Let Mercy Triumph Through Your Suffering: A Good Friday Reflection

Many years ago when I was a young pastoral intern at Emmanuel Community Church here in  Fort Wayne, my wife and I were able to join the pastor and other members from the congregation for a tour of the Holy Land. A highlight was spending a day in Old Jerusalem. I remember that afternoon, standing on the Via Dolorosa – the street Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion. It was a beautiful day when my wife and I stood there on that way of sorrow, tourists from all over the world mingled and laughed and finished up their lunches. It was a challenge to try and envision what it was like almost two thousand years ago when Jesus of Nazareth stumbled through the crowds on that first Good Friday.

My kids once asked me why we call it Good Friday – why not call it Bad Friday, or Sad Friday. It’s a fair question. So of course I talked with them about the connection between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, how our putting Jesus to death on Friday afternoon was used by God to demonstrate his great love and faithfulness to Jesus and all humanity through his being raised from the dead on Sunday morning. That resurrection moment was what turned a sad and bad Friday into a Good Friday.

We call Bad Friday Good Friday because on the cross Jesus prays for his disciples who abandoned him, his fellow Jews who disbelieved him, and the Gentile soldiers who executed him – he prays “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” On that Friday, humanity committed  the worst against God, and his faithfulness and mercy triumphed over our sins. This was a crucial moment for which Jesus had come.

For some of you today, this Good Friday is a Bad Friday, or its a sad Friday. For some of us here, we have your own Via Dolorosa, your own way of suffering that you are enduring. Maybe you were wronged by someone deeply. Maybe you wronged others deeply. Maybe you are wondering “why has it come to this?” Maybe some of you are even wondering why you were created?

Good Friday is good because of the faithfulness and mercy extended from Jesus towards us who put him on the cross. This is what resurrection is all about: life that conquers death, mercy in the face of rejection, faithfulness overcoming betrayal, new beginnings at the end of the road, being raised up after being humiliated, being lifted up by God when all strength has been lost.

It’s in your Via Dolorosa moments that you discover what you were created for. Christians are the resurrection people! Amen? There is no Resurrection Sunday without a Good Friday. Consider the light, consider the goodness Christians  bring to the world through our sorrows if we let Gods mercy triumph in our life. It’s in those moments  you discover what you were created for.

It can be a challenge to imagine what the first Good Friday was like on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. But in those moments when we have our own way of sorrow, we can, like Jesus extend faithfulness and mercy. Rather than regretting that we suffered, we can realize:  “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created.”

blessed are the peacemakerians.

One of the worst things to endure in an election season is all the fear-mongering that gets spewed in order to incite people to vote. Fear of the “other” candidate is ramped up in order to garner a win at the ballot box. This leads to highlighting what is worst in the other candidates, all that is wrong in our country, and why these terrible times can only be turned around by [fill in the blank]. Christians must be salt and light in this mess.

Originally Christians were called Followers of the Way. Those that imitated the life and teachings of Jesus were labeled “little Christ’s,” or “Christians.” In the Beatitudes Christ is self-describing himself and those who follow him, leading up to the seventh beatitude as a revelation of who he is and what he has come to do. He has come to be a peacemaker and will bless all those who are peacemakers with him, in the world as it really is.

blessed are the peacemakers

Jesus is declaring blessings on the Peacmakerians. Not on those who say they are a Christian, but on those who are peacemakers, on Christians who are peacemakers – or, Peacemakerians.

As important as the election of a president is for any nation, it’s the content of our character and the means to peace in everyday life that matter most. For Christians, it’s just not the highest priority who gets elected; regardless of the ruler, we follow Christ. Our blessings don’t come because of the righteousness of the country, but the faithfulness of the church to embody the beatitudes. It’s the church of Christ that are Peacemakerians – in the prosperous times and in the fear-full times.

The pastor Martin Luther King still captures many Christians imaginations for how to pursue peaceful ends with peaceful means amidst a nation embroiled in racial and economic injustice. In his 1967 Christmas sermon on peace, Rev. King implored the church to forsake hate, that to return hate with hate “was to great a burden to bear.” But if a church is going to meet violent dogs and police sticks with “soul-force” – from where does that kind of character and resolve come? Embracing the beatitudes of Jesus, embodying them in our life together as Christians, as the church of Peacemakerians. 

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There will always be injustice and unrighteous rulers, war-mongers and fear-mongers, corrupt industrialists and depraved officials. All around the world people are tempted to give in to the status quo of idolatrous greed and arrogant envy. Every generation of the church has to learn how to be Peacemakerians,  learning again how in this world to be merciful and pure in heart with Jesus – for this is the soul of being a Peacemakerian who is blessed by Christ.

How do we know that we’re avoiding being a Peacemakerian? When we avoid the poor in spirit who mourn and the meek who hunger for justice. What are the signs that we are cutting ourselves off from God’s blessings? When we ignore the ways we are poor in heart, when we refuse to mourn and repent of our sins, when we resist by our own power being meek, and when we seek to satisfy our own hunger for justice.

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If we can’t see how Jesus was poor in spirit and one who mourned the sins of the world, if we can’t embrace Jesus as one who is meek and still hungers and thirsts for righteous justice, if we can’t see how this Jesus is merciful and pure in heart towards all, then we can’t see him as a peacemaker with and among the poor who mourn and the meek who hunger. And if we can’t see Jesus there, we won’t see him anywhere. And if we can’t see how he’s being a peacemaker there, we can’t join him in our community or nation.

Jesus came as a peacemaker and gave us the ministry of peacemaking. This is the blessing – and the means to the blessing. Hear Jesus calling you to become a Peacemakerian, a Christian who can be accused of being a “little Christ” for imitating the reconciling work of the Lord to the poor in spirit, whether they be wealthy or destitute, or somewhere in between.

The-Beatitudes Series 2016

blessed are those who hunger for justice

What’s more vivid than imagining a growling stomach? You can almost feel the memory as you recall that aching distance between the too small breakfast and the too long delayed lunch.

What did Jesus know about hunger and injustice? Plenty. His people, the tribes of Israel, had endured the almighty sword of Rome for a few centuries at this point in history. Crucifixions were common. Malnutrition caused blindness, lameness, and deformities. Abuse, rape, torture demented the minds of too many, manifesting itself in possession of evil spirits.

blessed-righteousnessJesus knew what it was to be hungry for righteousness, and he knew what it was to be thirsty for justice. For himself and his people.

If we were to walk in Jesus’ shoes, to try to feel the injustice that pervaded the lives of the Israelites under the rule of the Romans, is there any kind of comparison in American culture? Is there a people in the USA who also hunger and thirst for righteousness?

Who do we know that are starving for right to prevail for their sons and daughters?

ta-nehisi coates bookAs I read through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me, I thought often of this fourth beatitude. African men and women who were sold into slavery here in America, and their many black descendants today, still, often, ache for righteous justice to prevail. That’s what comes through so clearly and painfully in Coates notes to his son.

I read this memoir of a black writer as a white pastor. I’ve not known any of the travails he and his people have endured. While I’ve had my share of fears and tears, they are not on his scale, nor fueled by the generations of sins that were beaten into the backs of those black slaves.

You want to hear Americans crying out because of their hunger and thirst for righteousness? Between the World and Me is required reading.

What is justice? What is righteousness? Jesus is our understanding of it. Jesus was right with God and all others, he was right with all creation and himself. That’s what you’re reading in the gospels, stories of Jesus demonstrating what righteous justice looks like amongst the poor and outcast, the wounded and broken. It is contrasted with wickedness, with selfish actions to enrich oneself at the expense of others, to fuel foolishness and bring ruin down upon those around you.

Righteousness in the Hebrew Scriptures is understood as justice, as equity, as wisdom, as goodness. Righteousness in the Old Testament is glimpsed at in the many characters that fill out the epic stories. It’s what the best of the Israelites aspired to, their turning away from it is what led to their downfall, and it’s what the prophets implored them to return to.

And that’s why Jesus came: a prophet to demonstrate righteousness, a king to lead them into justice, and a priest to mediate it between God and humanity.

Ironically, the church serves as the body of Christ in the world: we embody this justice in the ways we love one another and bless our communities, we are to lead our fellow humans into the ways of righteousness as we are led by Christ’s Spirit, and we make sacrifices with our lives through insisting that what is good, beautiful, and true prevail for all people – especially the poor and broken-hearted.

For the white Protestant Christian church in America, we have a lot to own up to about the ways Jesus was used to uphold slavery, to insist on segregation, and to keep us blind to the insidiousness of racism in our communities yet today.

We may want to say that’s all in the past, that WE’RE not responsible for what THEY did…. But the body of Christ transcends space and time – and if we want righteousness to prevail now, the church may want to look back to all that has contributed to now.

This partly undergirds Jesus’ initial cry to his people: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Israel: You’re hands are not as clean as you want them to be! The past still impoverishes your spirit. Until you mourn it and repent, it will still burden you. The covenant comes with blessings, and curses.

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May we – white Protestant American Christians – hear the cries of those who hunger for justice and thirst for righteousness. May our own growling stomaches compel us to desire what is right to prevail for all, especially those who are descendants of America’s slaves.

May we let Jesus fuel our appetites for righteousness. May we let Jesus guide us in answering the prayers of those who desire God’s will to be done in the face of injustice, wickedness, and foolishness. It’s what we’re called to, as Christ’s disciples.

The-Beatitudes Series 2016

blessed are the meek

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, those 40 days (not including Sundays) when we become like the meek, penitent and aware of our weakness to sin.

It’s a season to remember how Jesus was tempted in every way – as revealed by his 40 days in the wilderness – and yet he did not sin. Lest we think this was a cakewalk for Jesus, consider that it’s easier to give in to sin than to resist every single hour of every single day for your whole life.

Jesus pronounces: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land!” 

Jesus became meek, he became weak, he became human, in order to bring good news to the meek. Lent is for remembering our meekness, our weakness, our need for the good news of God’s kingdom of grace, for the gift of his Holy Spirit to bear fruit in our life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control.

blessed are the meek 2It takes a lot of faith to believe this beatitude. Especially since it seems to be such a stark contrast to how things seem to be these days. Looking around the globe, the poor seem to be getting poorer and the rich seem to be getting richer. Where are the meek and weak ones, the poor and oppressed peoples who are in line to inherit a life-changing amount of wealth and power?

But Jesus stands by his beatitude. He’s addressing the people of God, the children of Abraham, the tribes of Israel – and they are eager to have their land – the Promised Land – restored to them. They are the meek Jesus is talking about, the weak ones battered by the superior Imperial forces of the Roman centurions and legionaries.

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Jesus is evoking for them their much loved Psalm 37:11 “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” It resonates with the themes of the meek in Isaiah 11, 29, and 61 (in the KJV): the meek are the righteous poor of the land who have endured injustice at the hand of the wickedly wealthy – and someday the Lord will right all wrongs and reward the meek for their faithfulness with peace and prosperity, justice and mercy.

This is what Jesus is alluding to in his beatitude, but also much more. Jesus is unveiling that he is the Messiah the meek are waiting for to enact their inheritance, to return the land to Israel and drive out the wicked. He is the king the meek have been waiting for, and if they trust in him and follow his ways, he will fulfill God’s covenant plans for their redemption and renewal.

We are heirs of those who did believe Jesus, for the good news of God’s kingdom arriving was received by a few disciples, and in the ages since, in each generation, there are the meek who receive the meek King Jesus and his gospel, trusting him and his ways for deliverance from the powers that corrupt this good creation and all who dwell in it.

For those that believe him, Jesus brings a promise that good will overcome this corrupting evil, that justice will prevail on behalf of the meek over the unrighteous – therefore do not weary of doing God’s will, for it is not in vain.

Later in the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus announces more good news to his disciples: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you shall find rest unto your weary souls.” Jesus draws the meek unto himself, meek calling unto meek to find rest together. In our weariness of soul and weakness of heart we can connect with the presence of Jesus.

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Accepting that we are meek and weak can be the doorway to our salvation, to admitting our need for Jesus to deliver us from the kingdom of darkness within and around us.

Meek is not really a character trait so much as it is a condition we find ourselves in – our souls, our life. It is when we are meek and weak that we can be blessed by Jesus. It is when we are meek and seeking rest in the presence of Jesus that we can receive the inheritance of the kingdom: faith, hope, and love.

When we identify with the meek, we are identifying with Jesus – and it is then that we’ll be able to see how the kingdom is coming now into our world, and we will yearn for it much more deeply, and be willing to join in it now.

During this Lenten season, may the Lord reveal your weaknesses to you, may you confess what you already know to be true about the brokenness and blindness in your life, may you repent of the ways you’ve idolized control, safety, power, and pleasure.

May you accept your meekness this Lenten season, and thus become open to the blessings Jesus wants you to inherit. By grace. By faith. Saved to do good works. To bless the meek as one of them. In Jesus name.

blessed are those who mourn

Jesus comes as oJesus mournsne who mourns to those that mourn.

Jesus is a man of sorrow, and he’s willing to sit with us i our tears and walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death, amidst his own grief and disappointments.

Mourning is an intentional act in response to specific sorrows, and it invites people to share in the grief and offer comfort and calm, solace and empathy.

Ironically, we often push people away in our pain. Broken-hearts can cause a wall of shards to keep out any more threats, but it also keeps away the comforters.

Israel had experienced great loss: loss of their land, their identity, their temple, their right to self rule, their prosperity, their favor with God, and so much more. They turned away from God and their call to care for the poor, for the widows and orphans, for the sick and crippled, for the broken-hearted. As a result, Israel had been turned over to empires for centuries by the time of Jesus’ arrival, experiencing great shards of sorrow.

The broken-hearted people of Israel had been longing for God to return as King, to comfort and restore their nation, bless them with peace and prosperity following their half-millennium of exile and enslavement to empires. Jesus was the answer to that prayer. But he did not answer it in the way they expected or wanted.

Though our sense of loss might not be the exact same as that of Israel two millennia ago, we still experience tragic losses and painful regrets, crushing disappointments and days full of lament. We pray for God to save us, heal us, turn things around for us. And Jesus is still the one who comes to us as an answer to our prayers: but will we receive the comfort he offers?

We still must endure in our generation the terrible toll of war and death, incurable cancers and grinding poverty, of secret abuses and cruel neglect, of debilitating diseases and crippling accidents. In our marriages we sense the loss of dreams, with our children we experience loss of innocence, with our jobs or homes we experience loss of opportunities and desires. What to do with all that loss?

blessed are those who mourn

If you deny it, gloss over it, pretend it’s no big deal, keep it a secret, you’ll close yourself off to the healing comfort that wise and godly friends can bring into your life. Loss is the experience of every human that’s ever lived. Your loss is unique to you, but it is also very common to almost everyone, and thus there is much to learn from others about how to mourn.

To mourn is to enter into the suffering, to let yourself be guided towards a kind of acceptance where the loss actually enriches your life.

It’s been discerned that most people who experience loss go through several stages: first is denial, then anger, followed by guilt or bargaining, then depression, leading to acceptance. It’s vital to remember that this is not a step by step process.

5 stages of grief

You can dwell in one stage for a long time, skip one and then dwell in another, but then revert and then circle to the end, only to start back at the beginning. Some stages will be felt deeply, others intermittently, and so on. There is no “right” way to go through the stages, but there are wrong ways. Letting losses deprive you of your humanity, your heart, and hope, cutting yourself off from family and friends, and from God, is deadly.

Jesus invites all who will follow him to consider their mourning an opportunity to consider themselves blessed. In responding to the call of the Christ to turn towards him and join his kingdom, they can count on empathy and mercy when they mourn. Through the community of Christ-followers, we can mourn together and comfort together. You don’t have to endure loss alone. 

What’s the loss most prevalent in your life these days? If you took a few quiet minutes, what are the multitude of losses that swirl around in your memories?

Consider the complexity of grief and sadness that marks each soul: with all the nameless losses or blatant ones that profoundly affect us, what keeps us from despairing? Jesus. He promises to be present with us as one who mourns, training us on how to mourn, how to be comforted so that we can in turn can continue the Eucharistic blessing to others. We can be broken together. 

It’s almost an act of defiance to declare that it is a blessing to mourn. The world urges us to protest loss, to be indignant, to do what we can to prevent it from every happening again.

Jesus upends the way of the world: when we experience loss we can be enriched, when we choose to mourn we can receive comfort, and when we are vulnerable we can be surrounded by a wise and holy community who will walk with us, come what may.

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Instead of giving into the hate and anger that is a natural part of enduring loss, we can see in Jesus a life-giving way to persevere through the pain, together. Instead of suppressing the truth of the trauma, we can overturn the lies and receive healing comfort. The guilt that often accompanies our processing of loss can be assuaged by the promises of the Lord and his people who ground our being in the unshakeable redeeming love of God.

All loss can become an opportunity for new gifts. The depression that flows from dealing the reality of the loss is dark and often foreboding, and normal, and healthy. But just as it is often darkest before the dawn, so Jesus promises to bring light to those that live in the land of the shadow of death. He makes all things new. For those that will believe it.

“Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

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