What’s The Connection?


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter
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I have struggled with the three lectionary readings for today for the better part of the week. Part of this struggle has to do with a decision I made when I began the lay preaching that has marked my career.

When I first began my lay speaking career, I picked one or two passages and focused on them. This was in the manner of one of my preaching role-models.

This particular preacher did not use either the revised or the common lectionary but rather developed his own. Over the course of the year, he would jot down thoughts and ideas along scripture verses and connectional ideas and once a year go on a “retreat” where he laid out what he proposed to preach for the coming year. At any one time, he had sixty sermon ideas lined up. He didn’t have the sermons actually prepared but he had the ideas and when the time came, he wrote his sermons.

But when I began the long-term pulpit supply that has characterized my lay ministry for the past twelve years, I found that particular method wouldn’t work for me. The demands of preparing a message every week coupled with my own professional job requirements required some other source of inspiration and I found it in the lectionary, both the common lectionary and the revised lectionary of today. So I spent time looking at the Old Testament reading, the Epistle reading, and the Gospel reading and trying to find the connection between the three. Sometimes it has been easy to find; sometimes it has not.

I would advise beginning lay speakers or those who only preach once or twice a year to follow the advice that was given to me by another preacher; look at the three lectionary readings for the Sunday that you are preaching and follow the one that your heart and soul tell you to follow. Pick one of the three and use it to your heart’s content; as you progress in your career, you can try other methods.

So having written all that, what connection do I find in the three lectionary readings (1) for today? In one sense, we are the connection.

It starts with John the Seer’s vision of the Kingdom which is to come; it is most definitely a vision of what he would like to see in his world. As Robin Griffith-Jones pointed out in his book, “Four Witnesses”, John the Seer weaves a tapestry of connections. He does not spell out the connections nor does he explain the combination that he sees; rather, he leaves that task to each one of us. (2)

The Seer’s world is one of turmoil and violence. Christians are being persecuted and the handy scapegoat for many of the Roman Empire’s faults. John the Seer sees the world around him being destroyed and the church which he has helped build being destroyed along with it.

For him, the Heavenly Kingdom is the answer. In his vision, he sees those who have survived the persecution. But it is interesting that John adds that these individuals no longer will hunger or thirst.

We might assume that this hunger and thirst have been filled through the Bread of Life offered by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the Living Water that was offered to the Samaritan woman at the well. But I am reminded that John Wesley, who saw the poverty and hunger of his own England and the lack of concern by his own Church of England, argued that those who are not fed real food or drink real water will have a hard time accepting the Bread of Life and the Living Water.

We must, as evangelicals, offer the Bread of Life; we must, as evangelicals, offer the Living Water. But if a person’s physical body is hungry or thirsty, then they will not accept the food and water that their soul longs for. If a person is cold, then the warmth of the Holy Spirit cannot warm the body. I am not saying that we should ignore the spiritual needs of the people of this world but, if the physical needs are not filled, the spiritual needs will never be filled.

Peter is told of the death of Dorcas. He does not simply comfort her friends and counsel them in their sorrow; but rather he takes the skills and the powers that have been given to him through the Holy Spirit and heals Dorcas. And it is this event which the people talk about for days to come.

Here again, I am not saying that we all have that same power or ability but Paul does note that we all have been given skills and talents that we can use in the name of Christ. Still, such skills and talents are of little use if we do not take care for the physical mind and body with the same effort and intensity that we care for the spiritual mind.

There are those who say that they are Christians but their acts betray their minds. They want to know that the Messiah is coming, much like those who questioned Jesus that day in Jerusalem described in the Gospel reading for today. Those in the square that day are told that they have been given the answer to their question but because they do not believe the answer, they do not understand. Those that believe that Jesus is the Christ do so because they have seen the proof; those who do not believe do so because they are blind to the proof. As Jesus pointed out, those who know hear their Master’s voice and they follow His call.

And that is the key point for me; if we are called to Christ and then we do nothing, then that call was naught. If we are called to Christ, then we must do those acts that will show that Christ is alive. This will be done because we will care for people in times of sorrow; this will be done because we will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and bring hope to the oppressed. If others are to hear the call of Christ in their lives, they must see the proof. To simply say that there is a call will never be sufficient; to do nothing that will help people come closer to Christ cannot help people hear the call.

Jesus stood before His neighbors and proclaimed the Gospel message. It was not a message of war and celebration; it was a message of hope and peace; it was a fulfillment of the promise of God to never forget His children here on Earth. If we are to see the Kingdom of Heaven, then we must work for it here.

There is a connection between what we say and do each day of the week and what we say and do on Sunday. Just as Christ told the people around Him that day described in the Gospel reading for today, so too is it true for us. Others will know the Father because of what we do. If we say that we are Christian but our words, thoughts, deeds, and action belie that, then people will wonder what the connection is. If we say that we are Christians and our works, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions support that, people will wonder what the connection is and they will want to find out more.

It thus becomes our responsibility to help others make the same connection with God through Christ that we have made.

(1) Acts 9: 36 – 43; Revelation 7: 9 – 17; John 10: 22 – 30

(2) Adapted from “Four Witnesses” by Robin Griffith-Jones

It Happened Again – Part 2


I have a policy about comments to my blog. Obviously, spam is not accepted (it doesn’t even make it to the review stage). Comments which are linked to “interesting” or “questionable” sites are often rejected. Comments that come from the fringes of theology are also rejected. Anonymous comments are often kept though I will think about them before publishing them. I do not reject a comment simply because the author opposes or rejects my thinking.

There are two comments to my post of 22 April 2007, “It Happened Again.” One is from a regular reader of my writing; the other is someone who obviously disagrees with me. It is a rather lengthy comment and worthy of its own post. But this is my blog and you will have to go to the comment section of “It Happened Again” to read it. Please read Earl’s comments, for what I am writing will not make much sense unless you do.

I believe Earl has taken exception to my characterization of the Book of Revelation. Through his entire comment, it seems as if he has concluded that evil is present throughout this world, there is little that can be done to combat evil, and that war is the final and inevitable conclusion to society.

Especially fitting were the comments that the deaths of innocents in Darfur and Iraq are the consequences of history and thus inevitable. I have posted thoughts on our response to evil and the nature of war (1), so I do not need to do that here

But, if war is the inevitable conclusion of society and society is inherently evil, then why did God send His Son? If war, death, and destruction on the plains of Armageddon are all we can expect for our lives, then what meaning is there in Christ?

Through Christ, we are given the opportunity to change our lives. Saul became Paul; the Samaritan woman at the well became a disciple of Christ telling all the Good News that Christ brought into her life. Lives change because of Christ and because lives change, there is hope. If our lives are fixed in the passage of time, then we have no hope and we have no need for Christ.

Earl also suggested that if one person had carried a gun into the classroom last week at Virginia Tech, the massacre would have been prevented. Is the Christian answer to violence more violence?

Are we to assume that this unknown self-proclaimed defender has the ability to use his or her weapon in the proper manner? Are we to assume that a response with a handgun to some shooting will not become a “fire fight” which endangers more innocent bystanders? Let’s not even go there; that is a path that can lead no where.

But let us not forget those who sacrificed their lives to let others escape. Did not a professor, a victim of the Holocaust, give his life so that his students could escape? Did not other students act to keep a classroom door shut so that the gunman could not come in and hurt their friends and classmates? No weapons were used in these instances so why must we insist that weapons of violence are the only solution to violence. We as Christians must seek other alternative methods, not use the methods of the world around us.

Nowhere in my post did I suggest that the dead at Virginia Tech were not victims. No did I offer solutions that have been tried in the past and found lacking. What I did write was that we, as Christians, must seek solutions. We, as Christians, must find ways to remove the violence that is so much a part of our world.

Earl also said that simply have the Wesley Foundation on campus to comfort and support the students who were in grief was not sufficient. Earl’s answer to the problems of this world are more evangelism, bring more people to Christ.

But the type of evangelism that Earl would bring is most definitely not the answer. When someone is grieving or in sorrow, you do not condemn them or tell them that their friends who are wounded or died have themselves to blame because they did not know Christ. The tone of Earl’s comment suggests that we should put more evangelists on our campus that will condemn the victims and say that their deaths are the product of their sinful life.

Earl’s evangelism seems to be the evangelism that President Jimmy Carter spoke of in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize speech,

There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.

He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion (2).

I’ve had that type of evangelism applied to me. It is most definitely not what was needed at Virginia Tech last week. People who are hurting and grieving do not need to be condemned or told that nothing will change unless they accept Christ, especially if they have already accepted Christ. Can you imagine the pain that someone must feel when they have just seen their best friend shot and possibly killed and someone tells them that they need to accept Christ, even when they have done so already? There is a time and a place for the call from Christ; grief counseling is not that time or place.

Evangelism in this world needs to be more than simply condemning people for what they have done. Did Christ condemn the women who was about to be stoned for adultery? No, he forgave of her sins and told her to lead a new life. The choice was hers, as it is for us. It is interesting that all those who were so eager to stone this woman silently disappeared in the presence of the Son of God.

If we say that the world is fixed in its path and can only end in death and destruction, then there is no need for Christ. But Christ calls us to begin a new life in Him. And in this new life, we are called to change the world.

If we hold to the view that evil is inherent and that violence must be met with violence, then the massacre at Virginia Tech will most definitely happen again.

But that is why Christ came into this world. God so loved this world that He sent His only Son so all those who believed in Him might be saved. God sent His Son to change this world. Those who come to Christ come of their own free will, not forced to do by some loud and overbearing, Bible-thumping charlatan.

Those who come to Christ do so because they have found the peace that is in Christ and they go out into the world to bring the message of the Gospel, the Good News.

Earl is correct in one point. There needs to be more evangelism in this world today. But it is not evangelism that condemns victims and blames them for a sinful life; it is not evangelism that excludes the sinner from the church because of race, creed, or lifestyle; it is not evangelism that ignores the needy and the downtrodden.

Evangelism means to bring the Good News to the world, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, build houses for the homeless, free the oppressed, and bring hope and comfort to those downtrodden and forgotten. We as Christians are called to take the Good News out into the world and that is what evangelism is all about.

(1) See Maybe We Should Study War More Often and the associated previous blogs and comments
(2) “Our Endangered Values”

It Happened Again


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
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I have said it before and I will say again, “I am not a big fan of the Book of Revelation.” Like many, it seems out of place with the other books of the New Testament, especially in terms of its imagery and tone. It is a book that is filled with symbolism and hidden meanings that perhaps only make sense when read in the context of the period in which it was written. There is even some doubt as to whether the John that wrote this book is the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and the three letters from John. It is certainly not what I would consider to be the culmination of the New Testament.

Yet, there are many today who see the images that John the Seer saw and say that those are the images of today, not 2000 years ago. There are many today who see the events of today, especially the violence and war in the Middle East and say those are the signs of the coming Apocalypse. But those who follow that line of thinking follow a line of thinking that did not come out of 2000 years ago but rather 200 years ago. And it is a line of thinking that is inherently, or at least I think it is inherently, flawed.

We speak of a new hope in Christ and John the Seer writes of a vengeful God who is going to destroy the world because we are not willing to follow the teachings and the manner of Jesus the Christ. And if this world is to end with some major battle on the plains of Armageddon, shouldn’t the ones who are saved be the ones who worked to prevent this battle? Those who proclaim the End Times as described in the Book of Revelation are, at least to me, pushing for this final battle; they are the ones who want the war to end all wars. And I don’t see how God will ever reward those who push for the destruction of the human race and this planet; rather, they will be the ones left behind wondering as to where the true peacemakers went.

I write this today because John the Seer does speak, in the Epistle reading for today (1) of the hope and promise that comes in the presence of Christ. Unfortunately, this week all we heard was wailing of loss and the shouting of blame.
No doubt you have wondered why someone would kill thirty-two people for no apparent reason. And the videotapes that the killer provided offer no answers other than that he was a young man who found himself full of rage and estranged from the world. Sadly, we will never know why. We might ask why he was not helped but we find out that help was offered but he refused the help. We might ask how it was that he was able to get the weapons that he used and we find out that it was all perfectly legal (though later in the week that wasn’t so clear).

We might ask why, in the light of this tragedy, anyone would not want some form of gun control? And then we hear others say that if everyone had a gun and shot first and asked questions later, then such acts of violence would be eliminated. This, of course, precludes the inevitable consequences of having a gun in your possession when you get angry or frustrated but apparently that is not a problem to be considered.

We had better ask why it is so much different when thirty-three people die in a college town in this country as opposed to any number of deaths in Iraq or Darfur or anywhere else. Is it because violence in other countries, the death of young people elsewhere in the world, has no meaning to us? Is violence so much a part of our lives that we can ignore it unless it comes in big numbers?

Are these the End Times that others say John the Seer spoke of? Is all the violence in the world a precursor to something apocalyptic and move violent than we could ever imagine? Or is it simply just a sign of our culture and what we have allowed it to become and what we are turning into? Are we like Saul, blind to the world and the message of Christ? In the April 18th issue of the Kansas City Star (2), Mike Hendricks wrote,

Consider: Why is it that a college student in Virginia can so easily obtain handguns to spray his classmates with deadly bullets?
Because we help make it possible. You and me.

No, we don’t pull the trigger. But we might as well be helping the killers reload by not demanding an end to the easy availability of firearms in this country. We let the NRA have the ears of our politicians, when our voices could be so much louder.

Jeneé Osterheldt wrote,

Everyone wants to point fingers.

Some say hip-hop is the culprit. Others want to blame George Bush. And then there are the truly hateful who blame homosexuality for all the world’s ills.

But they can say what they want, right? We let people use their right to free speech as a shield, their words as weapons.

Are we so blind that we cannot see that there are problems in this world and we are going to be the ones who must solve the problems? Saul could not regain his sight until he went to Ananias and allowed Ananias to heal him. And we have to realize that we are a lot like Ananias in that we do not want to take on the task of dealing with things that are abhorrent to us (3). We would rather simply be who we are and say that we are Christians without having to do anything which proves that we are.

Amidst all the shouting and the accusations, amidst the finger pointing and sorrowful looks, we cannot hear Jesus quietly speaking to us on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But, hopefully, we will be like Peter, quick to realize that it is Christ who is offering us breakfast this morning. But like Peter, we will also know that we have denied Christ. And, like Peter, we will frantically seek to get Jesus the Christ to accept our apologies for not being His faithful servant.

You can almost hear Peter shouting to Jesus, “Please accept my apologies, Lord!” And you can sense the frustration that must have been inside Peter when all Jesus would say is “feed my sheep.” (4)

If we love Jesus as we should, then we must be like Peter, reaching out to others and offering them the Love of Christ. If we love Jesus as Peter did, then we will work to make this a world in which senseless acts of violence become moments in the past.

This is not an easy task by any means. For John the Seer, the world around him was not the safe and serene world that he would have liked it to be. But he saw a future that would be a far better one than the present world around him.
Ananias might have been afraid that helping Saul would be dangerous but, in the end, the future that he feared never materialized. Saul became Paul and the Word of God was brought forth to the world. And, no matter what doubts Peter might have had, he knew that Jesus loved him and he too took the Word of God into the world.

Yes, this week has been one that causes us to fear what might come next week. But if Ananias had let the fear within him control his actions then he might not have gone and healed Peter. Then the Word of God would not have gone forth. If Peter had remained uncertain about where he stood with Christ, he would have never sought forgiveness and then there would have been no one to take care of the new church and the people that were to come. If we allow our fears to control us, we lose sight of Christ and what we are supposed to do in His name. If we allow our fears and our uncertainties to control our lives, then it is certain that the tragedy of last week will happen again.

If we let the fears of the world dictate what we are to do, then we will not be there when others cry out. We cannot let the fears of the world do that; we must be there at that moment when others need us. It is comforting to know that there was a United Methodist presence in Blacksburg this week. It is also comforting to know that the Wesley Foundation was able to offer comfort and support to its campus community this week. I add this little thought because there are some places where the discussion is to take the Wesley Foundation off campus. If the fears and the darkness of the world are allowed to rule the world, then where will students go for solace, comfort and support? The fears and darkness of the world will rule if we let it. And then the tragedy of last week will most definitely happen again.

If we listen to God, just as Ananias and Peter did, then we can carry the Word of God out into the world, we too offer the hope and promise of Jesus Christ to those without hope. And then the joy and peace found in Christ will happen again.
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(1) Revelation 5: 11 – 14
(2) My thanks to Andy Bryan (http://entertherainbow.blogspot.com/index.html) for first posting these comments
(3) Acts 9: 1 – 6 (7 – 20)
(4) John 21: 1 – 19

Is This The Beginning or The End?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.
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And God said to John the Seer, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In this simple statement at the beginning of John’s Revelation, God reaffirms that He is the beginning and the end. And as we enter this season of Easter and prepare for Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, we must ask ourselves the very simple question, “Is this the beginning or the end?”

Is this time the beginning or renewal of the church? Will the joy and hope stated on Easter Sunday be carried forth into the world? Or will this be the end of the church, both as we know it and as it should be?

Now, the church that I speak of is on several levels. There is the local church, the denomination, and the church in general. It is possible that there are some local churches for which this season is a very painful reminder that they are dying.

Such churches are losing members and live in a part of the country where the population is moving away. This is the case with many rural areas of our country. The people are moving away because there is no future in small towns with limited resources and equally limited opportunities. Churches in this area are getting “older” and everyone involved with such churches know that, when the last member dies or moves away to be closer to the family that left the area many years before, the church will close and a long history of community involvement and the preaching of the Gospel will simply be a matter for local historians.

And the denomination will say that it is a waste of time to put a pastor into such a community because there is essentially no community to support the pastor. I think this is wrong; I think this is one area where denominations need to think of how the early church developed and adopt similar techniques. What is to say that you can pick one or two pastors and locate them in central parts of this rural areas? Then give each of these pastors a motor home and let them drive to the areas where the people are and preach the Gospel. In other words, bring back the circuit rider. Use the motor home as a base so that the pastor can stay in one area for an extended period of time (say Thursday of one week to Tuesday of the next week with Wednesday used as a travel day). This way, people have the pastoral care they need and people will know that they have not been forgotten.

There are also some local churches that are dying but are in areas of population growth. These are churches that have to look at who they are and what they are saying to the community around them. A dying church in an area of growth is one filled with internal sickness, often caused by personality clashes and disagreements between members. These are the churches that we need to focus on, for if we do not, then any efforts to build new churches are going to fail as well.

Denominations must put resources into those churches that are losing members while the area around them is growing. This is often contrary to normal practices; churches that are dying should just be left to die and the resources that could be used to save them better spent on more worthwhile projects. But the people are there where that church is and the church must be where the people are, it is that simple. The problem is typically compounded because denominations often send in beginning pastors, pastors without experience and then leave them to their own resources. If they survive, they are rewarded with a more stable church. But if they are not successful, then there is a strong possibility that they will leave the ministry, haunted by the failure to turn around a dying church.

I think that we need to reward pastors for the good work that they do in building a church. But I also think that we need to identify such pastors and have them help those churches that are dying. To do this is going to take some serious reconsideration as to how pastors are assigned and who pays their salaries. The smaller churches get the younger, inexperienced pastors because that is all they can afford. But it is the experience pastors that are desperately needed in such churches. Since these churches cannot pay the salaries these pastors will require, the various denominations must work out a different type of compensation plan whereby salaries are paid in part by the central organization and in part by the local church. If we continue sending young or inexperience pastors into churches with problems, we are likely to see more and more problems. The solution is there if we are willing to see it.

On the denominational level, we are faced with similar problems. My denomination, the United Methodist Church, is showing a continuing decline in church membership. And I fear that the solutions that are being considered will do more harm than good.

Thomas told his fellow disciples and friends that he would only believe in the Resurrection when he was able to see and touch Christ. And when he does see and touch Christ, he is chided for his lack of faith. As Jesus says, “others will come to believe without touching or seeing.”

How are the others to do that? It will be because of what we say, what we do, and how we act in this world. The mission of the church as described in Acts is one where people of faith told others what they had seen and done. The book that describes the early church is called the Acts of the Apostles because it is a description of what the Apostles did, not just what they said.

And when the world looks at the denominations of the church today, what is it that it sees? It sees a body of people squabbling over matters that are not in the Bible while ignoring the very core issues of the Bible. It sees preachers in expensive suits and with extravagant life styles preaching a false gospel. The world today sees a church, both at the denominational level and the general church level, as hypocritical, bigoted, and exclusive. It reads in the Bible of a man who walked among the people and turned no one away, who challenged religious and political authorities to do the right thing, and who gave His life so that others could live.

This very well can be the end of the church, at all levels, if we are not willing to change. But if we are willing to change; if we are willing to lead the life that was the life of the early church, then this time has the chance to be the beginning of the greatest revival mankind has known since that first gathering some two thousand years ago.

Jesus spoke of each of us when He told Thomas that others will come to believe even though they had not seen the risen Christ.
They will come to know and believe because we are here to tell them of the miracles that Jesus has done in our own lives.

This can be the end but it also has the great opportunity to be the beginning. It will be up to us.

What Tomorrow Brings


I don’t know if this is historically or theologically accurate but this is how I have envisioned the first Easter Sunday.

No matter what the weather really was like, it was a dark, cold, and gloomy day for the disciples, followers, and family of Jesus. Having betrayed Jesus to the authorities and then being rejected by the same authorities, Judas Iscariot committed suicide and was now buried in a field as an outcast of both friend and foe alike.

It was just a matter of time before the authorities would start looking for the other eleven disciples. Having arrested and executed Jesus, it would be quite easy to do this.

Peter was in hiding from both his friends and those who had arrested Jesus. Fearful for his own life because of what they had done to Jesus, he did not think that he could find comfort and solace with those with whom he had spent the last three years. Having proudly proclaimed that Jesus was the Savior and having said that he would never deny Christ, he had done exactly that on the night of Christ’s arrest and ultimate execution. And he had not denied him once but three times. How could he ever face his friends or his family again?

The other disciples were also fearful for the life. Their leader, their teacher was gone and they would be the next to be arrested and executed as the authorities purged their little group.

It is hard to say how the women of the group reacted. The authorities, locked in their old ways, could never imagine that women would have or could have been treated as equals in the eyes of the Lord. But the women, no matter whether it was in the eyes of society or in the eyes of the God, still had their responsibilities of taking care of the body of Jesus.

The execution of Jesus had taken place at really the wrong time, so the body was taken from the cross and put into the tomb before it had been prepared. Now the women, in their grief and anguish had to finish the task that was theirs and theirs alone.

So on that first Easter morning, among the twelve and the other disciples, it was a dark, gloomy, morning. No matter where they were, they saw no future in the coming weeks. All the successes, all the joys, and all the wonders that they had seen and been a part of for the past three years were gone in an instant. They were lost in time because the religious authorities of Israel could not accept the idea that God would send His son and seek to bring hope to the world and challenge them to do the word of God. In a blatant abuse of power, the religious authorities put to death a man who challenged the status quo and brought hope to mankind.

And then the disciples heard that the women could not find the body. Apparently the body of Jesus had been stolen from the tomb, perhaps by the very same authorities who had put him to death. They had stolen the body to prevent the disciples and the people that would be known as “The Way” from claiming some sort of miraculous intercession by God. The authorities had stolen the body to drive another nail into the heart of the movement.

But then the word came. The women had seen Jesus and HE was not dead! And suddenly, all the words and the teaching that they had heard over the past three years began to make sense. All the words that Jesus had spoken about dying and being raised from the dead after three days were not just the words of a prophet but the words of the true Christ, the true Messiah.

And now a day that was gloomy, dark, and cold became radiant, warm, and the light was brighter than ever before. Christ had been resurrected and had conquered death. There was hope; there was a promise. The movement would not end but would grow because people would tell others about what they had seen and what they had did and how people had been healed of all sorts of illnesses. The words of Christ were true.

Today, in 2007, we are faced with many of the same thoughts that the early disciples faced. We hear that the tomb of Jesus had been discovered. We hear that Judas was not the betrayer of Jesus but rather a co-conspirator with Jesus to fake his death. Each Easter, someone else comes up with a new theory that will ultimately discredit the meaning of Easter.

But each theory is more complicated than the ones before. The rule in forming theories is to simplify, not complicate. And complicated theories don’t match the simple statement that Christ died, Christ was buried, and Christ has risen from the dead.

We are like the early disciples. The early disciples had seen the death of Christ on the cross that first Good Friday; they had seen His body taken away; and they had seen the evidence of the Resurrection, both in terms of the empty tomb and in terms of Christ Himself. They told others and they showed by their own beliefs, their own thoughts, and their own actions that Christ was alive and present in each one of them. Each year, others came to know what the early disciples knew because the early disciples had told the stories and what they saw. We tell the stories, not because we have seen what happened but rather because we have come to know in our hearts that it is true.

We have come to know in our hearts that there is a God and He cares for us as a loving Father. We know in our hearts that the Resurrection story is true and that Christ lives. We know this is true because we have felt the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and we have seen it work in others.

We are the ones who must pass the legacy of the Resurrection story to the next generation. We do not do it by brow-beating others but by simply telling what the story is. We do not do it by forcing belief but by showing that Christ is alive in everything we say and do. We are the representatives of the disciples; we are the ones who have inherited the story. We are the ones who must pass on the story.

Tomorrow brings another day, another week. Tomorrow bring another chance to tell the story. Tomorrow brings another chance to show that Christ is alive and that there is hope in this world. Tomorrow brings one more opportunity; shall we use it?

Where Were You On April 4, 1968?


Where were you on April 4, 1968? I was a senior in high school that year. And, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, it was a very interesting time.

That particular senior year started off the previous fall with our senior-dominated football team actually winning more games than it lost. It was not a championship team by any sort of the imagination but it was an improvement over the previous years.
It set the stage for the basketball season which we all knew would be a championship season. The previous year, we had come close but lost in the regional semifinals. The core of the team, all seniors, was back and we were certain that this was to be our year. The sports writers of the state had our team as the number one team in the state and everyone (students, parents, alumni, and interested supporters) was making plans for the trip to the state tournament.

But that was not to be the case. An injury to a key player changed the dynamics of the team and allowed a rather non-descript team from across the county to beat our team in the first round of the district playoffs. What had begun as a promising senior year slowly disappeared in the mists of defeat.

Typical of that year, our traditional river boat ride on graduation night was tempered by a torrential rain storm. What was supposed to be a night of celebration simply became a long and wet boat ride. And what should have been a joyous year of victory and accomplishment was washed away by a night of thunder and rain.

But all of that is meaningless when the events of April 4, 1968, are factored into the mix. You see, my high school was Nicholas Blackwell High School in Bartlett, Tennessee. And Bartlett, Tennessee is a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. Everything that we might have thought or planned changed that day with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I will admit that my mind was not on the struggles of the Memphis sanitation workers that brought Dr. King to Memphis. It is possible that the strike had no effect on my family since we lived out in the county rather than within the city proper. It would not be until later in life that I truly understood what brought Dr. King to Memphis. But I know that many of my classmates and their parents viewed Dr. King as an interloper and an outsider who had no business interfering in the affairs of Memphis.

The issues of race and poverty that brought Dr. King to Memphis were silent issues as far as the white citizens of Memphis and Shelby County were concerned. There would be no issue if no one would talk about it and if no one talked about it, then the problem would eventually go away. The white citizens of Memphis and Shelby County had no concern for the black citizens of Memphis and Shelby County. So why should others, such as Dr. King, show concern?

But through the lens of history, it is clear that these issues are like a malignant tumor that will grow and spread unless someone deals with them.

While I may not have been aware of the sanitation strike, I was aware how the subtle racism of the Mid-South affected my education. When I was a seventh grader in Montgomery, Alabama, I had to buy my textbooks from a book store. This was because the Montgomery school board was not going to fund textbooks if it meant that black school children were going to receive the same benefits as white students. But if you make everyone buy their own textbooks then everyone becomes equal; the only difference being that those who have the ability can buy new textbooks, the less fortunate must get by with used textbooks.

The Shelby County school board made sure that everyone, no matter whether they attended a black school or a white school, had textbooks. They just cut the funding for other things, such as chorus and band. If a band wanted new instruments or better uniforms, it was up to the parents’ association to get them. Thus school in high income areas had good instruments and fine uniforms; other schools weren’t so lucky. The effects of racism and years of neglect were probably harsher in the black schools but they impacted all the schools.

Life in Memphis the weeks following the King assassination were weeks of tension and fear. I had planned on earning some extra money keeping score in the Memphis Bowling Association Annual Tournament but the uncertainty about the situation caused each weekend’s events to be cancelled.

I am not sure if life in Memphis has changed for the better since that day in 1968. Oh, the white political machine that dominated Memphis and whose employment policies set the stage for the sanitation workers’ strike is long gone. But it has been replaced by a black political machine that is probably no better than the white political machine that it replaced. It still conducts politics as usual. Politicians line their pockets and the public pays the price.

Towns in Shelby County are still essentially divided by race and economic status. Only now the divisions are far more subtle than they were some forty years ago.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King spoke of seeing the Promised Land. He spoke of a future that would be free of racial and economic division. I did not hear those words when he spoke them because I was not listening. I was not listening because I was more focused on another task and I was not aware of what was transpiring.

Later that spring and summer, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the riots in the streets of Chicago would tear apart the last shreds of hope of which Dr. King spoke. Richard Nixon would be elected President of the United States on a platform of law and order (meaning a maintaining of the status quo) and victory in Viet Nam.

Since that time, it seems to me that we have drifted further and further away from the goals that were expressed during the early and mid 1960’s. We have wandered away from the goals of freedom and equality for everyone that this country was founded upon. In a country that was founded on religious freedom, the right of everyone to worship as they choose, we are increasingly becoming an intolerant and inflexible society. Instead of heading to the Promised Land, the land that Dr. King spoke of, we have turned our backs on that land and gone back into slavery in Egypt.

Though I may not have spoken out as I should have back then, I was beginning to be aware of inequalities in the world around me. And as I became aware I also heard Jesus Christ was calling to me. I heard His cries against oppression and injustice. I heard His cries against a religious community that worked in conjunction with an oppressive military-based dictatorship to enslave their people.

Today, April 4, 2007, I look around and I see religious leaders who call for war when Christ calls for peace. Today I look around and I see religious leaders who exclude people when Christ called for everyone to come to Him. Today I look around and I see the divide between rich and poor growing bigger every day instead of shrinking.

On the Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple and spoke out against those who would corrupt the work of God for their own benefit. What would Jesus do today with the megachurches and pastors with million dollar incomes?

I look around and wonder if we have forgotten what Jesus taught us? I look around and wonder if the words that Dr. King spoke are now just words for the pages of history and not the call for action that there were and continue to be.

I began by asking “where were you on April 4, 1968?” It is not important that you answer that question. It is more important to ask “where are you on April 4, 2007?” Are you with Christ, calling for action against those who would seek to increase oppression and injustice? Or are you with those who in a few days will stand in Pilate’s courtyard and do the bidding of the powers that be that seek to maintain the status quo and call for the crucifixion of Christ?

You may not have been aware of what transpired in Memphis some thirty-nine years ago but you are aware of what is transpiring today. Are you going to let it happen again?

A Degree of Irony


Here are my thoughts for Palm Sunday, 2007.
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There is a degree of irony in Palm Sunday being on April 1st this year. The tradition of April 1st as “April Fool’s Day” is supposed to have begun when the calendar was changed from the Julian version to the Gregorian version in 1582. Prior to that time, the beginning of the New Year was April 1st. With the changes in the calendar, the beginning of the year was moved backed to January 1st.

Those who continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1st either did not know of the change or refused to make the change. Others made fun of these two groups of individuals and thus the tradition of trickery on April 1st. It appears that there is no historical evidence to back this commonly held belief. One reason is that England did not make the shift to the Gregorian calendar until 1752 but April Fool’s Day was well established in England by that time. So there must be some other reason for the celebration of foolery that occurs on this day.

But more importantly, today is Palm Sunday and it is a celebration that transcends other events. But it is a celebration that we have a hard time understanding. We see it as some precursor to Good Friday and Easter Sunday but we know very little about what transpired on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. In a world where the celebration of Good Friday as a holiday has passed quietly away, we spend most of Palm Sunday focusing on the events of Good Friday without considering what Jesus did on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

The problem with the Gospel reading for today (1) is that we do not know what transpired that week. The passage from Luke takes us from the celebrations of Palm Sunday to the celebrations of Easter Sunday without knowing or understanding what else transpired during that fateful week. If we are not careful, if we do not read the other Gospels, then we are likely to forget why this week is so important. In moving from the celebrations of today to the crucifixion on Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, we forget the reasons why the religious authorities were so adamant about having Jesus arrested and put to death. The irony of it all is that if we do not know what happened on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday then we cannot understand what transpired on Thursday and Friday.

What happened during this week that is so much a focus of our lives as Christians? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem from the east on a donkey? According to Mark, it was Jesus’ intention to confront Roman imperial power and religious collaboration with it. While Jesus was entering the city from the east, Pilate was riding into Jerusalem from the west in a manner to symbolize and remind the people that Roman ruled the land. Pilate entered with a procession of troops and cavalry while Jesus entered on a donkey. This symbolism was to remind the people of Zechariah 9: 9 – 10 where the king of peace comes to us on a donkey who will banish war and strife from the land.

The contrast between the actions of Jesus and the church is very clear and it is very deliberate. For on Monday, Jesus cleanses the temple of the money changers. The religious authorities of that day had long collaborated with the Roman authorities and Jesus’ action of throwing out the money changers was a reminder that the temple authorities had turned the temple into a den of thieves.

On Tuesday, Mark writes a series of conflict stories that speak of the coming destruction of the temple. We are reminded that the authorities looked for some reason to arrest Jesus for such activities but they were unable to because the crowds protected Him.

We have, I think, all been lead to believe that the same crowds who cheered and supported Jesus during the week were the crowds who called for His crucifixion. But, as we read the account of that gathering we see that it took place in Pilate’s courtyard where ordinary people would not have access. Those who called for Christ’s crucifixion were supporters of the religious authorities and Pilate. It only makes sense that those who were opposed to Jesus would want to insure that Pilate get rid of the one man who threaten their very way of life. (2)

The irony of this week is that we haven’t learned what this week is about. Our political and more widely known religious leaders call for a restoration of moral values but only as it pertains to us. They somehow think that they are exempt from this call. Prominent politicians called for the impeachment of President Clinton because of his marital infidelity while engaging in the similar acts of marital infidelity. Pastors condemn homosexuality while engaging in the very acts that they condemn.

Jesus came as a servant yet many of the more noted pastors live lifestyles that make opulence look understated. Jesus came as the king of peace yet our leaders, both political and religious seek the establishment of another Roman empire. And the irony of it all is that we celebrate Palm Sunday but when the work week begins, we are like Peter, denying Christ as our Savior.

As Lent ends, let us remember why this week must be observed; let us remember that Jesus came as a servant and He asks us to be the same. Paul wrote to the Philippians and reminded them that Jesus sought to be a servant first, even though He had every right to be the One and Only King. (3) For us, it would be the best of ironies if we were to seek God through Christ and not reject him. It would be the best of ironies if we were to become the servant to others and let Jesus be the One and Only King.

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(1) Luke 22:14 – 23: 56
(2) Adapted from “Collision Course” by Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, Christian Century, March 20, 2007
(3) Philippians 2: 5 -11