When: SAT, 2 JUN
Time: 8 am – Midday
Where: 11 Byron Place
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When: SAT, 2 JUN
Time: 8 am – Midday
Where: 11 Byron Place
When: FRI, 8 JUNE
Time: 6:30 for 7 pm
Where: Westville Methodist Church
Cost: R50 pp
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Sitting on the platform as a visiting speaker, I feel as if I have entered a time warp from the late 1950s. I look out on a church sanctuary packed with people dressed in their Sunday finest. These days, pastors where I live in Colorado tend to wear jeans and untucked shirts; here, in a 125-year-old church in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, they are wearing robes over tailored suits.
In advance of my visit the senior pastor sent me a draft copy of the church bulletin, and I noted the organ prelude, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I complimented him on the choice, a lyrical piece that has been used in the soundtrack for such movies as Platoon, The Elephant Man, and Lorenzo’s Oil. He wrote back, “Samuel Barber was once the church organist here.” Hearing that, I worked a bit harder on my sermon.
Behind me gleam the pipes of the current organ, a modern replacement for the one that Barber played. Members of the large choir, who are also dressed in robes, stand to sing a classical piece for the offertory. As they sing I scratch through my notes, cutting extraneous details. “The second service is the most time-sensitive of the three,” the pastor has warned me. “We live-stream it, so please don’t go longer than fifteen minutes.” And now comes my time to speak.
I’m ten minutes into my sermon when a man strolls down the right aisle. In this white-bread congregation anyone with brown skin stands out like a granite rock in a snow field, and the congregation’s eyes follow him all the way to the second row, where he takes a seat. I can’t resist looking that way too. He has a shaved head, and a diamond earring in his right ear catches the light. I note his muscular build, biceps bulging beneath his short-sleeved dress shirt, and then turn my attention back to the sermon.
60 seconds, 45, 30—I watch the countdown clock in my peripheral vision and end just in time. As I turn toward my seat behind the pulpit, suddenly the visitor in the second row stands up and says in a loud voice, “Excuse me, Reverend.” I stop in mid-step.
“Thank you for what you said there. I really appreciate it,” he continues. “And now I have something to say to the folks here.”
A cloud of tension descends on this prim and proper church service. Clearly, nothing like this has ever happened here before. I glance at the senior pastor on the platform, who is staring at the bulletin. A trained usher moves toward the front, reaching discreetly under his sports coat for a firearm, just in case of trouble.
The visitor faces the crowd and says, “I love Presbyterians! You’re beautiful people. I spent 27 years in prison on drug charges, and while I was there two beautiful Presbyterians visited me and introduced me to Jesus. They changed my life. I was driving by here and saw the church and decided I just had to come inside. My wife doesn’t even know I’m here.”
I can sense the tension going down a notch. I don’t know when this church last held a testimony meeting, but so far we’re feeling relieved, liking what we hear.
“Things are going well for me,” he says. “I cleaned up my life, served my time, and got a decent job. My family’s living in a house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and two decks. Life is good.” Interesting detail, I think to myself—two decks.
He’s not finished. “There’s just one problem. I lost that job. I got another one, but I won’t get paid for a couple of weeks. And if I don’t come up with $853.50 by tomorrow, they’ll change the locks on that house and I’ll be out on the street again, homeless.” He keeps talking as the congregation sits silent, not knowing what to do.
I catch the senior pastor looking at his watch, and remember his warning about the strict time limit. With my headset microphone still on, I step down off the platform, walk over to the visitor, and say, “God bless you, brother. That took some courage. And I know there are people in this church who will want to hear all about it after this service.”
The choir director approaches the music stand to lead a closing hymn. The armed usher backs off. The visitor collapses on the pew, sobbing. The service draws to an end.
All this time my wife is sitting one row behind the visitor. A trained social worker, she has heard scores of similar stories at our former church in inner-city Chicago. This man, is he a skilled spinner of tales or a visiting angel come to test the spirit of a wealthy church? She watches as a few people gather around him to talk while a parade of others stuff his pockets with folded bills.
I have just spoken on Mark 9, a chapter in which Jesus scolds his disciples for their lack of faith, their selfishness, and their attitude of intolerance. In a flash our unexpected guest has cut right through the theoretical sermonizing and brought a dose of the real world to a county that the 2010 census ranked as the 25th richest in the nation.
“From what I could see,” Janet reports later that day, “he more than covered the money he claimed to need. And even if it was a scam, it certainly didn’t hurt the people who gave. They had a chance to put into practice what you were speaking about.”
After returning to Colorado, I email the senior pastor and ask about any follow-up on the visitor. What did they learn? It turns out that he was from Washington, D.C., not Pennsylvania, and earlier that Sunday he had given the “Methodist” version of the same speech at the town’s Methodist church, where he collected $500.
The pastor seems unperturbed by the deception. He writes,
The best part of it—the congregation’s generosity and desire to assist him was genuine, heartfelt, and engaged. I told them so the next Sunday, and suggested that however he chose to use the funds he received from us was not our worry—only that God would use the seeds of generosity planted that morning.
Extending grace always involves risk. A gift can be ignored, rejected, or exploited—a fact that applies to God’s grace toward us as well as our grace toward others.
I clearly remember the first time I visited ‘the Garden Tomb’ in Jerusalem and read the caption over the entrance, ‘He is not here for He has risen.’ We were able to stand in the entrance of the empty tomb and see the folded grave clothes – a replica of the real tomb which could not contain our wonderful Lord. I was overcome with awe and deep emotion as the wonder of the resurrection of Jesus overwhelmed me. In the tranquil beauty of the garden, I found a place to be alone, to ponder afresh the incredible reality that Jesus died and rose again, and that one day He will return.
The early disciples were initially troubled, doubting, downcast and bewildered on the first Easter Day. They’d seen many miracles of healing as they followed Jesus, but the miracle of the resurrection was too incredible for them to believe. Then they met the risen Christ who walked and talked with them. He showed them the wounds of the cross in His resurrected body, and they were filled with overwhelming joy and peace.
It’s interesting that Christians often talk about the cross, and yet only speak about the resurrection once a year at Easter time. So let’s start looking beyond the tomb to our risen, glorified Lord, knowing that we’ve been raised with Him from our old life of sin to live in the power of His resurrection. The truth is that without the resurrection we have no good news of salvation to proclaim. The life and death of Jesus alone couldn’t provide salvation. The full Gospel includes the resurrection. As a familiar song goes, ‘If there were no resurrection, Jesus’ death would be in vain. But the Son of God is living, Satan’s power He overcame.’
Paul explains the consequences if there were no resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). He says preaching Christ would be useless, faith in Him would be futile, there could be no salvation and Christians would be deluded. But he exclaims that Christ has been raised from the dead; our faith is not in vain and one day we too will be raised to be with Him forever. This is hope that won’t disappointed.
Isn’t it amazing that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is the power of the Holy Spirit, which is given to every believer. It’s victorious power, because Jesus has won total victory over sin, death and all the powers of darkness. The truth is that, however we feel, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us, died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25). Paul could say, and so can we, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection’(Philippians 3:10). Indeed, without recognising the power of the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, we struggle and limp along life’s pathway, often downcast instead of full of hope, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
So this is a time for rejoicing, whatever our circumstances. Because Jesus died and rose again we have forgiveness of sins, and divine power to overcome sin, enabling us to live lives worthy of the Lord. Let’s ask for the desire to know Christ more, and for the power of His resurrection. ‘Heart knowing’ of Christ and the power of His resurrection can’t be separated. Our hope is that one day Jesus will come again. Whether we’re living or we’ve died when He comes, we too will be resurrected to reign with Him. ‘Hallelujah! What a Saviour.’
Prayer: Father, thank You for the plan of salvation. Thank You for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thank You for saving me, and for giving to me Your Holy Spirit. Please put within my heart a deeper longing to know Jesus more intimately, that I may live day by day in the power of His resurrection, as I wait for His return. Amen.
Written by Peter Horobin
“It is the worst and best of all human deaths. For on this tree he bears our sins in his body (1 Peter 2:24), “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And now it is finished.”
It is Friday, April 3, A.D. 33. It is the darkest day in human history, though most humans have no clue of this. In Rome, Tiberius attends to the demanding business of the empire. Throughout the inhabited world, babies are born, people eat and drink, marry and are given in marriage, barter in marketplaces, sail merchant ships, and fight battles. Children play, old women gossip, young men lust, and people die.
But today, one death, one brutal, gruesome death, the worst and best of all human deaths, will leave upon the canvas of human history the darkest brushstroke. In Jerusalem, God the Son, the Creator of all that is (John 1:3), will be executed.
Jesus wakes his sleepy friends, who are jarred alert at the sight of their brother, Judas, betraying his Rabbi with a kiss. Soldiers and servants encircle Jesus. Peter, flushed with anger, pulls out his sword and lunges at those nearest Jesus. Malchus flinches, but not enough. Blinding pain and blood surge where his ear had been. Voices speak, but Malchus only hears the screaming wound, which he’s grabbed with both hands. He feels a hand touch his hands and the pain vanishes. Under his hands is an ear. Stunned, he looks at Jesus, already being led away. Disciples are scattering. Malchus looks down at his bloody hands.
At Caiaphas’s house, the trial gets underway quickly. Morning will come fast. The council needs a damning verdict by daybreak. The examination proceeds as bleary-eyed Sanhedrin members continue to file in.
The trial has been assembled hastily and witnesses haven’t been screened well. Testimonies don’t line up. Council members look disconcerted. Jesus is silent as a lamb. Irritated and impatient, Caiaphas cuts to the quick, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63).
The hour has come. Charged in the name of his Father to answer, Jesus speaks the words that seal the doom which he had come to endure (John 12:27): “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64).
In a moment of lawbreaking (Leviticus 10:6; 21:10), politically religious theater, Caiaphas tears his robes in feigned outrage and thinly concealed relief over Jesus’s blasphemy. He declares the trial’s end with, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips” (Luke 22:71).
As the sun breaks over Jerusalem’s eastern ridge, Judas swings from his own belt, Peter writes in the grief of his failure, and Jesus’s face is streaked with dried blood and saliva from the pre-dawn sport of the temple police. The council’s verdict: guilty of blasphemy. Their sentence: death. But it’s a sentence they cannot carry out. Rome refuses to delegate capital punishment.
A game of political chess ensues between Pilate and the Sanhedrin, neither realizing that they are pawns, not kings.
Pilate makes a move. As a Galilean, Jesus falls under Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction. Let Herod judge. Herod initially receives Jesus happily, hoping to see a miracle. But Jesus refuses to entertain or even respond. Antipas, disappointed, blocks the move by returning Jesus to Pilate.
Pilate makes another move. He offers to release Jesus as this year’s annual Passover pardoned prisoner. The council blocks the move. “Not this man, but Barabbas!” they cry (John 18:40). Pilate is astounded. The Sanhedrin prefers a thief and murderer to this peasant prophet?
Pilate tries another move. He has Jesus severely flogged and humiliated, hoping to curb the council’s bloodthirst. Again the move is blocked when the council insists that Jesus must be crucified because “he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). Check. Pilate’s fear grows. Jesus’s divine claim could threaten Rome. Worse, it could be true. Roman deities supposedly could take on human form. His further questioning of Jesus unnerves him.
One last move. Pilate tries to persuade the Sanhedrin to release Jesus. One last block and trap. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). The council has Pilate where they want him: cornered. Checkmate.
And the triune God has the council, Pilate, and Satan where he wants them. They would have no authority over the Son at all unless it had been given them from above (John 19:11). Fallen Jews, Gentiles, and spiritual powers unwittingly collaborate in executing the only innocent death that could possibly grant the guilty life. Checkmate.
Twenty-five minutes later, Jesus is hanging in sheer agony on one of the cruellest instruments of torture ever devised. Nails have been driven through his wrists (which we only know about because of the doubt Thomas will express in a couple days, John 20:25). A sign above Jesus declares in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic who he is: the King of the Jews.
The King is flanked on either side by thieves, and around him are gawkers and mockers. “Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” some yell (Luke 23:35). One dying thief even joins in the derision. They do not understand that if the King saves himself, their only hope for salvation is lost. Jesus asks his Father to forgive them. The other crucified thief sees a Messiah in the mutilated man beside him, and he asks the Messiah to remember him. Jesus’s prayer is beginning to be answered. Hundreds of millions will follow.
It is mid-afternoon now and the eerie darkness that has fallen has everyone on edge. But for Jesus, the darkness is a horror he has never known. This, more than the nails and thorns and lashings, is what made him sweat blood in the garden. The Father’s wrath is hitting him in full force. He is in that moment no longer the Blessed, but the Cursed (Galatians 3:13). He has become sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). In terrifying isolation, cut off from his Father and all humans, he screams, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1). No greater love (John 15:13), humility (Philippians 2:8), or obedience (Hebrews 5:8) has ever or will ever be displayed.
Shortly after three o’clock in the afternoon, Jesus whispers hoarsely for a drink. In love, he has drained the cup of his Father’s wrath to the dregs. He has borne our full curse. There is no debt left to pay and he has nothing left to give. The wine moistens his mouth just enough to say one final word, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And God the Son dies.
It is the worst and best of all human deaths. For on this tree he bears our sins in his body (1 Peter 2:24), “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And now it is finished.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses accompany them, careful to note the tomb’s location. They plan to return with more spices after the Sabbath, on the first day of the week, to make sure that it is finished.
Easter is approaching, but between us and the pastel colors of Easter lies a ghastly and bloodstained Good Friday. Don’t rush past it. In your haste to get to the garden of the empty tomb, don’t whistle past the gruesomeness of Golgotha. The resurrection is made as cheap as the fake grass in an Easter basket if we don’t linger long and hard over the catastrophe of Calvary. The cross is the epicenter of Christianity. And it is the cross that is the peculiar scandal of Christianity. As the Apostle Paul said,
“We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” –1 Corinthians 1:23
There is nothing particularly unique about a religion that worships a resurrected god — the ancient world was awash with such religions. But Christianity is the only religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God! Easter alone does not make Christianity unique. It’s with Good Friday and Easter together that we find the uniqueness of Christianity.
But how does the Son of God end up wearing a crown of thorns and nailed to a tree? In the earlier parts of the Gospels we see Jesus healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising the dead, and forgiving sinners. How do these beautiful miracles in Galilee lead to the ugly brutality of Good Friday? The failure to adequately address this question is the failing of most Jesus films. These movies offer little to explain how the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount ends up condemned by the Sanhedrin and executed by the Roman Empire. But the answer is right there in the Gospels.
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.’” –Mark 1:14, 15
Jesus was not preaching his sermons and working his miracles as “random acts of kindness” but as announcements and enactments of the arrival of the kingdom of God. By the kingdom of God, we mean the government of God, the politics of God, the alternative arrangement of the world that comes from God. In his practice of radical hospitality, Jesus was announcing the arrival of a new way of arranging human society. Jesus was proclaiming to the principalities and powers (the very rich, the very powerful, the very religious, the institutions they represent, and the malevolent spirits that energize it all) that their time was up because the alternative from heaven was now within reach.
Jesus called upon all who heard him to rethink everything (repent) and believe that a radical rearrangement of the world was good news. This is why Jesus emphasized in the beatitudes how fortunate are the poor, the suffering, the meek, and those aching for justice, because they are the people most likely to embrace the kingdom of God as good news. But…
The empire always strikes back.
The principalities and powers had a vested interest in keeping the world as it had always been arranged — an arrangement that benefits the elite. So Caiaphas (the very religious), Herod (the very rich), and Pilate (the very powerful) colluded together to execute this Galilean disrupter who threatened their preferred social order. A mere five days after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, spit upon, beaten, scourged, and crucified. This is Jesus bearing the sin of the world. As Fleming Rutledge says,
“When we say that Jesus Christ took upon himself the sin of the world, it means quite specifically that he suffered the shame and degradation that human beings have inflicted on one another and that he above all others had done nothing to merit.” –The Crucifixion, p. 84
The cross is not something we can reduce to a tidy theory so that we can brush our hands off and say, “That’s that. All done. All figured out.” No. That is too much like Pontius Pilate washing his hands and falsely claiming to be innocent. The crucifixion must always remain enough of a scandalous enigma that it invites us to take a second and third look. So here is one way (among many) of talking about the cross…
At the cross, the sin of the world coalesced into a singularity where it was both borne and forgiven by God in Christ. The structures of sin (“the sin of the world”) that entangles and implicates all of us reached its hideous apex in the crucifixion of the Son of God. At Golgotha, the sin of the world gathered in a Good Friday singularity where it was absorbed and forgiven and thus dispelled.
When Paul speaks of Christ being made sin, all we have to do is to look at a crucifix to understand this is true. What could be a greater sin? What could be a greater crime? No crime can be greater than the crime of deicide — the murder of God. And that’s what we see when we look upon the cross; we see the sin of the world coalesced into a single event — the killing of the Innocent One.
On Good Friday all the disparate sins of the world amalgamate into the sin of the world. Whether flowing forward in time or backward in time, every human sin, every act of selfishness, every debasing degradation coalesces in an awful singularity at the cross. What is the sin of the world? It is Jesus nailed to a tree. This is why on one level the crucifixion will always remain ugly — it is the image of all sin coalesced into a single event.
But that’s not all the cross is. The cross is also beautiful. The cross is both the awful crescendo of human sin and the sublime apex of divine grace. The cross is beautiful because it is the place where sin as a singularity is absorbed, forgiven, and transformed into reconciliation.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” –Luke 23:34
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.” –2 Corinthians 5:19
This is the beauty that saves the world. And it’s the light of Easter shining upon the cross that reveals this beauty. But if we rush past Good Friday we miss it all.
As we approach Good Friday let us slow down and behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
My name is Tamara. The Hebrew origin for my name translates to “palm tree” or “palm branch.” My parents reminded me of the meaning each year when my father, a pastor, found a way to insert my name into his annual Palm Sunday sermon. When he performed my wedding ceremony, he blessed me again referring to me as a “fruitful bough raised to Jesus.” For this reason I’ve never been able to imagine the gospel account of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem without imagining myself as one of the palm-waving worshipers.
It wasn’t until I began observing the season of Lent about seven years ago that it occurred to me that, if I am a palm branch raised, then I must also be a palm branch laid at the feet of the donkey-riding Messiah, and trampled under the press of the hopeful crowd.
If I am a palm branch raised, then I must also be a palm branch laid at the feet of the donkey-riding Messiah.
For centuries the church has collected the branches waved in worship on Palm Sunday, burned them, and set aside the ashes to mark foreheads with the charry cross on the next Ash Wednesday. Just as the verdant branches returned to arid desert soil and became dust again, so I am made of dust and to dust I shall return. I am both the fruitful living palm and the dying, dusty palm. I am a palm branch raised to Jesus, crushed under the weight of the King of Glory, and awaiting resurrection. Much of my life I have resisted the crush and weight of the Suffering Servant. I’ve only wanted to wave a Hosanna, but the way of Christ only leads to triumphant resurrection by way of the cross.
This is why the Church Fathers insisted that we spend the long weeks of Lent remembering our mortality and sinfulness.
I wasn’t attending a liturgical church the first year I participated in an Ash Wednesday service, so I found the closest church that offered a service for the beginning of Lent. My sister-in-law joined me, and we decided to walk into the midday Mass at a Catholic church around the corner from my home. Intrigued, I watched the priest thumb black grit onto the foreheads of my neighbors. Each sign of the cross from the priest’s hand left a visible symbol of invisible sin, death, and decay. I saw a young mother offer her baby’s forehead to the priest. It seemed so morbid: where I saw innocence and health, she was willing to see the shadow of death, the suffering we face, and that Christ took on himself. I quickly ducked my head to look away from that pink forehead blotched with an intentional reminder of sin and death.
I am not alone in my desire to avoid the way of suffering Jesus models. While it’s not surprising humans try to avoid this reality, it is peculiar that those who claim to be his followers would try so hard to forget the frailty of the humanity our God embodied in the Incarnation. We prefer our own wellness to the wounded man Jesus.
We prefer our own wellness to the wounded man Jesus.
Many Christian congregations, like the Jerusalem crowd, prefer to worship a version of God who is victorious in their own terms rather than the incarnate Messiah who took on frail, feeble flesh in order to redeem humanity. But worshiping only in the triumphal entries and beside the empty tomb, and not at Calvary, hinders our ability to enter fully into living, breathing, resurrected worship. We think our mass-marketed worship will drown out the hungry rumbles in our stomachs, the creaking of our broken hearts, and the rattling breath of death. We try to spiritualize our fear, thinking that if we ignore death and suffering, they will just go away. We will not need to be saved.
But the young mother at my first Ash Wednesday service knew better, and so did the one who laid her baby in Bethlehem dirt.
In the years since that Ash Wednesday, I’ve experienced the ways that the Lenten discipline of fasting allow us to connect tangibly with Christ who, after his baptism, entered the desert for forty days of fasting and prayer. Spiritual disciplines and liturgical observances do not gain us favor with God, but they do bring us closer in touch with our own human frailties. Lent is a forty-day lesson in what it means to be cursed by death and decay. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, we follow Christ as he makes his way to the cross. We recognize and mourn the curse of sin and death that has separated man from God, even as we are invited to carry our cross and follow Christ on the road of suffering.
Which leads me back to my original discovery: I want to save my hosannas and palm-waving for a Christ who would ride a battle-ready steed, and not the colt of a donkey. I want to be the living palm, verdant and lush, and not the dying palm, crushed and trampled like the crucified Christ.
And yet that is the only path to resurrection and life. When we say Jesus is the only way, this is what we mean. There is no short-cut to glory without the path of the weighty cross. In the years since that first Ash Wednesday service, I’ve discovered a paradox: there’s joy in the way of the cross. Fasting, almsgiving, and repentance lead to more peace, joy, and hope than I could’ve anticipated.
Lent has provided a sturdier foundation for all the grief I’ve carried in my own life.
I’ve begun to consider my relationships through this lens; those who welcomed me into their own suffering and shared mine have become my dearest, most trusted friends. Listening to my friends’ stories of mourning has become part of my regular Lenten practice. As I hear about illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, death of loved ones, and death of dearly-held dreams, I grow stronger and more dependent on the one pierced and crushed for not only our own trespasses and sins, but also the ways others have trespassed and sinned against us. Next to the words of Christ, their stories have helped, more than anything else, to form my understanding of the God who draws near to the suffering and makes beauty out of ashes.
As I write, my family is navigating our own labyrinth of hardship, illness, and need. In between paragraphs, I’m interrupted by phone calls, text updates, and questions I don’t know how to answer.
Yesterday morning, a grey February day in our city along the Long Island Sound, my daughter brought me a single leaf of a palm branch that she’d found on the street where she’d parked the car.
“Look what I found!” She handed me the long, pale green leaf. What was a palm branch doing on the street in the winter in Connecticut almost two months before Palm Sunday?
“It’s a living palm. God told me it was for you.” I thanked her and set it aside.
As the phone continued to ring and the hardships piled up throughout the afternoon, I moved away from the keyboard and picked up the leafy stem, waving it weakly over my head. A small current of tears trailed down my face as I began to pray the only words I could muster, “Hosanna, Jesus! Save us now!”
Written by Tamara Hill Murphy.
A couple of months ago I stopped at McDonald’s early one morning to get a cup of coffee. And the young woman who waited on me, who looked all of about fifteen, smiled and said, “Sir, after your senior citizen discount it will be $1.56.” I had not asked for a discount. I did not know my mortality was showing.
I now regularly get letters from AARP, each one reminding me of my age. I am pretty sure that I do not yet qualify for the senior citizen discount or need AARP. And yet I’m also sure that life is fragile and mortality is real. I’ve experienced that in so many ways and I’ll bet you have too.
That was once again brought home this afternoon but it wasn’t as funny as those other reminders. It was heartbreaking. It was another mass shooting, this time at a school in Florida. The first picture I saw from that scene was a woman with her arms around another women, two moms crying and waiting for news about their children. We’ve seen those kind of pictures before, too many times. This one, however, was different. The thing that caught my attention was the cross. One of the women had ashes on her forehead in the shape of a cross.
She had been marked with a sign of mortality and the fragility of life, the same sign with which you and I will be marked in a few moments, and she now stood among the ashes of uncertainty, fear, death, sorrow, and loss. My guess is that when those ashes were being put on her forehead earlier in the day she never thought she would be standing where she was. Probably none of us would have either. We don’t want to consider that possibility let alone face that reality. And yet, that’s the truth Ash Wednesday holds before us. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
We live in a tension between the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. And we work pretty hard at denying, ignoring, forgetting, outrunning, and overcoming those twin realities. But they are always there. They are always present to us in the same way the ashes with which we will be marked were already a part of and present in the palms we carried last year on Palm Sunday.
What’s that like for you? In what ways have those two realities, the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death, made themselves known in your life? Maybe that’s what you are facing today.
The reminders of mortality and the fragility of life all are around us. They come every time a friend or loved one dies. And it’s even more stark when she or he is our age or younger. The reminder comes with an aging body, a body that no longer does what it used to do or no longer looks like it used to look. It’s a bit slower, achier, flabbier, less agile. Illnesses and accidents hold before us how easily and quickly life can change. Mass shootings and terrorist bombings leave us wondering where, when, and who will be next. The hurricanes and wildfires of last year were more reminders of the uncertainty of life. Cemeteries stand as monuments to mortality. And if you’ve ever sifted the ashes of your life you’ve surely wondered where it had gone and where it was going.
So what do we do with that? How do we live with the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death?
As much as we might want to escape those two realities we cannot. Nothing we can do will change or prevent them. What if naming and facing those realities is the first step in taking back our lives? That’s what this day, Ash Wednesday, is about. We mark ourselves with the ashes of mortality and fragility. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And that’s a challenge. It’s not as easy as it sounds. We can go home and wash off the ashes but the truth remains. Life is fragile and we are mortal.
And it would be easy at this point to toss up our hands, surrender to the uncertainty of life, lay down before the certainty of death, and declare that nothing matters. It’s all in vain. We could become cynical and hopeless. Surely, that’s not what this day is about. Surely, there’s more to our life than that.
What if we are marked with the ashes for the exact opposite reason? The ashes of this day do not mark us as a declaration that it’s all vanity and nothing matters. Instead, the ashes proclaim that everything matters. There is nothing inconsequential. Everything matters. Every word we speak, every action we take, every choice we make matters, makes a difference, and carries consequences. Every person in our life, every relationship, every moment matters. There is nothing that does not matter.
What if Lent is a time of recognizing that everything matters. What if it’s about remembering and reclaiming our treasures? What if it’s about re-treasuring the things and people we’ve forgotten, taken for granted, ignored, devalued, set to the side?
I know that’s not how we usually think of Lent or hear today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). More often than not we focus on what’s wrong and how we’ve taken hold of the wrong treasures and our heart is in the wrong place.
I want us to come at Lent in a different way this year. I want us to look for and reclaim what’s right. I want us to re-treasure the things of our life that are of ultimate importance, the people and things that are of infinite value, worth more than money, prestige, position, power, or stuff. Maybe failing to treasure is what lies behind the pain, brokenness, dysfunction, and violence that too often fill our lives and world. Maybe failing to treasure is the sin from which we need to turn away.
So tell me this. Who or what are the treasures that hold your heart? What are the values, hopes, and dreams to which you give your heart? What is of ultimate importance in your life?
Maybe it’s the practices that have taken you deeper into the life of Christ. Maybe it’s the values you hold for yourself, the values by which you recognize yourself and when you live those values you know you are living from your truest and best self. Maybe it’s the qualities that brought wholeness and integrity to your life. Maybe it’s the things that keep you showing up day after day. Maybe it’s what nourishes your life and strengthens your relationships. Maybe it’s your marriage, your children, your friendships.
So what if we took this Lenten season as a time of re-treasuring? To re-treasure people and relationships, to re-treasure justice and compassion, to re-treasure love, forgiveness, hope, beauty. What if we were to reclaim those and a thousand other things like them as the treasures of our life?
I know how easy it is to forget those treasures, to lose them, take them for granted, or just set them aside. The busyness of life, the distractions, our sorrows and losses, our pains and wounds, and our fears can make us forgetful of what really matters or cause us to put our treasures aside. And sometimes we’re just plain old tired, worn out by the changes and chances of life.
What if our Lenten practice this year was to reclaim and re-treasure that which is of ultimate importance and infinite value? What would it be like to reclaim those treasures in your life? What would it take for you to reclaim your treasures? How might that change your life and relationships?
As we reclaim and re-treasure we somehow get ourselves back. We’re more whole, more complete. We reclaim and re-treasure not just for ourselves but so we can offer our treasures back to God and the people of our life.
I don’t know what your treasures are but I know you have them. And I also know this. Our treasures do not exist apart from but in the midst of the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. Even as life is changing and passing the heart-treasures of our life never go away. They are the treasures of heaven here on earth. They are the treasures that “neither moth nor rust consumes” and “thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. As you are marked with the ashes of mortality and the fragility of life reclaim your treasures, reclaim your heart, reclaim your life. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:21)
From the website of Michael K. Marsh, a priest of the Episcopal Church.
The denial of death . . . it’s all around us. When people die, they are often alone, sequestered in hospitals far away from the sad eyes of friends and family. If someone happens to die at home, the corpse is quickly sent away from the grieving relatives. In polite society, one doesn’t talk much about death. And when it’s necessary to say something that has to do with dying, nifty euphemisms keep us from confronting the brute facts. When I lived in California, people would say, “Uncle Fred passed away.” In Texas, for some reason, people are more succinct, saying, “Uncle Fred passed.”
Of course, our own fears concerning our own demise match our cultural squeamishness about death. We don’t want to think about our own mortality, and we do many things to pretend that its not approaching. We dye our graying hair. We cover our age spots with make up. We get cosmetic surgery to preserve the image of youth. Rarely do we seriously think about our own death. As a pastor, I’m amazed at how unusual it is for someone to make plans for his or her own memorial service, or even to leave notes for the family. These are things we’d rather not have to bother with.
I’m reminded of a story told by my friend Tim, who was a restaurant manager. Part of his job was to explain the company’s benefit package to his new employees. One time, Tim hired a young man who didn’t speak English very well because he had recently immigrated to the United States. Tim explained the vacation policy, sick leave, and health insurance, all without incident. Then he came to the life insurance. He said that if the employee died, his family would get $25,000.
At this point, the employee had a shocked look on his face, and said, “No, no, Tim!”
Tim wasn’t sure he had been clear, so he explained, once again, “Look, if you die, your family will get $25,000.”
Again, the employee was unhappy. “No, I don’t want it,” he said urgently.
“Why not?” Tim asked. “If you die, this will be good for your family.”
“But Tim,” the employee cried, “I don’t want to die!”
Ash Wednesday is a day to stare death in the face, to acknowledge our mortality. All of us will die. Christians who observe this holiday get ashes “imposed” on their foreheads, while a minister or lay church worker says, “You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.” In other words, “You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.”
For sixteen years of Ash Wednesday services at Irvine Presyyterian Church, I put ashes on the heads of older adults, some of whom had serious cancer and didn’t live much longer. I also put tiny black crosses made of ash on the foreheads of babies far too young to realize what was happening to them. I imposed ashes on teenagers and senior citizens, on men and women, on boys and girls. All of these I reminded of their mortality, and they freely received the reminder. “You are dust,” I said, implying, “You are going to die.”
What gives us such freedom to think about death? Are we Christians morose? Do we have some peculiar fascination with dying? I don’t think so. Rather, what allows us to stare death in the face is the assurance of life, real life, eternal life. When we know our lives are safe in the hands of God, and that this physical life is just the beginning of eternity, then we’re free to be honest about what lies ahead for us. We can face death without fear or pretending because we know the One who defeated death.
I’ll never forget my last visit with a dear member of my congregation named Helen. She was a tiny woman when healthy, but old age and disease had ravaged her body. I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighed 75 pounds on the day of my last visit.
There was no question that Helen was soon to die. And there was no point for me to pretend as if that weren’t true. So I asked her straightaway: “Helen, it’s obvious that you don’t have too much time left in this body. How are you feeling about dying?”
“Mark,” she said with a weak but confident voice, “I’ve lived a good, long life. I’ve been blessed far beyond what I could have hoped. You’re right, my body is giving out. I don’t have much longer to live. But I want you to know that I am ready. I’m not afraid. I’m eager to see my Lord. I hope I get to soon.”
Talk about staring death in the face! What gave Helen such unusual bluntness and boldness when it came to her own imminent death? Her faith in God. Her confidence that her life was really just beginning. Her assurance that her soul was safe in the hands of a gracious, loving God.
And so it is for Christians on Ash Wednesday. We can face death. We can admit our own mortality. We can talk openly about the limits of this life. Why? Because we know that through Christ we have entered into life eternal, the fullness of life that will not end when our bodies give out.
The emotional result of Ash Wednesday observance isn’t depression or gloom, but gratitude and new energy for living. When we realize how desperately we need God, and how God is faithful far beyond our desperation, we can’t help but offer our lives to him in fresh gratitude. And when we recognize that life doesn’t go on forever, then we find a new passion to delight in the gifts of each and every day, and to take none of them for granted.
One year, as I returned to my seat after imposing ashes upon dozens of worshipers, I sat next to my 12-year-old son. I couldn’t help but notice the prominent black cross on his forehead, placed there by another leader. All of a sudden it hit me that my dear boy will die someday. Though I knew this in principle, I had never really thought about it before. My boy won’t live forever. His life, like mine and that of every other human being, will come to an end. At that moment I prayed that God would give Nathan a long and blessed life. And then I hugged him for a good minute, treasuring the life we share together.
How grateful I am for the grace of God that allows us to stare death in the face so we can live with greater passion and delight! And how thankful I am for a day that allows me to think about death so I can cherish life even more!
Or as someone else has said, “Come apart and rest a while before you come apart!”
Someone had a card on their desk that read, “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!”
Today’s suggested prayer is in the words of Orin L. Crain:
Slow me down, Lord.
Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace.
Give me, amidst the day’s confusion
the calmness of the everlasting hills.
Break the tension of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of singing streams
that live in my memory.
Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking minute vacations….
slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to read a few lines from a good book.
of the fable of the hare and the tortoise;
that the race is not always to the swift;
that there is more to life than measuring its speed.
Let me look up at the branches of the towering oak
and know that … it grew slowly … and well.
to send my own roots down deep…
into the soil of life’s endearing values…
That I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.
Slow me down, Lord.
Thank you for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus’ name, amen.”