Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

While many in the U.S. will observe today as Halloween – a night for Jack-o-lanterns, costumes, parties, and “trick or treating” – our neighbors to the South will be observing a much more ancient tradition called “Dia de Los Muertes” – the Day of the Dead.  The Day of the Dead, originating in Mexico and observed to varying degrees throughout Central America, is a special celebration for honoring loved ones who have died, in hopes their spirits will return for a visit.  Families build altars in their homes, as places of loving remembrance, and they visit cemeteries for family feasts, and to decorate family tombs and grave sites.  Day of the Dead celebrations often include parades, feasts, decorations, and colorful skeletal costumes.

Probably, the most familiar image, to most, from the Day of the Dead is the “Sugar Skull” – images of skulls or skeletons, decorated with elaborated dress and beautiful flowers.

I’ve heard some say the Day of the Dead is evil, or morbid, or, at least, weird.  But, I love it!  If you ask me, Halloween is weird!  Whether Halloween is an opportunity to adorn a different persona, or self-indulge in parties and candy, or, at worst, glorify evil, it’s all a bit strange to me.  But, I think the Day of the Dead is kind of beautiful.

The Day of the Dead embraces death as an inevitable part of the life experience.  The Day of the Dead keeps the love and memories of the deceased alive in ritual form.  The Day of the Dead celebrates life!  The Day of the Dead imagines the distance between the material and spiritual world as being rather thin.

And, frankly, though the Day of the Dead traditions arose from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, aspects of the traditions feel very Christian to me….

  • We believe Christ has conquered death, and opened the gates to eternity.
  • Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” which I understand to mean the souls and spirits of those who have died in the Lord.
  • We believe in honoring the “saints” who have gone before us, and on whose spiritual shoulders we stand, whose lives deserve to be remembered.
  • We believe life is a gift to be celebrated fully.

No, the Day of the Dead is not, technically, a Christian holiday.  But, it is a rich cultural tradition, celebrating life, death, and the life after death.

In ancient times, Christian monks would keep the skull of a deceased and decomposed brother on their prayer desk, as a reminder of their own mortality.  Can you imagine praying, with the hollow eye sockets of a deceased brother staring at you?  Tibetan Buddhists sometimes meditate with prayer beads in the shape of tiny skulls, sometimes carved from yak bone, for the same purpose.

Death is a reality we inevitably face.  There’s just no escaping it!  Though Christians believe we will live forever, none will do so without passing through death.  While death is an enemy, in that it is the end of our earthly existence, it is also a defeated enemy, in that it is not the final ending of our eternal existence.  Really, death is nothing more than a transition from life to more life.  In some ways, death is akin to birth, passing from one existence to the next.

Dare we also say death can be a friend?  After all, death, if we will embrace it, reminds us that each and every day is a gift and blessing.  Death is a reminder to live every day on earth to the fullest, and strive not to waste even one.  And, death is a promise that when the struggles of this life are over – and some of us struggle a lot – there’s a better life waiting for us on the other side.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes, mis amigos!

Transcending Hell

Transcending Hell

“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop,
Within a yard of hell.” 

C.T. Studd

Some think of Hell as a literal place of punishment, awaiting sinners on the other side of death…

  • an eternal destination for the damned…
  • a deep abyss, beneath the earth….
  • a burning lake of eternal fire and brimstone…
  • a state of eternal torment and suffering, where there’s never-ending weeping and gnashing of teeth (what is teeth-gnashing, anyway?)…
  • the underground lair of the Devil and legions of demons…
  • unending, irreversible separation from God.

I’m increasingly doubtful of Hell as a post-life destination.  I just don’t read much evidence in Scripture to support Hell being more than a metaphor for eternal separation from God, which I do believe in.  I could be wrong.  Maybe Hell is a literal place.  I guess we’ll all find out, eventually.

To me, belief in an eternal Hell feels more like a threat, motivated by fear.  God doesn’t need threats to attract us.  God is good, and the offer of eternity with God is very good.  God doesn’t need the fear or threat of an eternal hell to motivate us.  That sounds a bit too mobster for me.

But, that being said, I do still believe in Hell.  Perhaps there is an eternal state of Hell, for those who choose it (for more on this, read C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce).  But, if Hell is separation from God, Hell isn’t necessarily a future destination.  Hell, for some, is a PRESENT reality.  Hell can be anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

Hell is anywhere a person feels cut off from God.  I don’t really believe anyone or anyplace – including Hell – is cut off from God, entirely.  Psalm 139:7 asks, Where can I go from your Spirit?Where can I flee from your presence?”  The answer?  “Nowhere!”  But, undeniably, there are times, places, situations, experiences in this life when a person might FEEL cut off from God…

  • When a victim is abused or assaulted.
  • When a person is trapped in addiction.
  • When trust is betrayed.
  • When a person is sliding deeper and deeper into depression.
  • When someone has lost their way, and keeps wandering farther and farther and farther astray.
  • When a person is belittled or dehumanized for their age, gender, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
  • When fear is greater than love.
  • When a person is a victim of injustice.
  • When lies speak more convincingly than Truth.
  • When a person is caught in endless, grinding cycles of poverty.
  • When EVERYTHING seems hopeless.
  • When a person is haunted by the sins of their past.
  • When it feels like there’s nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.
  • When a deepening darkness blots out the fading, dimming, failing light.
  • When pain – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – overwhelms.
  • When a person cannot escape the consequences of their sins.

I recall a recent conversation about the success of so many conservative, mega-churches, and how many have transitioned from being historically “traditional” to something much more modern and contemporary.  I wondered aloud if their success has anything to do with their belief in Hell?  I wonder if believing “lost” people go to an eternal place of suffering motivates members to “save” people, no matter what it takes, before it’s too late.  I don’t wonder.  I’m sure that’s the case.

But, what if the Hell people need saving from, most, isn’t in their future?  What if the “lost” are already in Hell, in this life?  What if the “saving,” lost people need, isn’t just from a future Hell, but a current and present one?

What if Hell exists in…

  • broken homes and families,
  • poverty-stricken neighborhoods,
  • brothels, strip-clubs, porn-studios, and red-light districts,
  • the bottles or needles of every addict,
  • loneliness – real or perceived,
  • racist/discriminatory attitudes, practices, and policies,
  • where the abuser’s hand touches the victim’s flesh,
  • unsafe school yards,
  • the bully’s threats and verbal assaults,
  • corrupt, unjust governments and leaders,
  • the hearts of many men and women, children and teens, young and old, friends and family, neighbors and coworkers,
  • prisons, homeless shelters, mental hospitals,
  • the minds of the mentally ill,
  • the bodies of the sick and dying,
  • the news of a tragic death or suicide,
  • broken, betrayed hearts…

What if the person/people we live with, work with, ride the bus with, eat lunch with, do business with, is/are currently living in a Hellish state, and we don’t even realize it?  What if they desperately need us to realize it?

What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to rescue people from their current Hell; not to avoid their Hell, or to stand back and judge them for it?   What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to set people free from their current Hell, and to invite them into a new, better, godly reality?  What if our job is to be Heaven on Earth, even in the midst of the Hell people are currently enduring?  What if our job is to enter the Hell of others, while remaining deeply anchored in a higher spiritual reality?  What if our job is to find them in Hell, and lead them out?

What if Hell isn’t an eternal state, but only lasts as long as a suffering person must wait for you or me to crash down the gates, keeping trapped inside.

What if our job, Christians, isn’t to avoid Hell, but to dive into the thick of it, shining our light into the inky darkness, releasing the prisoners and rescuing the captives, transcending Hell together, into God’s glorious light?

Transcend:

transitive verb

1ato rise above or go beyond the limits of

bto triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of 

cto be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)

2to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality, or power

intransitive verb

to rise above or extend notably beyond ordinary limits

Who do you know currently residing in Hell?  What are you going to do about it?

Another question to ponder, Church:  based on my definition of Hell, have we (The Church) done more rescuing FROM Hell, threatening WITH Hell, or treating people LIKE Hell?  Think about it.

 

You will see me…

You will see me…

I’m spending this week, away from the office, reading and researching for upcoming sermons and series (hopefully for the entire coming year!).  Among the books I am reading is Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s, Made for Goodness: and Why This Makes All the Difference.  Each chapter ends with a brief, moving meditation.  Though there’s much I could share from Made for Goodness, and will in upcoming sermons, I feel particularly moved to share a portion of a meditation I just read….

When you stop running from the pain

And turn to face it,

When you step into the agony and let it be,

When you can turn to your own suffering and know it by name, 

Then you will see me.

You will see me in the heart of it with you.

It doesn’t matter if your body is wracked by pain

Or your mind is spiraling through the aches and anguish.

When you stop running you will see me.

Though I certainly don’t wish you suffering or pain, both are realities we all face and endure at some point in our lives.  If that day is today, if this is your season of suffering, may you find some comfort and direction in these words.  More – may you find God in your suffering.  May you see God in your suffering.

God is with you.  You’re not alone.

Hypocrisy and mourning

Hypocrisy and mourning

The Bible doesn’t say much about the Saturday between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke 23:56 says, “But (Jesus’ followers) rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

John and Mark don’t mention anything about Saturday, at all.

But, Matthew 27:62-66 says, The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.  ‘Sir,’ they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’  So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.  ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’  So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

Notice the difference?

On the Sabbath day, between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the followers of Jesus rested – as is the intent of the Sabbath – while the priests and Pharisees were hard at work, sealing the tomb of a dead man.

Work on the Sabbath, violates the Fourth Commandment.

Obviously, Jesus’ followers were exhausted, brokenhearted, mourning, and possibly afraid to be seen in public.  Their Sabbath, wasn’t a joyful one.  But, the contrast between the two groups is stark.  In spite of successfully defeating Jesus (or, so they thought), the priests and Pharisees were still “working” against him on the Sabbath.

“But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'” (Isaiah 57:20-21)

Which makes me wonder.  When Jesus and the disciples observed the Passover, the night before the crucifixion, did the priests and Pharisees?  Or, were they too busy for the Passover, plotting, planning and preparing for Jesus’ arrest?  Even if they took the time to eat the Passover meal, were they paying attention to the story?  Or, did they gobble it down in haste, mumbling the prayers, and then on to carrying out their evil mission?

Not observing the Passover, violates one of Israel’s most holy days.

No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.

The literal definition of a hypocrite is someone who lives behind a mask.  They present an appearance that does not match the true intention.  Thus Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed” tombs – clean on the outside, but full of death.

The experts in the Law, broke the Law.  But, the ones considered law breakers, by following Jesus, were actually much closer to the heart and spirit of the Law, even in their grief.

Then, on Easter morning, when the tomb was miraculously opened, “When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’  So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”  (Matthew 28:12-15)

Lies, and more lies.  Isn’t there a commandment about that, too?

But, in spite of their lying, and bribing, and scheming; in spite of their very best efforts to supress the Truth; in spite of having an innocent man put to death; even sacrificing their own Laws and customs as they did it; there was nothing the priests and Pharisees could do to thwart Jesus’ mission.

They killed him.  That was Jesus’ plan.

They violated the Passover.  Jesus was the Passover.

They lied.  Jesus is the Truth.

They tried to seal a dead body in a tomb.  The grave couldn’t hold him down.

They worked on the Sabbath.  So did God, defeating death and raising the son.

They thought they’d won.  The victory belongs to Jesus.

And, while all of this was happening – the Pharisees scurrying and Jesus’ followers mourning – Jesus lay in his grave.  Dead.  Wrapped in strips of linen, laid on a cold, hard slab of rock.  Hidden, in the dark, behind a large stone.  Even in his death, the Pharisees felt threatened.

Imagine – just imagine – if any of them knew what was about to happen.

 

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.  But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.  (Luke 23:44-49)

Jesus died in the dark.  In the middle of day, when the sun was supposed to shine, from noon to three, a deep darkness shrouded the whole land.  The sun wouldn’t shine.

Just as, “In the beginning,” when the earth was a dark, formless, chaotic mass, before God said, “Let there be light,” as Jesus hung on the cross, the earth was plunged, once again, into chaotic darkness.  Which is strange, because Jesus came to be a light in the darkness.  At Christmas, we read…

  • The people walking in darknesshave seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)
  • The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5)

Yet, that Friday, it seemed darkness had overcome the light, overwhelmed the light, snuffed out the light.  The light of the world – the innocent, sinless, Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world – was crucified by evil men.

They’d conspired.  They’d told lies.  They’d taken advantage of the weakness and greed of one of Jesus’ own trusted inner circle.  And, now, the miracle worker and so called, “King of the Jews,” was defeated.  Darkness won, or so it appeared.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            We often, rightly, associate darkness with evil.  Evil deeds are done under the cover of darkness.  But the darkness on Good Friday was NOT the darkness of evil.  Though dark deeds were done, this darkness was something else.

What was this darkness?  This was the darkness of the Father’s grief, watching his beloved son suffer and die.  This was the darkness piercing the heart of God, as the Holy Trinity experienced the separation and death of the Son.  This was creation reacting to the evil done to its creator.  The sun, itself, refused to shine on this dark day.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            Lent, and especially Holy Week, is a darker season of the Christian year.  During Lent, reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and his sacrificial death for our sins.  Lent is for repentance, confession, self-denial, and self-examination.   Compared to Christmas and Easter, Lent is meant to be darker.

But, this particular Lent, here in Coral Springs and Parkland, has been much, much darker than usual.  Some have referred to the February 14 tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School as the “Valentine’s Day” tragedy.  It was also Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.  Some will always associate the Stoneman Douglas tragedy with future Valentine’s Days.  Not me.  I’ll always remember it on Ash Wednesdays.  For me, Ash Wednesdays will never be the same.

That Ash Wednesday night, as we gathered in the immediate aftermath, we marked our foreheads with ashes, in the form of a cross, as a reminder of our sin, mortality, and absolute dependence on God.  “From ashes you have come.  To ashes you will return.”  But, that night, as the dead were still lying where they’d fallen, as the injured were being treated, and many parents were still separated from their children, and as the names of some of the dead had not yet been announced, the cross-shaped ashes we wore also represented our terrible grief and lament.

For the families and friends of the seventeen who died, for the families and friends of the seventeen who were injured, and for our whole community, these forty days of Lent have been undeniably dark.  Darkness has covered the land, here, too.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            As Jesus hung on the cross, in the darkness, he was bearing on his shoulders the darkness of sin, and the brokenness and evil of the entire history of this world.  In some way, defying comprehension, Jesus’ death, even includes the darkness of our own recent and the dark and difficult days that have followed, here, for us.

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that God is with us when darkness crashes over us.

Martin Luther King preached, “We must also remember that God does not forget his children who are victims of evil forces…  When the lamp of hope flickers and candle of faith runs low, he restoreth our souls, giving us renewed vigor to carry on.  He is with us not only in the noontime of fulfillment but also in the midnight of despair.”

And, in his final moments Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last. 

            At last, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, his ordeal was over.  The Son of God was dead.  For the moment, darkness defeated the light.

There is a phrase used at many funeral and memorial services, that says something like, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…” adopted from the final words on Jesus’ lips.  I didn’t attend the funerals of the seventeen who died, but I’m certain some version of that phrase was said – pastors, priests, and rabbis committing the souls of the innocent to our heavenly Father, just as Jesus offered his.

            “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Undeniably, Jesus’ ordeal was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long, sleepless night– full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; the abuse and mockery of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds shouting, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, nearly killing him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders already flayed by the soldier’s whip.  All before he was nailed to the cross.

When he came to Golgotha, long nails were driven through his hands and feet, affixing him to the cross.  And, then his cross was raised, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he suffered unspeakable agony, as life slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung on his cross, his disciples abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As darkness covered the land, he may have wondered if God abandoned him too.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to be at peace.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            As Jesus died, he was in control.  The casualty of terrible human cruelty, yet Jesus was no victim.  Dying in the darkness, yet nothing could extinguish his light.  Dying because he chose to give his life for us, sacrificially.  Satisfied, that he accomplished what he came to do.

John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

            And, Jesus said these words in a “loud voice” – not an embarrassed whisper, or pathetic whimper, or mumbled in weakness.  He wasn’t a scared child, calling out in the dark.  In his strongest voice, Jesus proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; spoken in strength and confidence in the one who would receive his Spirit.  Even as his physical strength faded, his faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, HE KNEW he could entrust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, into the faithful hands of his Heavenly Father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Most images of Jesus on the cross, depict him with head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the majority of the time Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold up his head.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him, as he hung in the darkness.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

In the darkness of Good Friday, his eyes were focused and clear.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            I wonder when the sun shined again.  Did the sun return that day, after Jesus was taken down from his cross, or did the darkness remain, as afternoon passed into the night?  Was it dark, when they laid Jesus in his tomb?  Did the sun rise with the dawn on Saturday morning, or did dark clouds linger that day too?  Whether the sun literally shined, or not, until the empty tomb was discovered on Easter morning, while Jesus lay dead in his grave, the world was dark a place.

But, Easter morning, the darkness lifted.

Dr. Martin Luther King also said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Great Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

For a dark moment in history, darkness appeared to win.  And, undeniably, for some, the darkness of this year’s Ash Wednesday will never pass, not in this life.  The darkness of grief will always be with them, in this life.  And, that is tragic.  This life, this world, as we know, can be filled with terrible darkness.

But, light has overcome the dark.  Death was confronted in the darkness, and was defeated.  We may endure too many dark Good Fridays, in this life.  But, the dawn of Easter is coming.

 

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Shock and Disbelief…

On Wednesday, as I was running errands, several emergency vehicles passed me at high speed, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, heading northwest to Parkland.  Shortly after, I stopped by my house, and could hear helicopters in the distance.  My next-door neighbor was standing in her yard, visible shaken – trembling, actually – and told me there was an active shooting happening at the High School. Texts started pouring in.  The news reported seventeen “injured.”  I sat for a few moments in utter shock and disbelief.  “This can’t be happening!  Again.  Here.”  I could still hear the helicopter’s blades, within walking distance from my home.

I flashed back to Columbine, way back in 1999, and the shock I felt then.  I’d never imagined anything like that could happen – at a school, of all places – or could ever happen again.  But by now, “Columbine” is synonymous with the many school tragedies that have happened since.

But, “Columbine” was 2000 miles away.  Virginian Tech, West Nickle Mines, Sandy Hook – tragedies, but so far away.  And, there’ve been countless others we’ve forgotten, on campuses and off.

Now, our own Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been added to the list.

Shock.  Disbelief.  Fear, anger, outrage, grief.

How could this happen?  How could this happen here?

 

Wishing for Lions…

            Revelation 5 paints a picture of God’s throne in heaven, high above the violence and chaos of this world.  God asks, “Who is worthy?” to open a scroll, foretelling events yet unknown.  When no one was found, Revelation 5:5 says, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

This, of course, is the risen Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, who conquered death, dying on the cross, but rising from the dead.  Death is the ultimate enemy of humanity.  No one has ever conquered death. No one, except the Lion of Judah.

When tragedies, like this, occur, we turn to God.  I did on Wednesday.  I immediately prayed for the protection of everyone at that school.  I prayed for the first responders.  I prayed for the families who couldn’t get to their children.  I prayed that the reports of injuries were only injuries, not fatalities.  I prayed for the incident to end as quickly and as peaceably as possible.  I prayed God would prowl through the halls of Douglas High School like a triumphant, powerful, fearless lion, to save the day!

When tragedy strikes, I pray for God to move in power.  In the words of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!  How the mountains would quake in your presence!” Isaiah 64:1

            I want the God who sent plagues on Pharaoh.  I want the God who parted the Red Sea.  I want the God who defeated armies.  I want the Jesus who drove out demons.  I want the Jesus who calmed the storm.  I want the Jesus who raised the dead.  I want God to show up in power, defeating evil, saving the innocent.

Psalm 18 says, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.  The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry.  Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.  He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet… The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.  He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.  The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”

That’s the God I wanted Wednesday.  A God who intervenes.  I wanted God to be like Superman, to swoop down and save the day.

But, when the day was over, seventeen were dead, fourteen injured, the assailant in custody, families traumatized, and a school, community, and nation in shock.

I’ve no doubt God was in the bravery of the students, faculty and staff, in the first responders, and in the comfort of family and friends.  I’ve no doubt God was present in the worship services and prayer vigils.  I’ve no doubt God has been present in acts generosity.  I’ve no doubt God is here, with us, now.

But, I suspect we’d give all of that up in exchange for God saving those seventeen lives.

 

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…

            According to the Bible, God has moved powerfully in history.  Yes, the Lion of Judah triumphed over death.  But, the following verse, in Revelation 5:6ff, says, Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The Lion of Judah appeared as a wounded, sacrificial lamb – not a lion.  The one who is worthy, is the one who was wounded – wounded for our transgressions; for our sinfulness; for our rebellion; for our disobedience; for our brokenness; for me; for you; for Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas; wounded for the sins of the world.

Worthy is lamb who was slain.  Worthy is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

God’s greatest act in history – when death was defeated – looked in every way like weakness, tragedy and defeat.  No one at the cross saw a roaring lion.  And, yet, on the cross, true power and greatness were revealed.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “God’s distinctive greatness is revealed precisely in powerlessness… God consciously revealed himself in the powerlessness of Nazareth and Golgotha. Thus, it is not the one who can destroy the most who is the most powerful…but, on the contrary, the least power of love is already greater than the greatest power of destruction.” 

Henri Nouwen wrote, “In Christ we see God suffering – for us. And calling us to share in God’s suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.” 

            Isaiah 53:2-3 says, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  (Isaiah 53:2-3)

As we now know firsthand, we live in a world filled with senseless violence, tragedy, and death.  This isn’t the first, the only, or the last tragedy.  We know that.  But, this is OUR tragedy!  As people of faith, we may wonder where God is when tragedies occur.  Where was God last Wednesday?  If he doesn’t come in power to intervene, where is he?

The cross is God’s answer.  The wounded Lamb is God’s answer.

            Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah 53:2-6

            “By his wounds we are healed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The Cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go to in order to restore broken community.” 
            One of my seminary professors, Richard Hayes, writes, “God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down.”

God rarely shows up in force, at least as we see it.  God rarely comes like a roaring lion.  God comes as a wounded, sacrificed lamb.

`           Where was God last Wednesday?  God was with the pain.  God was with the suffering.  God was with those students, faculty, staff, and families huddled in fear.  God was with the dying.  God is with the injured.  God is with the grieving.  Wherever there is pain, suffering, fear, grief, God is there – holding us together, whispering words of comfort, promising that one day all will be made well.

One day all will be well – but, not yet.  Until then, he suffers with us in our sorrow and our pain.

 

Reconsidering the Cross

Though my thoughts and emotions are scattered, I keep returning to a single thought.  In light of this tragedy, and so many others like it, so many things seem so small and insignificant now.  The things I fret over daily, pale compared to what we’ve lost.

But, as so much seems smaller, and less important, the cross looms larger, and more important, than ever before!

How often do we talk about the cross as the place Jesus died to make me a better person?  How often do we talk about Jesus dying to save me from my bad habits?  How many times do we think of the cross as the antidote for our insecurities and low self-worth?  How many times do we treat the cross like a charm, as protection from bad luck?  How many times is the cross little more than a fashion accessory to our otherwise unspiritual, worldly lives.

Yes, Jesus cares about small things.  But, the cross is so much bigger.

When Jesus hung on the cross, by all appearances defeated and destroyed, he was dying for the sin of the entire world – yours, mine, everyone’s.  He sacrificed himself so that the most broken stuff of this world could be restored.  He was wounded to make us whole.  He was wounded so that days like February 14, 2018 will not define history.  On the cross, he carried the weight of every sin, of all pain and suffering, of every tragedy – including ours.  With the 17 victims, Jesus was wounded too – with them, for them.  He was wounded to make ALL things new.

He didn’t die to make things better.  He died to make them NEW!

We may want a lion, to intervene in moments like this.  God knows that.  But, God knows we need a wounded Lamb, to be with us suffering; to carry our suffering, to redeem our suffering, to ultimately save us from our suffering.  Wherever there is pain, darkness, and suffering, Jesus is there, bringing hope, restoration and redemption.  Hopefully that is a comforting thought.

But, I also hope we can hear the whisper of the wounded Savior calling to us, the Church, “If anyone wants to be by follower, if anyone wants to claim me as Lord and Savior, they must deny themselves, pick up a cross and follow me, to join me in the dark, and the suffering, and the pain, to make this world new again!”

While we would do anything to turn back the clock, to stop the evil, to bring back the dead, we can’t.  There is evil in this world, and terrible tragedies happen.  God doesn’t always stop them – that is undeniably true.  But, God has entered our darkest suffering, and is with us.

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain — to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing…  Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”