Do Not Be Afraid.

I realize this is an odd way to begin an Easter sermon, but what are you afraid of? Confined spaces? Lightning? Long tall bridges without high safety barriers? Personally, I don’t do well with heights or snakes. The heights thing is real. The snake thing is more like a “preference.” And that preference makes mowing a slight challenge at our home. The front yard is pure suburbia complete with a lovely manicured lawn. The “back forty,” which is what I call the back ¼ acre, is surrounded by woods. There is a pile of brush. I try to mow it only four or five times a season because I am sure there are snakes there. Actually, I saw one once. Every time I am about to mow back there I warn my wife about my plans. I tell her that if the mower stops and she hears me screaming like a small child she should come help me. You see, she grew up in Africa where there are cobras, both black AND green mambas, and boom slangs…all of which are deadly. I reckon that kind of experience puts her in a good place to deal with the garter snakes at our house.

In ten short verses of Matthew 28.1-10, the word “fear” is used twice and the phrase “do not be afraid” appears twice, as well. Obviously, today’s passage is disturbing…or should be disturbing to the reader. And that may baffle us. It is Easter. We are supposed to be happy and excited…in a good way, right? Yes. Yes, indeed. Sometimes, however, even good excitement makes us tremble.

Matthew 28.1-10

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

On that first Sunday morning, I suspect it was “back to business” as usual for Jesus’ followers. Admittedly, it wasn’t technically “usual.” After all, they had just lost a very dear friend. And their hopes and dreams were crushed. And I assume they all were unbelievably depressed about what had just happened. Moreover, they all had to face a few nasty realities. First, they weren’t as brave as they thought…after all they all had abandoned Jesus in his time of need. Secondly, Rome didn’t roll over and die just because a rural prophet, as impressive as he was, said the kingdom of heaven was near. In fact, the emperor still had all the power. All that talk of the “kingdom of heaven being at hand”, was just that: talk. And so, the two women named Mary went to Jesus’ tomb to look at it. Perhaps, they went hoping-against-hope it was all a bad dream. Perhaps, they went simply to continue quietly mourning their loss. Perhaps, they wanted one last look before returning to their mundane and difficult lives in Galilee.

They may have thought they were going to quietly and properly mourn Jesus’ passing, but that isn’t what awaited them. As Paul Sokolofsky pointed out on our church sermon discussion page: “Raising from the dead, lightning, moving boulders, fear, joy, people running…this is just craziness!!” I would point out that he forgot the earthquake. But yes, it was craziness. It was anything but “business as usual.” I wonder why they didn’t expect something out of the ordinary. Jesus, after all, had mentioned that the kingdom of heaven was near. He had promised them a new world was about to break into their sad reality. He had mentioned that God was about to redeem them and creation. Jesus had promised that the world they knew was going to be turned upside down. He specifically said, “the first will be last and the last will be first” (19.30). And he suggested that the ways of the powerful won’t last (20.20-28). There was a new world coming.

And it began on that Sunday morning. I love the way Matthew makes this very point. In the midst of all of this chaos, the people who should pass out, don’t. And the people who shouldn’t pass out, do. The women, weakened from grief and restless and sleepless nights since Jesus’ death, should be on the ground. The Roman soldiers, strong and burly and perhaps battle-hardened, should have been there defending the tomb. But as it turns out, the Romans are on the ground totally unconscious and Jesus’ female followers are awake to witness his resurrection. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, indeed. The new world, the kingdom of heaven, had arrived. They didn’t have to wait very long for that prediction to come true. Easter is the day the world turned upside down, and it began that very first Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion.

I don’t know about you, but if everything I knew was falling apart, even if those things were terrible, I would be afraid. Not knowing what you can count on makes you a little apprehensive. The women at the tomb knew what they could count on. Romans executed people. Those people were buried. End of story. And here they were in front of an empty tomb, surrounded by Roman legionnaires who were scared-to-death and passed out. I would be afraid, too. What kind of world were they living in?

Obviously, it is one they were not ready for. And that is more than a little unsettling. In verse 8, Matthew tells us they were afraid. But we are also told they were twice told to not be afraid. First in verse 5 the angel tells them, “Do not be afraid” And then he adds, “…indeed, he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” In fact, the women saw Jesus earlier than that. In verse 10, The risen Jesus himself, tells them, “…do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The world they were NOW living in was one in which God had just “undone” everything they had known. The Romans had sealed a tomb. God unsealed it. The Romans had executed Jesus. God had raised him from the dead. Everyone one and all of creation was subject to sin and death. God had just set us and all of Creation free.

Is it even possible that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived that first Easter morning? We look around ourselves today, and we ask that question. And it is a fair question. We watch the evening news, and it isn’t hopeful. We look at the relationships all around us, and many are either strained or broken. We have some days when we just have no clue as to how life can be so fouled up. And we are tempted to say, nice story, but I am not sure.

We forget that for roughly 300 years, the early church, our spiritual ancestors, believed that because of the resurrection of Jesus they had been set free from the power of sin and death and even the oppressive power of Rome. And because of that first Easter Sunday they had the audacity to live like it was true, despite the world around them telling them otherwise. And not only that, but the first Christians continually reminded their friends and neighbors, and themselves, that Jesus promised to return in the future. They lived their lives in a way that lined up with the kingdom of heaven which began with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and would come fully with his return. And eventually, the world around them stopped and took notice because their lives were convincingly different. We, however, have forgotten that we live in the “in between times.” We have forgotten that the “business as usual” world is passing away. And even more importantly, we often forget that we are God’s agent to facilitate that “passing away.” We forget that we are witnesses to what God has done in the past and will do in the future. We forget.

Or maybe we are simply afraid. Afraid of the tension between the old and the new world. Afraid of what we might lose when the “business as usual world” passes away. Afraid of who knows what? And our fears help us forget the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid…he is going ahead of you.” And we even forget Jesus’ own words, “Do not be afraid.”

Rituals or repeated actions help us to remember and overcome our fears. They provide us with a mooring in a life of upheaval and turmoil. Of course, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave us an action which is designed to help us remember who he is and was, who we are, and the fact that we live “in between.” From the very beginning of the Church, Christians celebrate this ritual as an act of thankfulness, hope, and remembrance. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 11.26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” When we take communion we look back to his death and resurrection as well as forward to his return. We remember that God began the new world, the kingdom of heaven, in Christ and we look forward toward the day it comes in its fullness.

When my wife and I lived in England in the 80s we worshiped with a wonderful Anglican congregation. Every Sunday when we observed the Lord’s Supper we said three sentences, as a part of the Anglican liturgy:

“Christ has died.”
“Christ is risen.”
“Christ will come again.”

Every Sunday these sentences were said prior to participating in communion. Every Sunday.
Thirty-five years later I still remember those three sentences. They are good words to say or think when taking communion. Even more importantly they strike me as fundamental to our faith. They are good words to remember, period. Moreover, they are good words with which to frame our lives. And they are good words to use when we find ourselves afraid.

I Wish it was Different. Thoughts on Matthew 21.1-11

jesus-on-trialWe are one week away from Easter. In reality, Holy Week begins today with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem. On the surface, it is a wonderful story which we read in Matthew 21.1-11. People’s longing, centuries of longing, are about to be fulfilled. They hoped for a messiah king, and it looks like it will finally happen with Jesus. This story is full of hope and joy. At the same time, it is a deeply sad story. Not everyone is pleased that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. Moreover, those who sing his praises today, won’t be singing his praises come the end of the week. In fact, by the end of this story they are already waffling.

A classic way to pray using the Bible is to read a short passage and think about which character you identify with. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many positive role models apart from the disciples who initially obey Jesus’ directions to “liberate” that donkey. But if I am honest with myself, far too often I look a lot like both the crowd and the residents of Jerusalem. And that isn’t a good thing. But it is honest. I wish it was different. But it isn’t.

There are a few oddities in this story which tempt us to distraction. Isn’t is strange that Jesus tells his disciples to enter a village and take a donkey and her colt…and if challenged they are only to tell the owner that “the Lord needs them.” Also, there is that odd expression, “he sat on them” in verse 7. However, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by trivial items. Despite these oddities there is the positive factor that the disciples are faithful and obedient, even to the point of some very sketchy behavior. And Matthew makes the point that this action is a fulfillment of scripture. In particular, verse 5 is a mix of Isaiah 52 and Zechariah 9, which speak of Israel’s hope that a king would come to rescue them. And that kingship motif dominates the storyline.

As Jesus and his disciples make their way into Jerusalem we are told they are accompanied by a “very large crowd.” What the crowd does makes it is clear they thought Jesus was a king arriving in the capital city. Some people in the crowd seemingly knew their Bible. In 2 Kings 9 Jehu’s followers spread their cloaks on his path when they heard he was to become king. Other people knew Israel’s history. Two hundred years before Christ, a man named Judas Maccabaeus defeated a pagan army and when he entered Jerusalem people cut palm branches and covered the road with them. Once in the holy city Maccabaeus established a royal dynasty lasting one hundred years. Clearly, by these two actions, the people are gladly and happily proclaiming Jesus is their leader and king. Additionally, they are singing his praises using a passage from Psalm 118, which proclaimed their belief that Jesus was the Son of David…coming to claim his rightful role as the kingly heir to Israel’s throne. Finally, after centuries it was all coming together for the Jews. People couldn’t be happier.

Well. Not all the people were happy. In fact, the residents of Jerusalem were a little disturbed by all this kingship talk. The NRSV says “the whole city was in turmoil.” The word used for “turmoil” is σειω…we know it from the English word seismograph. Jerusalem and its residents were shaken as if an earthquake had hit them. Panic was in the air. They didn’t need another “royal pretender” coming to town…because the Romans took note of things like that. And since it was Passover there were more Romans in the city than usual. In fact, there may have been two or three legions there. They were there because Jerusalem always got a little crazy at Passover, and Rome wanted to keep a lid on the activities that boiled during the week as pilgrims from all over the empire arrived. Because of their collective nervousness and fear of the Romans, the residents confronted the crowd: who is this man? I doubt they asked because they wanted to follow him. I suspect they wanted all this excitement to end. And end now!

What I find rather shocking is the crowd’s response. I would expect their excitement to lead to a bold exclamation and praise of King Jesus. But when confronted, they seemingly begin to back down: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Just a prophet. From Nazareth, that small backwater town in Galilee, the place no one respects. No talk of kingship. Just a prophet. You won’t have any trouble from us. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s gospel know that this is just the beginning of the shift of how the people, even his closest friends, turned their backs on Jesus. Most of the stories between this one and the death of Jesus in chapter 27 are incidents of the Jewish leaders resisting and confronting Jesus. They plot his death. One disciple betrays him. Another denies him. The rest desert him. And the crowd which is loudly cheering him on in the first part of this story? We are told in chapter 27:15ff, that the leaders convinced them Jesus was to be crucified. And they shouted for his crucifixion…not once, but twice.

I would like to think I wouldn’t be like them. I’d like to think I wouldn’t back down at the first confrontation…switching from saying he was a king to saying he is a prophet. But….
I’d like to think I wouldn’t fear the powers-that-be more than rejoicing at finally having a real leader in my presence. But….
And I certainly would like to think I would never be swayed by the leaders and call for his crucifixion. But….

But, I know that isn’t true. I wish it was different. If I was there, I would waffle. If I was there, I would falter. If I was there, I would fail. And I know that is the case, because I waffle, falter and fail now, and no one really challenges me about what I think regarding Jesus.

The painting at the top of this entry is entitled “Ecce Homo” or “Behold the Man.” It was painted by Antonio Cisceri in 1871. Cisceri was an okay painter, but he was fantastic at knowing himself. You see,  he painted himself into the picture of Pilate before the angry crowd calling for Jesus’ death. He is the fellow casually leaning over Pilate’s chair. He stands there merely observing, not intervening. He stands by as Jesus is condemned to die.

As we enter into this holy week my one hope, our one hope, is that Jesus was utterly and totally resolved to do for us and all of Creation what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

Thinking about Christianity in Light of Two National Championships and Vice Versa (12)

This past weekend Messiah College’s Men’s and Women’s soccer team won their respective Division III national championships.  This isn’t anything new.  In fact, this is the fourth time they have “done the double” with both teams ending up champs in the same year.  It was the men’s ninth title victory and the women’s fifth.  People around here throw out the word “dynasty” rather frequently.  Others use the word “hate”, as in “I hate Messiah.”

I know this is true because as I watched the game on the NCAA website, there was a Facebook chat room available.  During our game against Loras on Friday a number of people felt free to share their dislike for the MC men’s program.  On Saturday, someone asked a simple question: how does Messiah keep competing at this level with this consistency.  Someone responded: they recruit players who were wanted by Division I schools.  And, yes, that is true.  Coach Brad McCarty even said so in an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot News published on Friday morning.  But, he was quick to mention there is more to the program than that.  Another person typed: “They are psychologically tough, they find a way to win.”  Well, yes, that is true.  Josh Wood came back from two years of injuries to compete in this recent campaign.  His mental outlook was greater than his pain.  Luke Helmuth worked hard to move beyond an injury earlier in the season to play in the finals.  His mental outlook was greater than his pain.  And Mike Kovac played injured on both Friday and Saturday to score the game winner in both contests.  His mental outlook was greater than his pain.  However, there is more.

In the same newspaper article quoting Coach McCarty, the women’s coach, Scott Frey, said, “We’re a christian [sic] college that intertwines faith with soccer and academics….The faith aspect, that’s the key part.”  Coach McCarty echoed his counterpart, “The players are more interested in the culture and environment of the program…we play a great style of soccer.  More, importantly, the guys are mature christian [sic] kids.”

And that line of thinking gets us in trouble.  It causes trouble because Christians have this reputation of being arrogant, self-righteous, hypocrites.  If you don’t believe me read David Kinnaman’s book, UnChristian.  So when the coaches suggest we play well because we are Christians, people are tempted to roll their eyes and exhale loudly.  They have seen this silliness before.  You know what it looks like.  It is those people claiming they do well or are blessed because Jesus is on their side, as if he is some petty tribal deity who can be controlled for our advantage. In fact, in response to my Facebook status pointing out the teams had done the double, a friend wrote, “How can you lose when you have Jesus on your side?”  I wrote back, “If that is the case…why don’t the Jewish colleges win national championships?  Jesus’ Dad is on their side.”

It was meant to be tongue in cheek, but serious as well.  I really don’t like the idea that Christians do well in sports, or any other field of life, simply because they can claim Jesus is on their side.  I don’t know all the guys on our men’s team and very few of the ladies on the women’s side.  But the fellows I know would NEVER claim they do well because Jesus is for them.  Just the opposite would seem to be the case.  They have a sense that they play for Jesus.  Jeremy Payne, the sophomore attacking midfielder, updated his Facebook status writing, “Let us not forget who we play this beautiful game for…” prior to the championship game on Saturday.  And Jake Berry, goalkeeper, wrote, “Win or lose, my identity is found in Christ alone” before the kickoff.

But here is the “real” zinger: even in the midst of a hard fought competition for another national title and honor, our kids don’t forget who they are.  You don’t see the same foolishness you see from other teams.  Sure fouls are committed but not the serious fouls that result in yellow cards.  And red cards are unheard of…at least I can’t remember one of our players ever being red carded.  There is very little intentional tripping, throwing of elbows, and the other teams’ shirts are never torn because they are rarely pulled to hold a person back.

And if that isn’t enough, sometimes one of our guys does something truly bizarre in the middle of a game.  Like what Logan Thompson did Friday.  It was hot in Texas.  And the game with Loras was extremely intense for 90 minutes.  As regulation time drew near, people were beginning to cramp up.  In over time, one of the Loras guys dropped like a rock with a calf cramp.  His trainers were about to come onto the field to assist him.  However, if they did that, according to the rules, he would have to leave the game and would not be allowed to return.  Logan, himself, walked over to the guy in extreme pain lying on the ground, waved the Loras trainers off the field and worked the cramp out of his opponent’s leg.  It struck me as a NCAA Division III contextualization of Jesus’ commandment, “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  It may have been the contextualization of “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”, but good hard competition probably shouldn’t be confused with persecution.  So, yeah.  Jesus isn’t on their side.  That isn’t the reason they win.  The fact that they play FOR Jesus, is another matter. They play as if his name, not theirs, is on the line.  And they play in a different way than many of their peers.

I am tempted to think the world would look a lot different if everyone who called themselves Christian went about their lives as if they were living for Jesus.  I know my little section of the world would improve, if I improved in this area.

By the way, Logan Thompson was named the tournament’s Defensive MVP.  Knowing Logan, he would probably be a little embarrassed I put the spot light on him. All I can say is, “Sorry, it is my blog.  And beside, I am not convinced me tooting your horn is wrong…so long as God gets the glory.”

The Church Calendar (11)

The following piece was written a long time ago (at least five years).  At the time I was Brethren in Christ, but torn between the appeal of the liturgical tradition(s) and unprogrammed worship practiced by Quakers.  At some level I am still torn; there is a lot to learn from our liturgically oriented brothers and sisters, as the paragraphs below show.

 The Church Calendar

 I cannot recall my first observation of Advent. I suspect it was without frills: five candles surrounded by evergreen sprigs, accompanied by hopeful sermons about divine love. Recently Advent has become more elaborate: five drip-less candles, well-ordered evergreen all around the sanctuary, a Christmas tree, dozens of poinsettias, and sermons focusing on hope, divine love, and the incarnation. For weeks, I am encouraged to prepare for the Lord’s advent. The church looks, smells, and sounds good.   Preparation is the watch word.

Imagine my shock upon learning the “church calendar” celebrates the life and death of St. Stephen on December 26. In 24 hours, we rush from loving and innocent images of a new born child to the bloody fatal stoning of the first Christian martyr. And there is more: December 27 celebrates the life of St. John the Evangelist who was exiled and imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. In 48 hours, “high church” Christian worship focuses on birth, death, and imprisonment. Unfortunately, the calendar doesn’t take a break from this litany of suffering. The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod the Great in his zeal to kill baby Jesus, is held on December 28. A birth, a martyrdom, an imprisonment, and a massacre within 72 hours. I still haven’t found anything to prepare me for that.

I often ponder these four “holidays,” asking, “What were they thinking when they compiled the liturgical calendar?” I don’t know. But I think they were insightful. Just because God appeared as an infant and lived among us doesn’t mean evil disappeared. We have, and always will have, to contend with the likes of King Herod. But Advent tells us we aren’t alone in this world where evil also exists. And St. John the Evangelist’s inclusion reminds us that we have an important role: we are witnesses to the fact that God’s chosen is the source of life, even in the midst of pain, suffering, and exile. That was John’s message in his gospel (John 20:31). Finally, St. Stephen’s day reminds us that the baby born yesterday grew up. And when he learned to speak, he said, “Take up your cross, and follow me” – a call to imitate him in our pained, yet loved, world.

Back to the Homeland (10)

A little over eleven years ago my family and I were preparing for a sabbatical year in Clydebank, Scotland.  My employer had very generously arranged for me to have the entire year off to write and pastor a small congregation.  (There you go Helena: something nice about my employer.)

Years before I had opened a Royal Bank of Scotland account.  Part of our preparation for the year was to contact the bank to learn how to best reactivate the account so we could use it upon our arrival.  So, I rang the bank, and spoke to the branch manager’s administrative assistant.  What I thought would be a quick conversation was not.  I would ask her a question, she would ask the manager, then she would give me the manager’s answer.  This process was repeated for about 15 minutes.  I would later learn that such a long drawn out process was par for the cultural norm in Scotland.

Once all my questions had been answered and I was about to say a final thank you and hang up, the strangest thing happened.  The young administrative assistant said, “So, you’re coming home then?”  I was confused.  We had conversed for 15 or more minutes.  I didn’t pretend to be a Scot, and I certainly didn’t use a lame Scottish accent to impress my banker.  I mumbled, “Pardon?”  “You are coming home, Mr. McDermond.”  I explained I was an American and my father’s family left Scotland well over two hundred years ago.  Her matter-of-fact response: “Yes.  I understand, but you are coming home now.”

And then it hit me.  Because of the highland clearances, a very dark period in Scotland’s history, there are more people of Scots ancestry living outside of Scotland than those living in Scotland.  And the general thinking of those in Scotland is that once you were a Scot you are always a Scot…no matter how long you have been away.  And so I responded, “Yes. Yes, indeed, I am.”

I leave for Glasgow in three hours.   My traveling companion is Duncan, our youngest son.  He claims he can’t recall very much from our year in Clydebank.  I think this is a cleaver ploy to visit the UK.  I hope the people in the homeland haven’t changed their minds.  I will be out of touch for nine days, but taking notes on the trip as fodder for a couple of future blogs.  Until then…