes it – from Moses to all the prophets. Jesus literally spends hours (since they were walking at least 6 or 7 miles) reminding them of how God loves His people… how even when the people constantly rebelled, turned away – God never withheld his loving glance on the people He loved into existence. He would keep finding ways, make new attempts to reach out to His people, create a path for them to return to Him.
Having this history recalled is what gets their “hearts burning within them.” This
“remembering” causes them to say to Jesus “Stay with us…” and as He does, as they sit down and break the bread – and it’s then that they realize Jesus had never left them… He had been with them through it all – and would continue to stay with them – no longer in the limited existence of a single human life- but outside of time and space of that one day, one location – to the people every age in every land most especially in the Eucharist that they and we continue to share.
For all of us during this time of isolation and spiritual hunger as so many of us aren’t able to receive Jesus’ Body in the Eucharist physically – it’s understandable that there’s widespread feelings of “being downcast” ourselves. But that you are reading this later is not by accident. The Lord, Jesus Christ risen from the dead is speaking to us to not yield to these defeatist, negative thoughts. Unlike Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead who would eventually die again – when Jesus rose from the dead, He conquered death – death had no hold on him… and in each moment, He is as real and present to us as He was on that road to Emmaus speaking to those two disciples. He is speaking to us today. He wants us to remember what our good God has done for us in the past… He wants us to take stock of the many blessings we have right now… He wants us to look for ways
that we can be a blessing – that we can make the resurrection real – in calling – reaching out to someone… in forgiving someone… in finding creative ways to utilize our time to do something we “never had time to do” -- maybe it’s a bible study or learning more about our Christian faith; maybe it’s creating a habit for daily prayer.
It’s up to each of us not to let the environment or the circumstances around us to define whether we’re downcast or not. If we want our hearts to burn within us, then we need to do what these two have shown us – listen to Jesus – let Him remind us of God’s goodness and abiding presence and then keep acknowledging how he does “stay with us” – in His Sacrament absolutely – but also in His word, in the community of His believers – in the Hearts of those who desire Him to be there.
Let us pray: O God, we pray that as Christ appeared on the road to Emmaus—so might he appear to us—and through us to others—as we share the joys and concerns we have, as we hear and speak your word. Help us to remember that Jesus is with us even in these present difficulties. We pray this in the name of the risen Christ who lives and reigns in our hearts always. Amen.
Easter II: April 19, 2020
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
Let us pray: Alleluia! Christ is alive and well. We pray today that we will shake away the doubt that traps us in a world of fear and celebrate that we have a great high priest who has risen from the dead to give us steadfast hope and eternal salvation. I pray in the name of one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The readings for the second Sunday of Easter feel like a bit of a time warp between two distinct periods in history. The Gospel of John is told in real-time, as we witness the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday holed up in an upper room in great fear. In the Acts of the Apostles, the writer provides a historical account of the resurrection of the Lord to inspire future generations of his great witness and presence among us. In order to grasp the Lord’s presence following the crucifixion, human senses must be employed, followed by a great dose of faith.
We are in the midst of a world-wide challenge at the moment, as people everywhere worry about the effects of the coronavirus on their communities. There are strong recommendations from medical experts that require a dynamic shift, affecting the way we use our senses. “Don’t touch your face” is an often-repeated admonition. If you see anyone sneezing or coughing, be intentional about stepping away from them. We need to avoid worshiping together in church. Try elbow bumps instead of shaking hands or hugging our fellow Christians. So many familiar customs are being replaced, at least temporarily. All these measures are designed to keep as many people as possible healthy and free of the virus.
The Easter story is one that challenges the senses as well. The disciples still cannot believe their eyes when they go to the tomb and find it empty. After Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been rolled away, she was struggling to understand what had happened. She saw a man standing in front of her, offering solace, but blinded by her tears, she couldn’t see who it was. Once she heard the Lord’s voice, she was able to tell the others of his resurrection.
The sighting and reporting were not enough for the men; Simon Peter and another disciple decided to go and see the tomb for themselves. Sure enough, just as Mary had said, the tomb was empty, save the linens in which Jesus had been wrapped. They could see and feel the material that had clothed the savior three days prior, but that was it. No doubt they could still smell the fragrances from the spices used when placing Jesus in the tomb. All their senses, however, could not deter their sensibilities that something worse had happened to Jesus – and they were afraid that something awful was imminent for them, as well. Yet what can be worse than death?
Thankfully for all of us, Jesus does not allow the story to end there. With four simple words, Jesus sets to comfort and reassure the group that they are going to be alright and that they are not alone. “Peace be with you,” were the words they heard as Jesus appeared before them. Understanding that their faith was shaky, Jesus shows them the wounds in his hands and side. He breathed on them and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ went to his people to let them know that they had not been abandoned. The Apostle Thomas missed that interaction with Jesus, and so as they recounted it to him, it sounded especially fantastic. He just could not believe that the Lord had somehow been returned to them physically, even if only for a brief moment.
Many people struggle with the continuing presence of Jesus following his resurrection and, like Thomas, are always looking for proof. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is reported to have said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Jesus appeared again in that small room where the disciples were gathered to make a point of visiting Thomas. When our hearts are open, we are able to receive the presence of the risen Christ. The Lord God is with us in the happiest times and the darkest moments.
We can bear witness to the living God because of those who saw him. The disciples attested to the resurrected Jesus, first by their confusion at the tomb, and then by providing evidence of the resurrected Christ through his two visits. They were able to tell others about the wounds in his body. Even Doubting Thomas could tell the story, because Jesus ensured that his wondering friend had the proof that he needed in order to fully believe.
Faith is more than a five-letter word. It requires the use of our senses. It requires us to hear God and to feel the Holy Spirit within us. The faith that Jesus tried to inspire in his disciples is the same faith God wishes for his modern-day followers. While we may never personally see the marks imposed by those awful nails, we know through faith that Jesus rose from the dead to save us. Jesus lived among us, fully knowing us and loving us in the most human terms. Crucifixion led to the salvation of all believers.
As resurrection people, faith is what guides us to live the kind of lives that Jesus envisioned when he preached. He spoke about love and forgiveness and motivated his disciples to preach that message of deliverance to everyone. Through those messengers, you faithful believers have an ability to trust in a triune God that wants the very best for you. There is a recognition that we all will fall short of the goal sometimes; everyone has a Thomas moment. Doubt sets in occasionally for the most devout human. Moments of anxiety can lead to questioning the very existence of God. In times of death, it can be difficult to hold on to the promise of eternal life with Christ. God hears the cries of his people and will always endeavor to make his presence known. The forgiving God remains present for as long as it takes the skeptic to believe and to receive the gift of grace. God offers the opportunity every day to begin anew.
Doubting Thomas is a reminder that God understands those who question what happened to Jesus after he was placed in the tomb. Like King David who said, “You will make me full of gladness with your presence,” the message going forward is that it is beautiful when we can believe what we have not seen. Faith is a potent source of power, especially in times of fear and uncertainty.
There comes a time when we have faith in God in spite of the circumstances we are experiencing. Even when there is no immediate proof from our experience that God is powerful and that he loves us, we continue to trust in him. We believe even though we can’t see it. Faith keeps on trusting in spite of the fact that we can no longer see God's hand at work. Faith keeps on believing that God is faithful to his promises.
In his sermon to the community, Peter recounted the extraordinary resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He died and was placed in a tomb like an ordinary human. Yet Jesus was no ordinary man and the tomb was not his final destination. On the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead by God. Christ visited with the disciples for them to carry the news of the death and triumphant victory over the grave to the rest of humanity.
There is one steadying force in our lives. It is the one that God gives – hope. We have this hope right now, it's an industrial strength hope that will stand up to the severest trial and testing that anyone may encounter. Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have a living hope - whatever the future may hold we may rest secure in the knowledge that we are the Lord's.
As we continue to celebrate these fifty days of Easter, we are encouraged to leave behind our places of fear, wrap ourselves in the love of the risen Christ, and boldly proclaim that Jesus is alive and will be with us until the end of the ages. Alleluia!
Let us pray: Our Father and our God, penetrate our hearts with your eternal presence and hope. Let us face fear, darkness, and discouragement with hope and cheerfulness, knowing they are pathways to Your glory. Fill us with peace and thankfulness in your many blessings. Give us deep abiding faith and hope because of Christ, in whom we pray. Amen.
Easter Sunday 2020
Good Friday 2020
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him --so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals-- so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
2 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;*
by night as well, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are the Holy One, *
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4 Our forefathers put their trust in you; *
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 They cried out to you and were delivered; *
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
6 But as for me, I am a worm and no man, *
scorned by all and despised by the people.
7 All who see me laugh me to scorn; *
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
8 "He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; *
let him rescue him, if he delights in him."
9 Yet you are he who took me out of the womb, *
and kept me safe upon my mother's breast.
10 I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; *
you were my God when I was still in my mother's womb.
11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near, *
and there is none to help.
The Holy Spirit testifies saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go." This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, "I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me." Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, "You are not also one of this man's disciples, are you?" He said, "I am not." Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said." When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?" Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?" Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, "You are not also one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it and said, "I am not." One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" They answered, "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law." The Jews replied, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.
What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" They shouted in reply, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him." So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him." The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God."
Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor."
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
"They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots."
And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary
Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
O Love that wilt not let me go
April 10, 2020 Hebrews 10:16-25
Let us pray: Oh, God, you are our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging. Help us commit to living every moment of our lives, with every ounce of love at our command, knowing that every moment of our lives is lived for you. All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There’s a wonderful old hymn that I thought of as I reflected on Good Friday and what is going on in the world around us at this time:
O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
This hymn has a story attached to it, as so many hymns do.
It was written by a Church of Scotland minister George Matheson, in the late 19th century. This was a man who life had dealt a rough hand. As a child, he had begun to lose his sight, and by the time he was grown up was virtually blind.
He’d been engaged to a woman whom he loved very much, but she’d ended the engagement as his sight worsened, saying that she couldn’t face being married to a blind man. His main support and comfort in life was his beloved sister, but in time she married, and that meant that she had to move from him. The hymn was written, he said, just before her marriage, in a moment of private despair. He never said what exactly had prompted his writing it, but it’s not hard to see how he might have felt alone and afraid, ground down by the losses and challenges of his life.
It’s remained popular ever since, and I think the reason for that it is that it is so honest. It doesn’t try to sugar-coat suffering and misfortune. It doesn’t offer any easy answers. Matheson talks about his “weary soul”, and his “flickering torch” – a reference to his blindness. This is a moment when he is suddenly aware of his own powerlessness.
George Matheson’s life wasn’t easy, but in some ways it isn’t unusual. Every day we are facing and hearing of fear and concern through a terrible possibility of illness, untimely bereavement, the collapse of relationships or businesses. Every day there are people who feel as if they are lying face down in the mud and every time they start to lift their heads from it, we hear more of the increase in the spread of this terrible pandemic which comes along to push us back down. Some people live their whole lives in tough places like this, but I think it is rare for anyone to go through life knowing only its sunlit mountain-sides.
That’s the reality of human life, the reality which Matheson knew and which those who love this hymn, as I do, recognize and respond to.
Matheson, as I have said, doesn’t give us any easy answers, and yet, somehow this is a hymn which helps simply by giving dignity to these tough times, affirming that they can be holy places too, places where God can be encountered in a new way. “From the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be.”
It’s tempting, on Good Friday, to want to hurry on to Easter. We don’t like death and pain and loss. We want resurrection and new life. That’s entirely understandable, and of course we know that the cross isn’t the end of the story. Death won’t have the last word. But that is Easter Sunday’s message, and we’re not there yet. Some people won’t be there the day after tomorrow, either. Their pain will continue. The morning won’t dawn bright and clear for them on Sunday, no matter what the calendar says. It’s important for them, for all of us, to hear the message of this hymn. What does it say about enduring those dark times, the Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays of our lives, when, like Jesus’ friends, we can see no sign of hope, to reason to think there will be resurrection?
The hymn reminds us that at those times, it is God who holds us. The hymn doesn’t say “O me, that wilt not let Love go.” It says “O Love that wilt not let me go.” It is God who holds us, not the other way around. He holds us. He just holds us, but that is enough. He is like the earth which holds the germinating seed, the womb which holds the growing child, the egg which holds the developing chick. He is the vital, safe place in which we need to spend as long as it takes for us to be ready to face the world again.
There’s nothing more irritating, when life is collapsing around you, than for well-meaning people to try to cheer you out of it, to talk about “light at the end of the tunnel.” It’s understandable that we say this – it eases our own anxiety. It is often harder to watch others suffering than it is to suffer ourselves. We feel helpless. We feel as if we ought to be able to do something to help. But the strength of Matheson’s hymn is its willingness to sit with those painful feelings, the things we can do nothing about, to accept them and honor them, to discover that pain we endure is not a squalid waste – however much it feels like that - but is also a place which can be made holy by God’s presence.
That’s why it’s important to spend this time at the foot of the cross. There was no shortcut for Jesus, no way around his humiliating and painful death, not without reneging on his message of hope and dignity for those who the powers of the world were determined to crush, as they tried to crush him. There is often no shortcut for us either. The cruelty, betrayal and brutality he endured were real and painful, and they took as long as they took, just as the struggles we may face are real and take as long as they take. But God’s love is “ocean deep” as the hymn puts it, his presence is eternal, and the life that can grow out of this bloodstained soil is endless and blessed.
In this strange Holy Week, we wait and watch the spread of COVID-19 with real concern and worry for ourselves, our families and the most vulnerable among us. Yet, as this virus came upon us without our being able to properly plan, we are not unprepared. Even on Good Friday, we are an Easter people, as even at the grave, we can sing God’s praises. But we have always been an Easter people in a Good Friday world. It is at the foot of the cross where we Passover from death to life.
Let us pray: Our Father and our God, penetrate our hearts with your eternal love and hope. Let us face suffering, darkness, and discouragement with hope and cheerfulness, knowing they are pathways to Your glory. Give us deep abiding faith and hope because of Christ, in whom we pray. Amen.
PALM SUNDAY: April 5, 2020
PALM SUNDAY READINGS
Fr. Jim has chosen alternate readings for today instead of those listed at the link on the left.
Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens--wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let Israel now proclaim, *
"His mercy endures for ever."
19 Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20 "This is the gate of the Lord; *
he who is righteous may enter."
21 I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.
22 The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord's doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Hosanna, Lord, hosanna! *
Lord, send us now success.
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.
28 "You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."
29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 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. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
"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."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 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!"
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
Palm Sunday Sermon: SAVE US!!
Let us pray: Oh God, your Messiah draws near. We pray that you will bless us with your presence and enable us to cry out with the very stones beneath his feet saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the chorus sings:
“Hey sanna, ho sanna, hey sanna, ho sanna, hey sanna. Hey, hey JC, JC won’t you smile at me. Jesus Christ, if you’re divine, turn my water into wine. Prove to me that you’re no fool. Walk across my swimming pool.” With these words, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” captures the anticipation of that first Palm Sunday parade. “Jesus Christ if you’re divine, turn my water into wine.”
That same mixture of this world and the next is really the story of the first Palm Sunday. But even more, the original Palm Sunday is the story of expectations that are not met. Instead, they were answered by something that seemed to be far worse, but proved to be much better.
To understand what was going on that day, you have to understand that Jerusalem was an occupied city; under the strict authoritarian control of the most fearsome army the world had ever known up to that point. And yet the city was packed to the rafters with people commemorating the Passover — the annual celebration of the time that God freed the Jewish people from slavery under another oppressive foreign government.
Every male Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem was expected to celebrate every Passover in that city, while Jews from all over the world hoped to be able to spend at least one Passover in Jerusalem. It was a religious festival to commemorate the debt the people of Israel owed to God in the past, of course. However, it was also indistinguishable from a political yearning for freedom in the present. Every year, they would think, “Maybe this would be the time God will win our freedom once again.”
As a result, pilgrims were stuffed into every nook and cranny of the holy city and far out into the suburbs — all of them rehearsing the stories of God’s miraculous rescues of his people in the past. Nationalistic feelings were all but boiling over, barely held in check by the fear of Roman power.
The Romans, of course, were well aware of the potential for rebellion and each soldier on every street corner was on the highest of alerts, ready for even the slightest sign of any brewing insurrection. Tension was quite literally everywhere.
That was the setting when Jesus came riding into town at the head of a parade rife with ancient symbolism. Borrowing an image from the prophet Zechariah, Jesus chose a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, symbolic both of his claim to be king and of his intent to enter the city in peace. The crowds immediately recognized the Messianic claim of his entrance, although they clearly missed the part about his coming in peace.
Instead, they expected that Jesus would become the ancient equivalent of John Wayne and Rambo and Superman all rolled into one. They expected that the streets were about to run red with Roman blood and that God would ensure their victory, even if that victory might prove to be hard won.
So the crowd instantly greeted Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us, please!” And they waved palm branches, which were a long-term symbol of Jewish nationalism. In effect, they were saying, “Praise God! The revolution against the Romans is about to begin and we’re behind you all the way, Jesus!”
The Romans understood all that and they were ready to crush any slightest gesture of rebellion. Under these circumstances, Jesus’ dramatic entrance was like waving a lit match over a barrel of dynamite. The tiniest miscalculation and everything would have gone sky high.
Just a word or two from Jesus and the long-simmering bloodbath would have begun. But that word never came from him. Instead, there in the center of that pressure cooker of nationalistic feelings, Jesus calmly rode on, knowing that he was riding toward his own death — a death that would offer the crowds the salvation they were asking for, even if it would come in a way that was totally unexpected and which the crowds weren’t able to understand at that point.
Scott Black Johnston is the pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He met with a seventh-grade class recently and had them write down questions they wanted to pose to their pastors. Four of the twelve cards asked: “Is Jesus the only way to salvation?” At that point, he says:
“Being an annoying pastor, I told them that before I would answer that question, they had to answer one for me. ‘Since salvation implies that you are being saved from something, what do you think Jesus is saving you from?’ The first answer that came back was ‘hell.’ Jesus saves people from hell.” That struck Johnston as being the kind of answer that the class might think that he wanted to hear instead of being an answer that had any real connection to their lives.
So he pressed them further. He said, “Let me put it this way, if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?” That’s when the conversation got interesting.
One of the youths raised her hand and said, “Death.” Another fellow offered that God could really help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test. Then one of the seventh graders said, “Pressure.” And another youth said, “My parents’ expectations.” Then another, shy individual, almost in a whisper said, “Fear. I want God to save me from my fears.” All of these answers struck Johnston as more sincere than “hell,” although, he added that you could argue their comments gave a pretty clear picture of what “hell” looks like to a 7th grader. Then Johnston poses the same question to us adults.
“Can we dip down into our souls and be as honest as these young people were? When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, ‘Hosanna,’ do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Save me from anger. Save me from cancer. Save me from depression. Save me from debt. Save me from the strife in my family. Save me from boredom. Save me from getting sent back to Iraq. Save me from the endless cycle of violence. Save me from humiliation. Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist. Save me from bitterness. Save me from arrogance. Save me from loneliness. Save us all from this terrible pandemic. Save us, God, save us from our fears.”
I keep coming back to that strange word, "Hosanna." You've got to admit that it is not a term that comes up in everyday conversation. If you are like me, the last time you uttered "Hosanna" was, well... a year ago in March, last Palm Sunday. It is a peculiar word--one that is difficult to define. Scholars' best guess is that "Hosanna" is a contraction of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah, meaning to save or deliver, and naw, meaning to beseech or pray. So you might translate the shouts of the crowd as: "We beseech you to deliver us." The people cheered. They tossed branches from the nearby trees to the ground, and they called out, "Hosanna." They looked upon this prophet--rumored to be the Messiah--and they cried out to him, "Save us. Save us." I'm thinking that the meaning of Palm Sunday hangs on those two words--on that simple plea. Do we feel compelled to shout, "Save us!" to God as we prepare for Holy Week during this unsettling time?
Whatever you may hope God will save you from, Palm Sunday serves to remind you that Jesus has the power to bring you that salvation — both in this life and for the next. He can calm your fears, sustain you in your pain and transform your life in ways that are far better than you can imagine. So blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Let us pray: Holy and gracious God, we need you to rescue us from the depths. Please do what you have always done when your people have cried out, "Please save us!" In Christ's name we pray. Amen.
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