Archive for March, 2012

Statue of the Crucifixion of Jesus outside of ...

Statue of the Crucifixion of Jesus outside of campion hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a sermon for Holy Week.  It was written for the first Passion Sunday after Hurricane Floyd devastated our region in the fall of 1999. 

The Last Cry

A Sermon on Mark 15: 33-39

Christ Jesus had to labor for every breath.  He was already weak and dehydrated when they nailed him to the cross.  Blood was oozing into his tissues and out of the cuts that covered his skin.  Jesus hurt everywhere.

Like every crucifixion victim, Jesus sagged low on the cross.  But then, because of the position he was hanging in, he couldn’t exhale.  So he would have to push himself back up on the nail through his feet.  Once his shoulders and arms were straight again, he could grab a few breaths.  But then the weakness and the pain in his feet would overcome him, and down he sank again.   A Roman commander, the centurion posted to supervise the crucifixion, watched as this process repeated itself again and again.   He had observed many executions.   Except for the poor condition of the man in the middle, Jesus, everything seemed routine.

Jesus had to struggle for the breath to groan or to gasp out even a few words.   That’s why everyone was startled when he cried out in a loud voice, “My God!  My God!  Why have you abandoned me?”  Where did the breath come from?  Where was God?  Had God severed all connections with his Son?  Some of the bystanders thought Jesus was calling for aid from Elijah, and proceeded to taunt him about it: “Let’s see whether Elijah comes to help him!” they sneered.

Moments later, Jesus gathered all his remaining strength, and straightened once more.  He poured out the his last breath in a loud, wordless cry.  Then he sank into silence, dead.

At that moment the heavy curtain that concealed the innermost holy sanctuary of the temple from human eyes was ripped apart from top to bottom. The place representing the center of God’s presence was laid open for all to see.

At that same moment, the Roman centurion exclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”  He had seen many crucifixions, and he had never seen this before.  Something in Jesus’ cry instantly ignited his faith.  But what was it?  What was in that cry?

What was in that cry was God’s own cry of anguish and grief.  God’s heart was torn open with that cry, just as the temple curtain was torn open.  In his death cry Christ Jesus revealed the pain in God’s heart.

From the cross Jesus could see way beyond Jerusalem.  Jesus saw all the way to the ends of the earth, and all the way to the end of the age, and all the way down into the deepest hell of the human condition.  And the Son of Man cried out for all of us.  He took all of our guilt and all of our pain into his body.  He took all of our cries into his own.

From the cross Christ cried out for every person who has been humiliated, for every person crushed unjustly, for every sinner and for every sin that has botched our lives.  He cried out for everyone whose hope is exhausted, for everyone who has felt abandoned by God.

From the cross Christ cried out for every widowed spouse, awake and lonely in the night, for every parent who has had to cradle a dead child, for every person who has had to cope with sickness or pain or weakness, for every brokenhearted family.

From the cross, Christ Jesus cried out for every single person whose body lies in a mass grave in Uganda or Yugoslavia, for the families of every single one of the 58,000 people named on a great marble gash in the earth in Washington D.C., for their lost lives, and for those of row upon row upon row of soldiers interred in Flanders Field and Normandy, and on and on…

From the cross Christ cried out for shocked families surveying great piles of what used to be their homes and possessions, now putrid and infectious due to flood water.  From the cross he cried out for the pain of people everywhere.  From the cross Christ cried out for those who can’t cry any more.  From the cross Christ cried out in a loud voice, and the temple curtain was ripped open.

The loud cry of Christ is the cry of God.  It is an angry, agonized NO! to sin and every form of evil and death.  And it is an aching, compassionate YES! to humanity.  Christ’s wordless cry reveals a longing for us beyond words.

Not one gasp of pain, not one tear escapes his eye.  On the cross Christ has drawn every sin and every hurt into his heart.  He has descended into hell.

Jesus sank into death, into the silence of Saturday.  For most people, the Sabbath and the Passover festival went on as though nothing had happened.  But Jesus’ disciples’ hearts were heavy with guilt, torn with grief.  It was time to cry.

It is time for us to weep.  It is time for us to cry with Christ our God, for our own sins, and for the sins of the world; for our own pain, and for the pain of the world.

It is time to cry…

Wait, disciples of Jesus, Peter and John, Mary Magdalene and all the rest.  Wait, people of God.  For the Third Day is coming, when God will bless you with cries of joy.


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'5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross' photo (c) 2009, AJ Alfieri-Crispin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Here is a sermon one could preach on Passion Sunday, or adapt for Holy Thursday or Good Friday:

“I Am Available!”

A Sermon on Mark 15:21

All of a sudden, Simon of Cyrene found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time!  We don’t know when or how Simon had traveled from Cyrene, Northern Africa, to Jerusalem.  We don’t know whether he had just recently arrived as a pilgrim for the Passover Festival, or whether he was an immigrant, a resident alien.  We do know that Simon was on foreign soil and there he found himself where he never, ever expected to be: in the middle of three criminals on their way to being crucified.

Simon happened to be heading into town just when the Roman execution detail was leading the criminals out of town to the Place of the Skull.  Like all condemned to crucifixion, the prisoners carried the horizontal crossbeams on their shoulders.  It was obvious that one of the prisoners, Jesus, wasn’t going to make it without help.

Impatient to get on with it, one of the soldiers singled Simon out of the crowd.  Did Simon stick out as an outsider perhaps?  “You there!  Get over here and carry this man’s cross!”  It was an order Simon couldn’t refuse.  At any time and for any reason, Roman soldiers could compel anybody to carry their gear.  In the wrong place at the wrong time, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry a humiliating burden.

Where was Simon Peter?  Where were the rest of Jesus’ disciples?   Not available!  And this was after Simon Peter had declared, “I will always be available.  I will never deny you!  I will always be there even if I have to die with you!”  All the others had said the same thing.  But what happened?  As soon as Jesus was arrested, as soon as they were at risk, they all left him and ran away.

Simon Peter tried to follow at a safe distance, just to see what would happen.  Three times people recognized him as one of Jesus’ followers, but every time he denied it.  Where were the people who claimed to love Jesus, who claimed they would go “with him, with him all the way?”  Sorry.  Not available.  Instead of denying themselves and taking up the cross, they denied Jesus and left him to carry the weight alone.

It was more than the literal weight of the crossbeam.  It was the weight of everything that oppresses humanity.  It was the weight of suffering, of sin, of every terror, of everything harmful.  It was the weight of death.  All this weight Jesus took on himself in order to heal us.  This load was his call.  It was his mission.

In Jesus Christ, God made himself totally available to humanity, available even unto death, so that we can live.  This meant pain.  This meant loneliness.  Jesus needed his friends.  He needed them to stay awake with him as he sorrowed in the garden.  But they fell asleep on him.  He needed his friends to travel the way of the cross with him.  But they ran from it.  He needed his friends to help him carry the load of the cross.  But they weren’t available.

That first Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples were just plain afraid.  They went into self-protective mode.  But fear isn’t the only thing that prevents Jesus’ disciples from being fully available to him.  Fear isn’t all that makes us shy from the cross.  Sometimes our hands are just too full of other things to help Christ carry his load: “I see your need, Lord.  I see where somebody needs to act on your mission.  But my hands are full.  Maybe I can help after I get all my own business taken care of.  Call me again when I’m not so busy.” (more…)

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'110317_DM_LSC_0403.jpg' photo (c) 2011, U.S. Department of Agriculture - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Stewarding the land and its creatures is a critical spiritual practice.  Farming and gardening are holy callings, and many of our congregations are in just the right place to cultivate these callings and nurture those who practice them.  While it’s not hard to imagine how our rural congregations might incorporate this into their missions, our urban and suburban congregations can get involved as well.

I have just discovered an interesting web site called Sustainable Traditions that focuses on practicing faith through sustainable agriculture and sustainable living in general.

Here is the overview from the “about” page:

“Sustainable Traditions is an invitation to embrace the wholeness, the shalom of GOD’s kingdom, as released through the life, death and resurrection of JESUS. We seek to live into the reality of the Age to Come in this ‘present Evil Age’. We seek to be a voice in these turbulent times calling the Church at large to abandon ‘consumer Christianity’ and to embrace the call to ‘practice resurrection’ wherever we may find ourselves.”

Here are a couple of posts to get you started:

Interview With Ragan Sutterfield, author of Farming As a Spiritual Discipline.

Congregational Supported Agriculture, which details a variety of ways in which congregations are involved in farming and gardening.

As God guides the church into the future, forming new congregations in urban areas may not be God’s only strategy for reaching people.  God may also have big ideas about how small congregations in rural areas and small towns can find new life in caring for creation and all its inhabitants.  This is definitely mustard seed spirituality.

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'ripe Japanese maple seeds' photo (c) 2006, liz west - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Here is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B:

Unless A Grain Falls…

A Sermon on John 12:9-36 and Philippians 2:5-11

The hour was upon Jesus.  The showdown between Jesus and the authorities was at hand.  “It’s out of control!” the Pharisees said as they watched the crowd that went to meet Jesus on Palm Sunday.  “The whole world is going after him!”  People were eager to see Jesus, and eager to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

The authorities considered Jesus a grave threat to national and religious security.  The raising of Lazarus had clinched their resolve: Jesus must die.  As Caiaphas the high priest put it, “Better this one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.”

Why couldn’t the spiritual leaders of the people of God recognize and welcome the Son of God?  It boils down to this: they didn’t want to let go.  They didn’t want to open up to a fresh word from God.  They didn’t want to let go of insider status.  Knowing that the Roman authorities quickly pounced on any source of unrest, the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees didn’t want to risk the “working arrangements” they had with the Romans.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  It was in the interest of the leaders in Jerusalem to secure the status quo.  And, they declared, it was also in the national interest.  The status quo is where the powerful stay in power, the comfortable stay comfortable, the Romans stay satisfied, and the dead stay dead!  Lazarus would have to be put to death, too, of course!

The whole world was beginning to go after Jesus, and in today’s lesson, two from the “world,” two Greeks asked Philip to help them see Jesus.

Knowing what the authorities were plotting, Jesus used the coming of the Greeks as an occasion to teach.  He told a parable to illumine the meaning of what was about to happen.  This is the parable: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

A grain is a seed, and this is how God designed seeds to work: a protective outside helps the seed to survive until it reaches its destination.  But then the outside must break open.  The seed must die in its present form, so that new life can come forth.  Life comes out of death.

If a seed is never sown, it stays self contained, closed up.  Then it dries up.  It crumbles and passes away.  There is no fruit.  Life stops.

Jesus said that the way of the seed is his way: letting go, being broken open, dying.  The result of Jesus’ death will be new life for many.  Out of great loss will come great gain: the whole world will be drawn into God’s embrace.

And, Jesus added, the way of the seed is the way for any who want to be my servants.  If you truly want to live fruitful lives, letting go, dying is the way.  Unless a grain falls and dies, it will never bear fruit. (more…)

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'Candles' photo (c) 2009, L.C. Nøttaasen - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I recently came across some beautiful music written for the traditional hours of prayer, but useful any time for prayer.  The album is called Singing the Hours, and you can download it as mp3 files or order a CD.  On the website you can hear a sample of the first track.

Composed by Joy Yee, the music is simple and soothing, with prayerful lyrics by Jim Dant.  An electronic piano is the only accompaniment, and it is lovely in itself.  Joy Yee’s warm and gentle voice invites prayer.   If you like music by artists like George Winston, this collection of songs might be just what you need to feed your prayer life.

Here is a list of the songs:

1.    Arise, My Darling – Lauds (Morning Prayer)

2.    Fall on Me – Terce (Mid-Morning Prayer)

3.    Your Love – Sext (Midday Prayer)

4.    Take My Life – None (Mid-Afternoon Prayer)

5.    Thank You, Lord – Vespers (Evening Prayer)

6.    This Good Night – Compline (Night Prayer)

7.    Rest in Peace – Vigils (Midnight Prayer)

8.    Conversations – Personal Meditation (piano instrumental)

Here are the credits:

Executive Producers – David Cassady & Jim Dant, Producer & Engineer – Pat Terry,  Lyrics – Jim Dant,  Music – Joy Yee,  Vocals, Keyboard – Joy Yee, Background Keyboard, Bells – Pat Terry

It is a production of faithlab, a collection of creative people in Macon, Georgia who publish resources like faithelement, an online Revised Common Lectionary based curriculum.  They also offer services in church website development and media production.

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The pendentive of the Brazen serpent with its ...

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The Hebrew Bible lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, is a vivid one: Numbers 21:4-9, and it’s alluded to in the gospel lesson from John 3.  As a child I thought it was one of creepiest stories in the Bible.  Actually, I still think it’s pretty creepy.  Here’s a sermon I wrote years ago on this text.

Why We Don’t Have to Be Afraid of Snakes

A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-17

When I was a child, our church had an illustrated Bible storybook for children.  I have forgotten most of the pictures, but there was one picture that I remember vividly.  It showed the people of Israel being attacked by snakes in the wilderness.  As they struggled on towards the Promised Land, poisonous snakes in all different sizes and colors prowled around the Israelite caravan, terrorized them, bit them, and killed them.  It was a frightening picture.  What a dreadful scene it was!

I can’t think of a more fitting way to picture how dreadful sin is.  Sin lies coiled up like a viper in the selfish corners of the human heart.  It prowls inside and around our caravan as we travel through a snake-infested world.  Sin can strike at any moment, and the poison it injects truly is dreadful.  The ensuing sickness is mortal.  Sin always leads to death, sometimes physical, and always spiritual.  Sin kills trust and faith and hope and love.  It cuts us off from God and from each other.

See what sin has done!  Operating through ignorance, greed and selfishness, it has literally poisoned the environment.  We have let chemicals, trash and all sorts of pollutants fill the waterways, cover the land and thicken the air.  Do we really want to clean it up?

Sin has poisoned communities with distrust, and perhaps even worse, apathy.  As long as me and mine are doing okay, who cares about you and yours?  Sin poisons marriages and families with criticism, defensiveness, hard-headedness, and even contempt.

Sin poisons religion.  Certainly we can see that in twisted cults, whose leaders sometimes lead their followers to death.  But sin also poisons normal religion.  It shows up in a “we’re right, you’re wrong” mentality.  It hides in the hearts of good people, like the religious authorities that had it in for Jesus.  They really thought sin was only a problem for others.  They really thought they were doing the right thing when they conspired to silence to Jesus.  What was it but the powers of darkness when these faithful people reacted so negatively to the mercy and forgiveness and healing that Jesus so freely gave?  Instead of celebrating the grace of Jesus, they conspired to stamp it out.

Sin poisons the human heart, snuffing out love and fanning the flames of negativism.  It’s sin behind that sense of power we feel when we get wrapped up in criticism and complaining.

Sin strikes in so many hidden ways.  It robs us of joy, makes us feel powerless, inferior, incapable.  It even makes us doubt whether God actually has our best interests at heart.

After God brought Israel out of Egypt, after all that time in the wilderness when God sustained the people day by day, they still complained that God had brought them out, only to kill them in the wilderness. The Israelites recognized that the poisonous serpents were a result of their sin.  They cried out, “Moses!  We know we have sinned against God and against you.  Pray to God to take these horrible snakes away!”

Deliver us from evil is our prayer week after week.  Do something, God!  Stop the violence!  Stop the danger and the fear!  Stop the damage!  Deliver us from poisonous serpents!” (more…)

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I am always on the lookout for free and low-cost curriculum materials for Christian Education and faith formation.  Faithelement.com is a free curriculum resource based on the Revised Common Lectionary.  View the video above for a general overview.  Each weekly session is based on one of the lectionary texts.  Resources for each lesson include a short Bible background video that you can view online, or, if your church doesn’t have wi-fi, download and save to play back later, using free software from clipnabber.com.  There is a link to clipnabber on the faithelement site, along with instructions for how to download and save the video.

There is also an assortment of different lesson plans based on different learning styles that you can download and print.  The styles include Mental, Mystic, Media, and Create.  A youth lesson plan is included.  Related video clips are included, such as scenes from movies.   You can find devotional thoughts and “Faith Challenges” related to the text on facebook or by subscribing to an email newsletter, and you can follow them on twitter.  The producers are moderate Baptists, and they cite the Apostles’ Creed in a contemporary translation as a summary of their beliefs.  The writers are men and women, clergy and lay, including Baptist women clergy.

I reviewed the lesson on Exodus 20:1-17, the Hebrew Bible lesson for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B.  The short Bible background clip was helpful, especially for teachers.  It’s not exciting.  Do not expect bells and whistles.  Do expect scholarship and thought.  The lesson plans in various styles are flexible and adaptable.  The youth lesson plan could also be used with adults.

The series is a service of faithlab, a “religious creative services and publishing firm  whose mission is to help congregations and religious organizations use  technology and new media more effectively.” It offers the following services: publishing, website development, and photo-video services, in addition to the faithelement curriculum.

Go to my resource page and scroll down for more resources for small churches, including free or inexpensive curricula for Sunday School and VBS.

For a review of another source of free downloadable curriculum, see this post about Stories on the Way.

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What if the world’s peoples sang together more?  Perhaps that might help us move closer to God’s intentions for us as a community.  Here is some meditative choral music, sung by composer Eric Whitacre’s international virtual choir.  The first piece is “Lux Aurumque”(“Light and Gold”), Whitacre’s setting of Charles Anthony Silvestri’s  Latin translation of a poem by Edward Esch.  The second piece is Whitacre’s composition “Sleep,” a setting of an original poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri.

Whitacre got the idea for a virtual choir when a young woman sent him a video clip of herself singing “Sleep.”  In the first video, you see and hear “Lux Aurumque” performed by 185 singers from twelve countries.  In the second, you hear the singers and see a visual meditation on the piece.  In the third, over 2000 singers from 58 countries perform “Sleep.”

Glory to God!

For the second video, click on this link: http://youtu.be/4ty3HVeAkdc

For the third video, click on this link: Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 2.0, ‘Sleep’ from Eric Whitacre on Vimeo.

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'Drive Thru: All You Can Eat' photo (c) 2011, Wesley Fryer - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/In this season when we are contemplating Jesus’ cleansing the Temple of sellers and buyers, Jan Edmiston put up a challenging post about the church as purveyor of spiritual goods and services.  She is Interim Associate Executive Presbyter for Ministry of the Presbytery of Chicago.  Click here to see a thought provoking image on the subject, and then click the link to read the entire post.

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'21  The Coins of the Money Changers' photo (c) 2009, auntjojo - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple appears in all four gospels.  John’s version appears in the Revised Common Lectionary on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B.  Here is a sermon on this text that imagines what Jesus might do and say if he came in and cracked the whip in our congregations and higher governing bodies of the church today.

No More Business As Usual!

A Sermon on John2:13-22 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Unlike the tax collectors at their tables, the temple sacrifice sellers and the moneychangers could feel good about what they were doing.  They were a service industry.  The law of God decreed that people were to worship God by offering animal sacrifices, and not just any old runt of the litter.  Animals for worship had to be the appropriate species, whole and unblemished.  If you came to Jerusalem from far away, what a tremendous help it was not to have to transport these animals!  You could purchase just what you needed right there.  And not only that, if your coins were inappropriate for the house of God—if they had graven images of Caesar on them, for example—you could change them before you went in.  Then you could put money in the offering with a clear conscience.

The tables of the animal sellers and moneychangers were a welcome sight.  Their proprietors helped pilgrims keep God’s law.  This was especially true at Passover time when crowds of people from all over the world came to worship at the temple.  It did people’s hearts good to see so many worshipers, to see business booming, you might say.

What a contrast it was to what went on at the tax collectors’ tables: outright fraud!  Gouging the poor!  That was a disgrace!  Somebody ought to do something about that.

Like every Jewish man, Jesus regularly worshiped at the temple.  It began in babyhood when Mary and Joseph took him there to dedicate him to God, making their sacrifice according to the law.  At twelve years old, Jesus was already discussing scripture with the teachers there.  Jesus was thoroughly familiar with life in the temple.

On that fateful day when he entered the temple courtyard, Jesus stood there a moment observing it all.  But he was not pleased.  He saw crowds of people participating in the routines and rituals, but little genuine, deep-in-the heart worship of God.  What he saw there was not so much underhandedness (although some of that might have been going on) as it was spiritual emptiness.  The temple was supposed to be the place to encounter God.  But the people, and especially the religious leaders, the professional servants of God, had gotten so caught up in business as usual that they had drifted away from God.  The spiritual core of their worship was gone.  Nobody expected God to say anything new.  Nobody, or almost nobody, was listening. (more…)

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