Sunday, March 31, 2013

LOOK FOR THE LIVING by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Yesterday was a long lazy day at my house. We did not have any demands on our time, which was a welcome change. The kids are on Spring Break but of course we did not go anywhere because it’s Easter and it was pretty important that I be here today. I noticed that a couple of my clergy friends posted little statements on their Facebook pages on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. One wrote: “The clock ticks slowly on Holy Saturday, pressing us beyond our capacities. It was a day fashioned for hand-wringing. Waiting and hand-wringing - alone. Utterly alone.” 

You see, it is so easy for us to jump to the joy of Easter Sunday isn’t it. We come here on Palm Sunday. And then truth be told, we would prefer to skip over that crucifixion part. The truth of the Crucifixion is just too unpleasant. It is much better just to get to the good part of Easter Sunday. 

But in order to understand the weight of the day, we really need to try to put ourselves in the mindset of Jesus’ close friends on days before Sunday morning. 

For the men and women who loved Jesus those hours on Friday after he died, and the long day on and night of Saturday night were hours when they were overcome with grief. They were walking through that fog of grief that we have all been through, at least those of us who have lost someone close to us to death. You know the fog, you feel lost. You know the person is gone. Death is final. There is no turning back from death. They saw him take his last breath and then they watched as his lifeless body taken down from the cross. And they wept. 

Just try to imagine, then, what on earth it must have felt like to be Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who went to the tomb that morning. They were in mourning for a dead man.  They were wearing the clothes of grieving.   They went to do some ritual anointing, rituals they could not do immediately when he died, because it was the Sabbath. 

When they got there, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. 

Remember, death is final. That is a physical truth, we know that.  The women went to a tomb. And then they find the tomb empty. I don’t about you, but if I had found the tomb empty my first reaction would have been disbelief, and then anger. What now? More indignity? Is it not enough that they beat him and drew lots for his clothes and then left him to die. Now someone has stolen his body so we can’t even give him a proper burial? This is the worst indignity ever.  

And then these dazzling men began to unfold the situation for them. “Remember how he told you that he would be given over to sinners, and crucified and on the third day he would rise from the dead?” How could they forget something that important? “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” they asked. Why indeed!

The truth became clear to the women and they believed! So the women went and told the men. And guess what happened. The men thought it was an idle tale. Imagine that! The men did not believe the women. Well, we will forgive them, because, after all, it was a pretty unbelievable tale. However, the men were curious enough that they went to the empty tomb to see for themselves. But the truth has a way. The scripture says “when they saw for themselves they were amazed.” The truth became clear to the men also and they believed!  Truth finds a way.

On Easter morning, the followers of Jesus woke up to the most miraculous event ever known to the world. We have heard the story so many times, though, we expect it. We take for granted that Jesus did not really die for good. Most of us don’t even want to come to worship on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. We don’t want to see the picture that we had on the screen last Sunday of Jesus carrying that cross, because it makes us uncomfortable. We know he is going to be raised from the dead, so why do we have to hear that gruesome story year after year? 

You see, we can’t really comprehend the impact of this gift of new life, until we realize that God walked through death with us to get there. 

Jesus suffered every possible human pain we can imagine. So God understands our fears, our regrets, and our suffering. Jesus felt it with us and for us. God still feels it with us. But when Jesus died on that cross, he died to take our fears, our regrets and our suffering with him to the grave. 

So when he rose from the grave, free from death, he frees us from those fears, regrets and suffering. Everything changes for us because Jesus did not die. We have the freedom to leave behind our fears and regrets and our suffering, because we live in God. We live a life surrounded by God and God’s love. THIS IS HUGE. This changes everything.   Easter morning changes everything.

When the women went to the tomb, the men (or angels) in dazzling robes asked them a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen.”   The angels we will call them told them that. 

Besides telling them the amazing news that Jesus was resurrected, I think they were also telling them women to stop lingering in death, go and LIVE. 

This is our invitation on this Easter Sunday. The witnesses to the resurrection ask us: Are we going to walk around surrounded by death and the things that bring death? Or will we live as people free from the brokenness of this world and full of the life that comes from God’s second chances?  Will we accept God’s second chance.

My friend Sr. Paulette Schroeder tells a story of how long it can take a person to turn around and receive this healing love of God, and receive that second chance. Paulette’s life work is peace. She works for peace in many ways, one of those ways is that she cares for people in our prison system and she opposes the death penalty. Apparently, back in 1976 she started corresponding with a young man who was then 18 and sentenced to death for “being an accomplice to the killing of an undercover policeman in a pharmacy drug theft.” She has corresponded with him for all these years, and visited with him too. She wrote in a blog post this week: 

“My friend is a brilliant man who, unfortunately, used his intelligence in devious rather than productive ways for 33 of his 37 years in prison. He played the prison game.” She said he had no religious faith and she suspected he was involved with criminal activities within the prison system. At times when he seemed discouraged she would suggest he “try God” but he we not receptive. Finally about 4 years ago “the right person in the system crossed his path,” he attended Mass, and asked to study the Catholic rite of initiation. A year ago he was baptized. She writes: “This restless, crime-bent man had found purpose, meaning!  He had surrendered his ego! He had allowed someone else to lead him! . . . .Faith had grabbed hold of him. His heart was full of joy, full of life. Smiling often during our visit, he sometimes paused in a soft faraway look:  “Is it real, Paulette?  Am I really the person to whom all this has happened? Would you have believed it 10 years ago, Sister Paulette, that we would be sitting here today sharing and laughing and FREELY talking about God! My humanity is coming back to me!”

       Sister Paulette worked patiently with this man for 37 years. It took him a long time to escape from the grave, to escape the grave he created for himself on this earth, in order to live in the freedom that comes when we give our lives over to God.  He can’t erase the consequences in his life and that of others.

     This is what the Easter story is about: choosing not to live in the graveyard of our brokenness, but to live as resurrection people. Mary Magdalene and Joanna and the other Mary were looking for death but they found life.

      You see, in one way or another, we all need to choose life over death. Your situation is not as extreme as the young man living on death row. But we all would do well to focus on living, to get out of the graveyards of our lives: our fears our regrets, our sorrows. God wants us to claim the resurrection life that God desires for us.  God has wonderful plans for each one of us here and now, but we all have things we need to let go of so that we can take the next step into that new life.  It’s a wonderful future.

     A couple of years ago, the Patheos web site asked some of their bloggers to answer the question: “Why I Need the Resurrection.” I want to share a couple of their responses with you.

Why I Need the Resurrection by Kara Root
I need the Resurrection
because my sister is sick
and can't afford insurance,
because I've told a weeping Haitian mom,
"No, I can't take your son home with me."
because I've been rushed off a Jerusalem street
so a robot could blow up a bag that could've blown up us.
because I've exploded in rage
and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.
because evil is pervasive and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
Death loses. Hope triumphs.
And Life and Love Prevail.

Why I Need the Resurrection by Amy Julia Becker
Shower, breakfast, kids to school, myself to work, go running, make dinner, kids to bed, check email, sleep. It's easy to forget. But after the earthquake in Haiti, I need the resurrection. When my friend’s parents die in a plane crash, I need the resurrection. When another IED explodes, I need the resurrection. And when I see the flash of blue and yellow of a bird in flight, when apartheid ends, when my kids hold hands, I need the resurrection. In the sorrow and the joy, the resurrection reminds me: goodness will last, light overcomes darkness, life triumphs over death.

How about you? Why do you need the resurrection? What brings you down so that it’s hard for you to live in the freedom that God offers to lift you up.
As a response to the message today, I want to ask you to share your response with a couple of other people. You may have people out there with you or you may have to reach out or maybe you need to share here.  So, why do you need the resurrection?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

COSTLY LOVE by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

There is a legend about an old priest in the tradition of St. Ignatius, who was the founder of the Jesuits. The young priest came to the wise old priest where they both lived in Paris. The young priest was discouraged. He told his mentor that he was going to renounce his vows and leave the priesthood. The older priest said he was, of course, free to do so, but that he must first do one thing. He told him to go to the 800 year old Notre Dame Cathedral, walk down the center aisle to the great altar, look at the massive sculpture of the crucified Christ and say this three times: “You did this for me and I do not care!” “You did this for me and I do not care!” “You did this for me and I do not care!”

Well, the young priest was resolved, and went to the cathedral, confident that he could accomplish this simple task. He said it once. He said it a second time, his voice, faltering. But he could not say it a third time. He fell to his knees, weeping. He did not leave the priesthood, not that day, not ever.  (Story referenced in Mother Tongue, by Paul Nixon, pp. 93-94, unpublished manuscript; he references Ignatius of Loyola, in Spiritual Exercises, recommended imaginary conversation with Jesus, especially Jesus on the Cross.)

This is the week we Jesus-followers call Holy. This week is the high point of Jesus’ life. This is the point where we see the fullness of his humanity and his divinity. This is the holy of holies, the good, the bad and the ugly. If Jesus’ life were a novel this would be the point where you stay up late into the night to read the last few chapters because you can’t put the book down. If Jesus’ life story were a Hollywood movie this is the point in the movie where you don’t get up to go the bathroom because you can’t bear to miss one second. 

Holy week starts with Jesus arriving in the Holy City, the center of religious life for his people, Jerusalem. And the people greet him with a little parade. They pull down palm branches from the trees and wave them – whatever is handy – to wave and create a sense of something important. They shout “Hosanna!” which is a word of praise and joy. They are welcoming him as a sort of king or hero.  He is a healer, an amazing teacher and preacher.  They are people who need hope. Who doesn’t need hope? But these Jews are living under foreign rule. They have been waiting for a Messiah. This new teacher named Jesus has developed quite a following as a healer and as someone who is bold to speak the word of God. He is not afraid to stand up to the authorities. They love him!

Well true to form, as soon as Jesus enters the city and he immediately gets into trouble at the Temple.  You know how, when you are reading a good book, or watching a movie, and the tension starts to build, and you know something bad is going to happen? The music changes, right? You know it’s coming. The camera shots get more angular. Well, that is what happens, Jesus walks into the temple and loses his temper. He sees people selling things. Now, in their defense, they were probably selling birds or other things for offerings in the temple. It was a practice that had been going on for a long time. But Jesus had had enough. He said, “You have turned a place of prayer into a den of robbers!” And he threw the tables over. Well from that point on, the week went from bad to worse in a hurry.

There was a bright spot, when he had a nice dinner with his disciples to say good bye, and that is where we get our practice of Holy Communion, that we will celebrate in a few minutes and on Thursday. But after that it was all downhill.

Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him. Again, just like a blockbuster movie, you can tell that the climax is coming. It was all set up from the start. 

Looking back, we can see how it happened. From the beginning of his ministry, the high priests and religious leaders saw him as a threat. Jesus was just too radical. So day by by day they built their case, and they turned the people against him. You know what crowds are like, don’t you? You know, how the crowd mentality goes. All you have to do is get a few people riled up for or against a cause (usually against), and the rest will follow.  

That is what happened in the end. They took Jesus to Pontius Pilate. He tried to hand him off to Herod. And the chief priests just kept saying: this man is a traitor. He is setting himself up as our leader but he is not. He thinks he is the messiah but he is not. He even thinks he is the king, but we all know Caesar is the ruler of the Roman Empire.  

In the end, the people had a chance to save Jesus. There was this festival, and every year one prisoner could be pardoned. They had a chance to save him, but they chose another prisoner to be freed, a political prisoner names Barabbas. For Jesus, they shouted, “Crucify him!” And that is just what happened.

Next week is Easter and we get to hear the wonderful ending to the story, but today, we’re going to linger right here on this walk to the cross with Jesus.

Because you see, we need to understand what this is all about, as best we can. You see, we are followers of this man, Jesus, and we need to try to wrap our minds around the events of that Holy Week, and what led up to it, what this cross means.

You see, until God came to earth in the human form of Jesus, God was distant from us. God was sort of like an absentee landlord, owning property but not really seeing it first-hand, not experiencing what it is like to be us. 

Oh sure, God always has interactions with human beings, through prayer, the odd burning bush and vision. But it wasn’t enough. God felt the message of God’s love for us was not getting through and so God sent Jesus. We can’t really wrap our minds around this. Words really can’t explain, but we do our best. God put on a human body and came to earth, to love us and to feel our pain and our joy. God came to experience every human emotion and experience that you have ever had, and that you will ever have.  Just let that sink in for a moment.  Can you imagine?

And then, we human beings, do you what we did, our foremothers and forefathers on this planet . . . we killed God. 

If we go back to the metaphor I was using of Jesus’ life story being like a great book or a Hollywood movie, I think the reason we get sucked into a great book or movie is because we see ourselves in that story. Either we see our own experiences, or we feel things that we would like to experience but we know we never will. Or we see the ugly side of ourselves that we know is there and we hope will never come out. Jesus came to see and experience all of that, and he did. 

He saw humans at our best, and at our absolute worst. In his last days, he saw the worst. We killed Jesus because we humans are weak.  We are human as God made us to be. We give into our fears. You see, Jesus came and asked us to be generous and kind and forgiving and just. You want to be all those things, don’t you? But people don’t like to be pushed into being too generous and kind and forgiving and just. We can only take so much and then we snap. Of course, we like it when other people are generous and kind and forgiving and just toward us, don’t we? But in the end, the people got scared. The religious leaders wanted their power, and they didn’t like Jesus getting in on the action. The people started doubting whether God’s love and power could really be that amazing. IT IS THAT AMAZING, BY THE WAY, but that is next week’s message. Even Jesus’ best friend Peter gave into fear.  Has your best friend ever let you down? Later Peter would become a preacher that would draw thousands in a day to turn to God and be baptized. But on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter cowered and denied even knowing him.   Poor Peter, I feel sorry for him, and I’ve been him. 

Some days, we are Peter, in our actions. Oh sure, we get up in the morning, ready to live like those Palm Sunday crowds, wearing Christian symbols on necklaces around our necks and claiming that we are followers of Jesus and we want to change the world and mean it. But then someone at work does something stupid. They ask for forgiveness, and instead we ream them out, denying that we even know Jesus by our unmerciful actions. Then we come home driving our cars with a “wage peace” bumper stickers on the back and we walk in the door. We get into a fight with our spouse about money or whose turn it is to do the dishes and or what we are going to do this weekend.  We don’t listen to one another. The listening is the key here. The kids see us fighting rather that making peace. Again, we betray really ever knowing Jesus. On Sunday we decide to catch up on work or sleep in because it’s just too hard to get the kids going and we skip church. We don’t make space in our lives for the one who gives us life and breath. We wonder why, on Monday morning, our bodies and souls are dragging. Because you see, a little piece of God lives inside of us, but when we don’t give time to nurture our souls, we kill God, as surely as we had been in that crowd and shouted, “Crucify him.”

And you know what. God says It’s okay.  That’s the crazy part. God knew it was going to happen. And God loves us so much, God came as Jesus anyway. God is willing to pay the cost of loving us. God knew that we would kill God Jesus, and yet God came in the form of Jesus anyway, because God loves us that much.  Can you imagine sending your child to this? But Jesus came and carried that cross and died once and for all, so that we don’t have to carry this cross through life. We don’t have to be weighed down by fears that God is not enough. God’s love is enough. Being generous and kind and forgiving and just are enough. We can do these things when we allow the Spirit of Jesus to live in us. And when we fail, which we will, we come back here to this community for encouragement, and we pick ourselves back up and try again, because God always loves us and gives us another chance.  Jesus carried the cross so we don’t have to. That is the message Jesus came to give. And he died so that we might live. 

Jesus carried the cross, so we don’t have to. Give thanks for that cross in this Holy Week, how much that God loves us, that God showed us even in death how much God love us, and receive God’s gift of his costly love. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

WORDS OF GRACE: CONSEQUENCE by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

In the movie “Men in Black 3” there is a character (Griffin) that sees the world in terms of all the possible choices people have made and the resulting consequences. He sees everything the way it has happened and the way it could have turned out if someone made another choice. If I lived like him I would go crazy. I mean think about it, he sees all the options and all implications of all the options. It’s mind boggling really. But there is this fun scene in the movie when he takes them to see the Miracle Mets winning the World Series. He shows them the moment that causes them to win. He shows them that the ball has a tiny little defect in it because the woman who sewed had some crisis in her life and that defect affected the game. One of the key players would not have played baseball if it were not for the fact that when his dad went to the store to buy him a football for a gift, they were out of footballs, so dad bought him a baseball mitt instead.  (if you don’t mind Greek subtitles and You Tube doesn’t pull it you can see the scene here -

We make choices and they all have consequences, some good, some bad, some neutral. We sometimes think about this in our family as we are still paying off Kurt’s student loan bills for law school now that he is almost 20 years out of law school. But, you see, if he had not gone to Case Western for Law School, then he might not have gotten into Workers Comp law, and he might not have gotten a job in Toledo and I never would have met him, and Jamie & Becca would not exist, and well you get the idea. Every month, I find a way to give thanks for that decision. 

Let’s turn, for a moment to science. Just for fun. Because we tend to think of consequences as bad, but they are not all bad. And I’m scared to as there are so many science teachers in here right now.  For example, consider Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is opposite and equal reaction. So, if I push on a wall, the wall pushes back. My hand does not go through the wall. Or to use one of Newton’s examples: If a horse draws a stone tied to a rope, the horse (it could be said) will be equally drawn back towards the stone. Why do I use such mundane examples? To be clear that all actions have consequences.

Now let’s look at some examples that begin to have some negative consequences. If my child, or if an adult is careless and leaves a dish too close to the edge of a kitchen counter, and a plate falls to the ground. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The plate hits the floor and breaks. There are consequences to the actions of being careless with a plate, small consequences. If that same child (or adult) puts my laptop on the edge of my desk and dog walks by and knocks it off onto the floor, and it breaks, the consequences are much more painful to my bank account (thankfully not a real story)  But still, these are not intentional. There are accidental. Careless, but accidental.
When we talk about consequences in terms of moral choices, the implications begin to have more serious. Today’s scripture (Galatians 6:7-8  from The Message for those following along at home) gives us a phrase you may have heard from your mother or grandmother as a warning when you were growing up: “You reap what you sow.” That use of the word “sow” is so old fashioned that the spell check in Microsoft word thought it was wrong.  The Merriam Webster dictionary gives two definitions for sow as a verb. 1) to plant a seed for growth, especially by scattering. 2) to set something in motion, to begin an enterprise. 

Both of those definitions seem to fit when we think about sowing as a metaphor for consequences. When you plant one type of behavior, it is going to result in the same type of behavior. Or when you set in motion one type of action, such as a lie, it is going to begin an enterprise of lying, isn’t it? Don’t you find that once you lie, you have to keep lying? I think we’ve all been there.

The scripture in Galatians says simply, that whatever you plant, you will harvest. If you plant selfishness and ignore the needs of other people and ignore God, you will harvest weeds. That is pretty clear. On the other hand, if you plant what God wants and let God’s Sprit work in your life, then you will have a harvest of real life, a life that is eternal. 

So, we can choose to ignore God and have a life of weeds, or we can choose to plant God’s way and have a full life.  Either way, there are consequences to our choices.

So let’s take this idea that actions have consequences a bit further. A young man lies when he is 15. He goes on a date with one girl and tells her she is the only one for him. The next night he goes out with another girl and tells her the same thing.   No let’s be honest, girls can do the same thing.  We see such a scene on a TV show and laugh. Would that we should be so lucky to have two people to date when we are 15!

Fast forward to age 30. The man has two partners. One is his wife, the other a male prostitute. He contracts AIDS from the prostitute and gives it to his wife and their unborn child. The behaviors that we brushed off as adolescent fun at age 15 have deadly consequences at age 30.

Some actions in life have immediate and severe consequences. They can slowly chip away at our life blood. One by one, we make tiny decisions that move us away from God’s desire for our lives, and we die a slow death. 

Think about it.  Jesus says: When we plant a life of God’s spirit, letting God do the work, we have a full life, and a life eternal. But when we are selfish and ignore God and God’s ways and God’s desires for us, then we wind up living in a bed of weeds.  We’ve all been there at one time or another.

Every day, we make choices, and those choices have consequences, slowly and steadily move us along God’s path and God’s desire for our lives. Others slowly and deceptively pull us away from God and away from God’s desire for us. Before we know it, we are lost from God and we wonder, how did this happen? If we look back, we see the choices we made, one by one that took us away.  At the time, we didn’t realize how far they were taking us away from God. 

Thankfully, there is hope for us. You see, as followers of Jesus we do have this gift. We have grace. Grace is the gift that God gives us that says: God’s love is bigger than any of our mistakes. It means, as my friend Paul Nixon writes, “there is life beyond mistakes” (Mother Tongue, p. 204, unpublished manuscript, copyrighted material). Grace does not mean the consequences are “erased.” “God takes the broken pieces of our lives and begins gluing things back together again- but some opportunities are lost. Some consequences remain forever” (ibid). 

The Bible is a book filled with stories of God’s people, like us. It is a book of stories of decisions and consequences. Some of them are good choices with good consequences and some of them bad. Some of them are not so clear. Sometimes when we make a choice we are not so sure now things will turn out, are we? Other times, we are pretty sure which choice God would have us make, but we do our mental gymnastics in order to justify why we are going to make the other choice anyway, because it is the one we want to make.  The gymnastics I can do in my head are amazing.

We are right now in the season of Lent leading up to Holy Week and Easter. Think about some of the consequences that the disciples had to live with after Jesus was gone. His best friend Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus predicted he would do it and Peter promised he would not. But then, in his fear, when he was asked, “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?” Peter said “No.” I think the consequence of his action was shame and heartbreak. I wonder what the people who loved Jesus thought of Peter when they heard about it. 

But Peter overcame this mistake. He became the rock that Jesus said he would be. He was a great leader in building the church that we are a part of today.  Peter became a great preacher.  He failed Jesus and he could have walked away in shame, never to be seen again. He could have shriveled up and never forgiven himself. But he accepted God’s forgiveness, and so he moved on to be a great leader in the Jesus movement. 

Here’s another great one, do you remember Moses? His story takes many twists and turns. You may remember that even though he was a Hebrew, that he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. When he grew up and saw how badly his own people were being treated, as slaves in Egypt, he was upset. One day Moses saw one of the Egyptian task masters beating a Hebrew slave. Moses intervened. There was a fight and Moses killed the Egyptian. Even though he was defending the weak, there were consequences for murder. Moses had to flee the country. Even though we believe murder is wrong, I would have to say that Moses had to do that one thing in order to put in motion a series of events which led to him becoming the leader who could lead his people out of slavery and into the promised land. He would always carry that murder with him in his heart. But “God takes the broken pieces of our lives and begins gluing things back together again.”  Even though “[s]ome consequences remain forever.” (ibid.)

You see, in the privacy of our own homes, written somewhere in a journal, hidden somewhere in our most private place, we have something we wish we could go back and change. We are living the consequences of our choices: a broken relationship, a body abused by our addiction to food or drugs; we are living the consequences of a crime, a lie, a broken promise, a betrayal. It could be anything.

This is the good news. God’s grace is bigger than our mistakes. Grace does not mean the consequences are “erased.” We may have to live with some consequences. But “God takes the broken pieces of our lives and begins gluing things back together again” (ibid). Because God does not want us to remain broken people.   God wants us to be set free from our brokenness and be whole in God’s grace. 

That is why God sent Jesus: to tell us we are always forgiven. We always get another chance.  Today, I want to invite you into a ritual. It is an ancient ritual of the Christian Church and it is quite simple, find one or more people to do this with that you love.  I want you to stand if you are able, look another person in the eye, and say “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”  Have them say it back to you.  If not, picture taking my hands right now, and do this.  Imagine saying it to me; and now, I will say it to you, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven”.  Now, I want you to believe it, because friends, it is true.   

          Do you have a place where you can experience this grace?  If not, find one, they are out there.  And if you are near the Toledo area, come to the corner of the Anthony Wayne Trail and Conant Street one Sunday.  We are in the back of the Maumee Indoor Theater Sundays at 10:30 AM.  Come receive this grace.