I Thirst

Read John 19.28

The people who saw Jesus hanging on the cross would have had no trouble believing he was human. The words, “I thirst,” would not have surprised them as they watched him die a slow and painful death. It would have been more a struggle for them to believe that he was the One sent by God- God’s chosen Son-fully divine. If that be the case-how could he possibly be dying on a cross? How could he thirst? Human, yes… but Divine?

The Gospel according to John takes great pains to show that Jesus was divine. Repeatedly Jesus claims to be one with God the Father, that to know him is to know God. He speaks of himself as the Bread of Heaven, the living water. Following along in John, we come to the scene at the cross with almost the opposite expectation as the crowd gathered there that day. Jesus is divine, yes…but Human? Jesus is the living water, sure…but thirsty?

It is much easier for me to look to Jesus as the living water than to see his thirst. Much easier to imagine a God who is only a source of strength and comfort rather than a God who chooses to enter into our human experience – our thirst. A big part of me wants to tune out this painful cry, “I thirst,” and go straight to the joy of Easter, the triumphant shout, “He is risen.”

Jesus cries out, “I thirst.” I respond to this cry with a sense of helplessness. How difficult it is to witness someone in pain, someone crying out, particularly a family member or friend, or someone we care for. We want to do something about it, take away the pain, satisfy the need. Quench their thirst. We might search for something to say, something we can do and still wind up short. Still hear the cry, “I thirst.” Imagine Mary, the mother of Jesus, and how she must have felt hearing this cry knowing there was nothing more she could do but watch. What a sense of helplessness!

And yet, what a word of grace it is to know that when we thirst, when we long for the health and wholeness that continually escapes us- God is not only watching from a distance, but has through Jesus entered into our struggle. What good news! God is with us! We need not hide our thirst, our deepest needs, for fear that we are not worthy of God’s attention. In Jesus, God has noticed our needs, shared in our thirst.

I respond to the cry of Jesus, “I thirst,” with both a sense of helplessness that I can not take the thirst away as well as a sense of hopefulness that in Jesus, God shares my thirst, our thirst.

Madeleine L’Engle in her book Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage describes her struggle as she deals with her husband’s declining health and impending death. As she sits beside her husband who is sleeping a restless sleep in the unfamiliar hospital bed she writes,

I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.

In the darkness. In our thirst. In our deepest needs. God is with us. Amen.

A Peaceful Goodbye

Read John 14.25-31

Growing up, I used to watch episodes of the Lone Ranger. Each show ended in much the same way. The Lone Ranger rode into town, solved whatever problem needed solving and then, without so much as a word, then rode off into the sunset, leaving the grateful townspeople to gaze into the horizon and say, “We didn’t even get to thank him.” The Lone Ranger was not one for goodbye scenes.

Jesus is no Lone Ranger. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks at length with his disciples, preparing them for his departure. Again and again he calls them to remember all that has happened with him, saying “I am going away. Where I go you can not follow…A little while and you will no longer see me.” The disciples are confused, not yet understanding the reality of his impending death. Yet, some of it was bound to sink in. Jesus prepared them for the future, when they would make better sense of his departure.

Certainly the disciples are impacted by this “goodbye scene.” Some react by wanting to deny that it could happen, that Jesus could leave them.  Mostly, it appears, they were baffled, maybe with mixed feelings, wanting to believe the truth of his words, but deny the reality of their impending loss. Jesus die? How could this happen?

One of the most difficult things in life is saying goodbye. Whether we are leaving behind family and friends, losing a loved one to death, or facing the loss of our capacity to do the things we once were able to do. Many things happen that prompt us to say goodbye. Often that’s the last thing we want to do. We have a strong fear that letting go of something will leave such a void in our lives that we can’t go on.  Powerful fear that letting go of those we love will would leave us like orphans, vulnerable and neglected.

Jesus leaves his disciples with a promise. “I will not leave you orphaned.” His promise is that God’s spirit will not abandon them during their time of need, as they face their loss. Though they experience fear, he gives them the promise of peace. “Peace I leave with you.” This is more than a casual goodbye. “My peace is give to you,” says Jesus. The peace that he had to trust God even in the midst of pain and suffering. Even unto death on a cross. “My peace I give to you.”

As I read this “goodbye scene,” I wonder how I might have reacted had I been a disciple listening that day. I’m sure a fear of abandonment would have been strong in me. “What do you mean, you’re leaving? How can you leave me now, when things are just starting to get good?” I wonder if I would have even heard the part about the Spirit, with all the talk of leaving in the air.

No,  Jesus is no Lone Ranger. The promise of peace that he gives us makes it possible for us to face our goodbyes, not ride off into the sunset, or be left alone to ponder, “I didn’t have a chance to thank him.” 

Much of life, I think, is lived somewhere between these two goodbye scenes. The desire to ride off into the sunset mixed with the need to say goodbye. Our hope is that God does not leave us orphaned. God is close at hand. In God we live and move and have our being. This hope helps us to face the many losses in life with a kind of peace that allows us to say goodbye to an old way of life, hello to a new one. It doesn’t take away our fear, our confusion, our worry, but gives us strength in the midst of it.

I thank God that Jesus does not ride of into the sunset and leave us behind with the loose ends of a confused gratitude. Thank God for the Spirit of peace in the midst of our unsettledness, the spirit that helps us say goodbye, that moves us beyond our losses to the hope of new life. Thanks be to God.

A Healing Ministry

Read Luke 7.1-10

Healing is only a possibility, never a certainty. What it takes to be healed often remains a mystery to us, even with our best science and technology. Given this prospect, hope is mixed with doubt both for the one who wants to be healed and for those who desire to be agents of healing. We bring this mixture of hope and doubt with us as we look to the healing stories of Scripture for comfort and encouragement.

This centurion desires that his slave be healed. The centurion is one familiar with authority, subject to the authority of the Roman ruler, given the authority to rule over others. Interestingly, he does not use this authority to gain special privilege. He sends messengers who humbly request that Jesus say the word, and let his slave be healed.

Jesus responds to the man’s request. He comments that this kind of faith is rare, that this man, an “outsider” to the community of faith recognizes the God-given powers of Jesus when the people within the faith community do not. When the messengers return, they find the slave in good health.

It is easy to get caught up in the character of the centurion. He is a man who represents good authority. One who cares for those who cares for his needs. Slaves of this time were considered property. Many slave owners would have put a sick slave to death rather than troubling himself to care for him. The centurion in our story is clearly a man of compassion who does not let the class distinctions of his time cloud his vision to see a man who is hurting. The centurion is one who exercises authority well.

Also, the centurion is one who respects the dignity and authority of others. As an agent of Rome, he could have walked right up to Jesus and demanded the healing. Instead, he sends messengers with the humble request, “Just say the word.” He sees and respects the healing authority of Jesus.

I am always careful when I read about healings in the Bible. It is important, I believe, not to see them merely as fixed historical events, something that happened then that, unfortunately, no longer happens. This denies the reality of God’s spirit in our world today. Christ has given to us the ministry of healing, this is an essential part of the Gospel that is true now just as it was true then. Healing is an important part of the Gospel.

At the same time, we need be careful not to take a wrong turn that is easy to make. If we look at the faith of this centurion and conclude that because he had enough faith, his request was granted, his slave was healed, we might also take the turn of believing that if only our faith were greater, those we love and care for might also be healed. Certainly, in struggling with the illness and disease we face in ourselves and in our loved ones, this is a turn in the road we might want to take. We look for a reason for our illness, a reason that healing escapes us and sometimes wind up blaming ourselves. This is not, however, what the story tells us.

While we can not heal ourselves nor create healing in others, there is much that we can do to join God’s spirit in a ministry of healing. Like the centurion, we can become advocates for those whose needs often go overlooked. 

Also, we can recognize the importance of community in the healing event. Often it is myth we tell ourselves that we would rather be left alone when we’re sick. When I get sick I like to have space to spread out, to not have to feel like I’m entertaining someone, but the last thing I really want is to be left alone. It’s important to have the kind of company you can sit with and not have to do anything.

The good news is that we are not alone burdened with the responsibility for our own healing. We are not left alone to heal ourselves. Certainly, we play part, as we become aware of our brokenness and seek help, but we are also supported by others, by those who are given gifts to practice the healing arts, by friends and family who are for us. The challenge for us, I believe, is to see the healing authority coming not from within ourselves, but in Christ, from God, and through the love and support of the Spirit working among each other. Praise God for the gift of healing.

One Faith, Under God

Read Ephesians 4.1-16

There is a picture in my high school yearbook of our graduating senior class. We are all seated on the floor of the gym. The picture was taken from high up in the bleachers, with a wide angle lens. From the distance you can make out the outline of the number 82. Our bodies positioned together to form a large single image. If you could step into the photograph, however, you might find something else.

You might see the look of eager anticipation on the faces of the basketball players, preparing for the big tournament that night. You could notice the look of relief on the face of the student who had just gotten her final test back and would be graduating with straight A’s. In the back corner you might notice the tired look on someone’s face. Someone who had lost his parents in a car accident, who had been up late working at a body shop to earn his keep. If you looked real hard you could also see the anxious look of a young woman who found out last week she was pregnant, now plunged into a world of adult decisions.

You could see this if you step into the photograph. As it is, you can only make out the number 82, our identities held together in the scope of the camera’s eye.

The letter to the Ephesians speaks of unity. Unity is more than just an abstract concept, but a tangible expression of God’s Spirit living within and among us. The unity spoken of here is more than just the unity of a small band of folks who look and think and act alike. This unity in Christ breaks through the barriers we create out of our differences, leading us to a larger unity with all creation. This unity in Christ makes it possible for all to become fellow heirs, member of the same body, sharers in the promises of God.

Ephesians is a very upbeat letter. Unlike other letters in the Bible that seem written to respond to a particular conflict or struggle, Ephesians lays out some of the basics, the foundations of the Christian faith that are just as true now as they were then. These basics would have been familiar to the readers of this letter, many of the ideas being found in other letters of Paul. In Ephesians, however, these ideas and images are woven together that future generations might know the gospel even as Paul proclaimed it in his time, that the good news might give shape to their lives in faith.

Among these basics is the idea of unity. The early Christian church faced pressures to split apart. Varying groups and individuals within the faith community focused on different aspects of the faith, vied for power, and clung to competing loyalties. Many difficult questions were raised, “Do you have to first become a Jew to be a Christian?” “How do we care for the needs of our own and still reach out to others?” “Who among the apostles are we to listen to?”

It is important to remember that unity does not mean uniformity. We are not a body of members who all look and think and act alike. This is not our calling. This is made clear in the passage that immediately follows in Ephesians which talks about the diversity of gifts given to God’s people for the good of the body. Thank God we are not all eyes or noses, as it says elsewhere in the Bible, for “where would be the hearings?” Unity is not sameness, but persons with different gifts working together for the common good of the body.

Unity is easier to see from a distance, but it does not so much impact us on a personal level. The good news is that God is not only watch us from a distance. In Christ, God has become intimately involved in our experience. Involved in the messiness of our lives. Not just watching from a distance, where troubles and worries seem insignificant, but bound to our hearts, within our relationships where we might experience new hope in the midst of despair. Light in the middle of darkness.

Getting Into the Spirit

Read Philippians 4.4-13

Paul talks about rejoicing in his letter to the Philippians. We know that as Paul writes this letter, he is nearing the end of his life. His journeys in the faith are coming to an end. He is looking back over his career and offering a word of encouragement to a church, a community of faith, he cares about a great deal. The church at Philippi was the first church established by Paul on European soil. It is here that the Christian church is likely to live or die, to grow or diminish. Paul is writing to them from prison, awaiting trial.

Now wait a minute. Imagine this. Paul, sitting in a prison cell, not sure what his fate will be, persecuted for his faith, jotting down a letter that says, “Rejoice.” It seems odd. I could understand one that read, “Get me out of here.” Or “I was framed, “but Paul writes “rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Paul is writing to encourage the church which may well face some of the same challenges he has faced in his missionary journeys. It is likely that they will go through a period where people become hostile toward the church, that they will be isolated from friends and family in the community. The cost of being a Christian, of professing their faith is likely to increase and he is trying to prepare them for this.

Being a Christian means facing persecution in some form.  How can we prepare for these challenges? Paul says, “Rejoice.” The first step toward holding onto what you’ve got in the faith is to rejoice. Before we begin any program or develop any strategy, we must first rejoice. Rejoice. Celebrate. Singing and shouting and generally being glad to be alive. Rejoicing is remembering to praise God for the good things in life and doing it from your heart, with your heart, with your whole self.

Rejoicing can be a loud and vibrant activity. It may also be a more silent appreciation, giving thanks with a smile or a glint in your eye. One mistake many Christians make is to feel obligated to put on a happy face and try to make joy happen.  For some external expressions of joy come naturally. Others rejoice in quieter ways.

 The rejoicing that we do is not something that is removed from hardship and struggle, but goes on right in the middle of it. Some might believe that faith in Christ needs to be a neat gift-wrapped package with a bow on it, but we know as Christians, Christ was born a poor child born in the dirt and the mess of a manger. The beauty and meaningfulness of Christ’s birth,  his Incarnation, comes to us in the simple, earthy moments that are real, not in the glitter and glamour. Our rejoicing takes place where there is not only joy but sorrow, not only peace but worry, not only pleasure, but pain.

Rejoicing is not just something you feel, but something you do with what you feel. Rejoicing is something that’s done even when you’re short of breath, when you can’t carry a tune or speak a word, but you know that all you are and have is a gift from God. It’s not a big glorious production, but a heartfelt moment of thanks.

Often we view our troubles and concerns as threats to our serenity, something that robs us of joy. Yet it is only by honestly expressing our deepest longing to God in prayer that we can come to delight in the One who delights in us.

Rejoice in the Lord always. It is our biggest defense against when the world teaches us to be without hope.  It is our greatest hope that carries us through each day and helps us to hold onto what is good. Through Jesus Christ, who makes all things possible, even rejoicing in our suffering.

The Rule of the Shepherd-King

Read Jeremiah 23.1-6 John 18.33-37

These Bible readings are about two very different kinds of leaders. Jeremiah sends out a warning to those religious and political leaders who are leading people astray. The Gospel of John shows us Pilate and Jesus, two leaders of a very different sort, talking about what it means to be a king, a leader over the people.

Good leadership is something we desperately need in the church, and in our society as a whole. We are growing increasingly frustrated with bad leadership; a lot of people are giving up on the community, the church, and just trying to make ends meet for themselves.

Jeremiah writes, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter my sheep.” God is sending out a warning, through Jeremiah, to all those leaders who are more concerned about personal gain and position than about leading Israel in God’s ways. There are a lot of “bad shepherds” around who fail to watch over the flock, who are more caught up in their own careers than in the lives of their people. Israel is being torn away from its covenant with God, and the leaders are standing idly by, watching it happen, instead of watching over the people.

Sometimes I wonder how people get hooked into following after bad shepherds. I think there’s a part inside all of us that desperately cries out for direction, for meaning, for guidance. If someone comes along who has the qualities of a strong leader, someone who promises to fill this emptiness inside of us, we are tempted to follow even before we know where the leader is taking us. 

Jeremiah does not leave us only with the warning for bad shepherds, but points to the hope that God will restore Israel, that a Good Shepherd will come. We see this Good Shepherd in Jesus. When Pilate asked him if he had come to be king of the Jews, Jesus replies with something like, “Well, yes and no.” I’ve come to be king, but it’s not the sort of king you would expect. I don’t have a kingdom to protect by force or violence. My kingdom is the truth. I don’t have any turf, or self-interest that my followers have to guard.

In Jesus and Pilate, we have two very different leaders, with two very “different agendas,” you might say. Pilate is the person put in charge of the Jewish territory by the Roman government. This wouldn’t have been a very honorable position. Pilate no doubt wanted to climb the political ladder. To do that, he had to keep his nose clean. He wouldn’t have wanted a blemish on his record. Far from caring for the people, Pilate seems most concerned with protecting his own career, even if it means sending an innocent man to his death. Pilate is a good example of what Jeremiah points to as a bad shepherd.

Then, there’s Jesus. Jesus is willing to sacrifice himself for others rather than get all that he can and keep it to himself. Jesus is leader of a different sort. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. He isn’t looking out for self-interest. He isn’t protecting his turf. He doesn’t have to prove himself by force or violence. He is the Good Shepherd who comes to restore the people to God.

“My kingdom is not of this world, “says Jesus. Some people have read this line and assumed this means that Christians should not get involved in politics. Some take it even further and say you should have as little to do with the world as you can. Parents feel compelled to take their children out of public schools, to restrict their contacts with others, to visit with and get to know only those who share your interests and faith. Some respond to this passage by trying to get out of the world and live in a separate kingdom, off to themselves.

I can appreciate how people, and especially parents, have the desire to create a safe world for their children. The trouble is, however, that God’s kingdom comes to us in the midst of this messy world. We are called not to go off by ourselves, but to bring our faith, our light to the darkness in the world.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” God’s kingdom is not confined to this world, but through Christ, God’s kingdom meets our world. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray that God might continue to meet us on earth and through us, make the world a better place to live.

This may seem like a pretty big order, and it is. We could never do it on our own. None of us alone can be the Good Shepherd, able to feed and watch over all the sheep. But we don’t have to. Christ feeds us. Christ watches over us. Christ, who is our shepherd king, leads us in pleasant pastures, helps us sleep peaceable even though we have fears. God leads us and feeds us. Now and forevermore.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

 Read Daniel 7.9-14Mark 13.24-32

Apocalyptic visions come from God that have something to do with life-changing events to look for in the future and in the present. Some people think apocalyptic visions, or “Bible prophecies” are predictions of things that will definitely happen in the future. More than this, however, they also point to the present. God is saying to the prophets not just “Look, see what’s going to happen.” But also, “Look around see what is happening, now here’s where you’re heading if things don’t turn around.” Prophecies are more than fixed reality, but warnings designed to allow people to repent, to turn around and make a different future possible.

There are two equally wrong-headed responses to apocalyptic prophecy.  Some people panic and go around trying to interpret the signs of the times, convinced that the end is near, that Christ will return if not by the end of the week, surely before the year’s out. Then there are also those who ignore the warnings, and laugh at the idea the end of the world. We become overly confident that life as we structure it and have known it will continue for our children and our children’s children.

There is another way to respond to the texts rather than to panic or to hide. Prophecies are more than just predictions, but visions that call us to act. When Daniel faced the challenge of a world that did not value his faith, that asked him to compromise and give in, to go along with the crowd, he chose to remain faithful. For Daniel, the apocalyptic vision means God is still in charge even though it doesn’t look like it. God will restore the land; redeem the faithful, no matter how long it takes. The beasts, all that stands in the way of God’s good purpose, will be cast out. Their power taken away. This apocalyptic vision is not just a vision of doom and destruction, but hope. God is still in charge.

This was a great comfort to the early Christians. They experienced great persecution. Nero, the Roman ruler, who was known for standing by doing nothing while Rome burned, tried to blame this burning on the Christians. Christians faced cruel and unusual punishment. They could read Mark 13 and see some of their own situation in the suffering and chaos. They could take heart that God was still in charge even though these terrible things were happening.

Knowing that God is still alive and well, we are able to act whether we believe the end is near or far away. We can watch for the signs of the end and not get hung up about setting a date. Both Mark’s Gospel and Daniel’s vision challenge us to proclaim loudly the joyful news that Jesus Christ is coming again, and the world as we know it will come to an end. 

The lesson we learn from Daniel is that there is courage to be found in faith. We need not be paralyzed when things we’ve grown to rely on pass away. We can grieve our losses because we know that death and destruction are not the true end. God, who is merciful and just, has the last word.

As Christians, we need not hide from the realities of life and death, of worlds collapsing and coming to an end. We also don’t need to panic. We know that life goes on beyond death. In the midst of the chaos, we can sing, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and we have faith.” Like Daniel, we can have the faith to stand up under the pressure to give in when the world says, “Its okay, everybody’s doing it.” Faith to help each other through times of crisis, to sit beside someone in pain, someone who is dying, someone who is confused, because we know God is near us. Faith to repent from creating an early end for the world through violence and abuse of the land. Our faith gives us the courage to take steps nobody else would be willing to take.

When life seems cruel, we are tempted to look for signs that the end-time is around the corner that Jesus will return soon. Still, Mark’s Gospel tells us, “About that day or hour no one knows.” In the meantime we can look for signs of hope, indications that God’s promises are kept and that Jesus is with us now. Such signs call us away from passive waiting; we are to “Keep alert.” Like the doorkeeper waiting for the owner of the house to return from a journey, we have a job to do. Keep awake. Waiting and watching for God.