Good Friday, April 19th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 19th: Psalm 22; Isaiah 52:13—53:12; John 18:1—19:42; Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is Good Friday. This will be the last of the Lent Blogs for this season. I would encourage you to continue with daily Scripture reading. If you’d like, here is the link to the Massachusetts Conference’s daily reading schedule: https://www.macucc.org/lectionary.
I will post occasionally, but these Lenten offerings were one of my ways to engage daily with God’s Word. For as often as I read the Bible, I am reassured constantly that it is God’s still speaking Word. There is always something new. I believe that comes in part from my own ever-changing relationship with God. Jesus speaks to me where I am, which shouldn’t be a surprise since that comes across repeatedly in the Gospel stories, but it is a matter of listening. And Lent is a very special opportunity to listen.
Our church will be open today from 9AM – 3:30PM. Mark’s Gospel informs us that Jesus was nailed to the cross at 9AM, that the skies grew dark at noon, and that He died at 3PM. These are contemplative hours. The silence and sanctity of place can help. Pew Bibles are available. Maybe read Psalm 22. Think back to the time before Jesus when this prayer of suffering and of faith was first uttered. This was a human in deepest despair. Then, read the Psalm again as on the lips of Jesus, the Crucified God in Moltmann’s turn of phrase.
Try to imagine that God in Jesus experiences forsakenness. Mark, the oldest Gospel, tells us that there is not a single comforting face for Jesus to look down upon from the cross and that painful cry of “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” means that there is no one above either. Jesus on the cross feels the isolation that can plague our mortal condition. He dies as one of us. His death is the perfect act of at-one-ment. Jesus …
“Though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 6-8)
Jesus forsakes everything, God forsakes everything, for us. There is no more perfect a love. God’s everything is everything, and this is all offered up for communion with us. If that were not enough, God even sacrifices His own self. In Christ Jesus we discover that God loves us more than He loves Himself. Think back to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and the repulsion the whole affair generates, and then look to the cross where the Son actually dies. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53), and yet He dies. The cross was accepted by Christ as a sacrifice for His gospel. Jesus’ lived proclamation is the only way we can survive as our better selves. It’s the only way to protect us from our more dangerous selves. And it cost Jesus His life, a beautiful life tortured to death in a most heinous way.
This is why today is a day of contemplation and self-examination. This cannot be like any other day. It must be treated with grave reverence. Jesus deserves no less.
Maundy Thursday, April 18th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 18th: Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; John 13:1-17, 31b-35; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is Maundy Thursday. The name is derived from the Latin Vulgate word mandatum, “commandment.” The commandment is Jesus’ “new commandment” that He urges upon His followers at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
Lent is a holy season of introspection and meditation. Holy Week accentuates our spiritual exercises as Jesus ventures into Jerusalem and a confrontation with His powerful enemies. And now, from Holy Thursday forward, we are in the final stretch as we move from Last Supper to Jesus’ grave. Everything about Lent is compressed and amplified.
This evening we will gather for our Maundy Thursday Service. It is intentionally solemn. We will read the same passage from John’s Gospel that is shared here. It tells us that Jesus takes on the role of the humblest servant in the house and washes the feet of His disciples. It is an important lesson the meditate upon. We’ve been reading Holy Scripture passages of the Suffering Servant. The imagery is noble and self-sacrificing. This is different. Jesus honours service. It is the truth passed over too lightly in the often repeated statement: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” This sentence is interspersed in different situations in the Gospels from which we can infer that it was remembered as a key phrase because of its frequent usage by Jesus. It is the overturning of worldly order and priority. It is the replacement of human power with God’s reign. And God’s reign grows in breadth and depth when we not only watch what Jesus does, but when we imitate His embrace of servanthood: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Continuing in our Maundy Thursday Service, we will also share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. This takes us out of John’s Gospel and on to another tradition. John is unique in that he situates the institution of Communion during the feeding of the thousands. For John, this sacrament is not limited to a few in a closed room at the end of Jesus’ life. For John, Communion is positioned in the midst of Jesus’ ministry among a multitude of people. Unlike the other Gospel accounts of the feeding of the thousands, Jesus Himself distributes the miraculous bounty. The logistics are problematic, which only reinforces the theological importance that Christ is directly available to the people through this sacred meal. There are no intermediaries in John. In John’s Last Supper, the institution of Communion is replaced by the “new commandment” to love one another as Jesus has loved us, which is exemplified in the washing of the disciples’ feet. Communion with Christ and service in the world are linked together in ways church sometimes forgets in both directions.
When we receive Holy Communion this evening, as we gather in church to remember the night of Jesus’ Last Supper, we fulfill another Last Supper commandment. The most ancient biblical source of the institution account is not found in the Gospels. It is conveyed to us by Paul in today’s selection. In his telling, Jesus commands, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we have for some 2,000 years. This time span does not move us farther and farther away from the reality of Communion. It amplifies our connection with Christ through this sacrament. It was already a tradition at the time of Paul to gather for the Lord’s Supper, and it is a tradition still holy today. Jesus is just as real in our presence now as He was 2,000 years ago. Sacrament comes from the Greek word for mystery, and the timelessness of Communion’s sacrament is part of that mystery.
Any and all are welcome to join us this evening as we gather to remember Jesus’ Last Supper and the beginning of His Passion. As we say every time we share in Communion, “All are welcome at the Communion Table.”
Wednesday, April 17th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 17th: Psalm 70; Isaiah 50:4-9a; John 13:21- 32; and Hebrews 12:1-3. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Did Jesus die with thoughts of Isaiah lingering throughout His last moments of consciousness? As soldiers and priests struck Him on the back tearing apart His flesh, as insults and charges of blasphemy were hurled at Him with utter contempt, as men spit upon the face of God, did Jesus find consolation in words He must have been familiar with from the Book of Isaiah: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.”?
This hope melds perfectly with the accounts of the Johannine Jesus. In other Passion narratives, Jesus is not certain which particular disciple will betray Him, but in John nothing seems hidden from Jesus. He outs Judas to the Beloved Disciple, and presumably the Beloved Disciple shares the news with Peter that Judas is the traitor.
There’s a problem with this scenario, however. After clearly identifying Judas, the account proceeds by telling us: “Now no one at the table knew why [Jesus] said this to [Judas]. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor.” These logical interruptions are often signs that history and theology are being forced together and sometimes the fit is not seamless.
John’s theology is then said openly. The cross is Jesus’ glory not His suffering. Jesus has almost transcended His human nature and taken on more of His divine nature. John’s Jesus is in control even as they crucify Him. And isn’t this what today’s three other readings repeat, as well? Isn’t God there for the faithful even in their suffering? Wouldn’t this be a reassuring theology for those first generations of Christians dealing with a crucified Saviour? Wouldn’t this soften the scandal of Christ being disgraced as an executed common political criminal?
But what if that’s a preferred theology talking? What if the scandal was visceral? What if Jesus’ cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was real? What if Jesus faced His suffering and mortality by carrying His full human nature all the way to the cross? What if He faced death scared, alone and wondering what the future held? Can this scandal be an even greater glory? Can it testify to the intimacy of God’s connection with all of us through the very real human nature of Jesus Christ? The Bible offers alternatives. But either way, let us never take the cross for granted. Jesus deserves reverence, and at least He deserves to be remembered.
Tuesday, April 16th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 16th: Psalm 71:1-14; Isaiah 49:1-7; John 12:20-36; and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
It was a terrible thing to watch Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral burning yesterday. Work on the church began in 1163 and took over a century to complete, and it remained an active house of God until yesterday. We pray that her life of worship will return as soon as possible. And we pray for the people the world over who grieve this terrible loss.
We will print your replies to the question of what church means to you in our Easter Sunday bulletin. Your answers speak to the living faith of this community that happens to gather in the building at 41 Main Street. The building, I think we all know, is not the church, but the building is a sanctuary where we can feel closer to Christ. It is the place that allows the community of the church to assemble. It is the place we often associate with our worship, and with those times we gather together before God in joy, grief or to mark a milestone in our lives. The church building is the house of our spiritual family.
The building is so intricately woven into the fabric of our faith lives that it becomes a part of them. It is the place where we can come and pray with the Psalmist: “O God, do not be far from me.” Jesus is not confined by place, but place can help us feel the special closeness of God.
When you look front and center in our church building, there hangs the cross. It almost looks to me like it is surrounded by the outline of a heart drawn by the contours of the pipe organ. The cross captures our attention and it directs our faith. It doesn’t linger on the theme of death; it testifies to Jesus’ perfect love no matter the cost.
As Paul writes in today’s passage: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” When Jesus is nailed to its wood, He doesn’t die only for the faithful. Thank God. Rather, He dies even for the ones who are torturing Him to death. This may seem ludicrous to our minds, but it’s not our minds that matter.
The cross is Jesus’ final and perfect revelation to us. Christ’s love is not dependent on our merits. Christ’s love is of the very nature of God. Jesus can do nothing less than love. It fulfills the prophecy of Duetero-Isaiah: “‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”
This unreasonable love is the mystery we ponder during Holy Week. May we all make the time to be with Christ, alone or together in the places that our faith make holy as we meditate upon the “foolishness” of the cross.
Monday, April 15th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 15th: Psalm 36:5-11; Isaiah 42:1-9; John 12:1-11; and Hebrews 9:11-15. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is tax-day in the United States except for Massachusetts and Maine. Our observance of Patriots Day gives us a one-day extension. Patriots Day postpones tax-day; it doesn’t eliminate it.
Today’s Gospel selection looks forwards and backwards. It gives a time reference to the approaching Passover and also takes us back to the raising of Lazarus. In the Lazarus story, this friend of Jesus dies. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus’ sister Martha goes out to meet Him, but Lazarus’ other sister Mary, the Bible says pointedly, stayed at home. Mary was angry and disappointed with Jesus that He did not come sooner and save her brother.
Jesus then raises Lazarus from the dead.
Today’s Gospel selection is the account of their next encounter. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume that would have cost a regular labourer one full year’s worth of wages. She is repenting for staying away from Jesus when Lazarus had died. Her extravagance expresses the deep regret she feels over this past act of desertion and is her even deeper promise to never again leave Jesus, to trust in Him no matter what. Mary may also have sensed the importance of what would happen during the approaching Passover in Jerusalem, and as Jesus says she has prepared His body for burial.
Judas is not at the same place. Judas cannot grasp the uniqueness of Jesus’ life and therefore of Jesus’ death. He will betray Jesus for daring to be more than human. Judas sees Jesus as Teacher, but not as God’s Son, and Teacher is not enough.
Lazarus died and Jesus raised him from the dead, but this only postponed Lazarus’ death. It did not eliminate it. Jesus’ death, on the other hand, conquered death. God raised Him to never die again. This is the mystery the church lays out before us at the start of Holy Week. Can we appreciate extravagantly the person of Christ and embrace the fullness of the transformation that He offers to all of us?
Friday, April 12th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 12th: Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 54:9-10; and Hebrews 2:10-18. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
After the flood in the Noah story, God promises to never again destroy His creation in such fashion. Adhering to that imagery, God speaks to the remnant of survivors living in exile after the fall of Jerusalem. They are like the saved-ones on the ark. As God sealed His promise to Noah with the rainbow, so again, the Lord promises to withhold His anger and this time Isaiah’s poetry stands as the marker of this renewed relationship: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you …”
The message is beautiful, but the reality remains difficult. Israel does return, but the expected resurrection of the kingdom never occurs. That hope is laid upon the expectation of the Messiah, the “son of David” who will usher in God’s everlasting kingdom. These are still the hopes of the people of Jerusalem some 500 years later as Jesus makes His triumphal entry as we will recall in this coming weekend’s Palm Sunday worship. Again, however, reality tells a different story.
I wonder if it’s time for us to re-examine our expectations of how God will act. After Noah, after the Exile, after Palm Sunday maybe we need to think in different terms of God’s “my steadfast love shall not depart from you.” These events are acts of re-creation not of the world, but within the world. They offer opportunities that we must embrace to make the world better.
There is no reason why humans must constantly choose the more destructive path. There is no reason why we can’t choose to follow our better selves, our made in the image of God selves. God is always here to help and guide and even pick us up to start over, but we need to choose what kind of world we will build.
God knows this is not going to be easy, and that we will stagger down broad paths again, and that we will suffer because of it. When that happens, don’t imagine God is just watching safely at a distance, waiting to pass judgment for our own selfishness and greed. Think instead of His constant steadfast love in terms of Jesus’ own suffering: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. … Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Let us find the strength to choose to build a better world knowing that Jesus walks beside us fearful of nothing and in the assurance that His “steadfast love shall not depart from you.”
Thursday, April 11th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 11th: Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 53:10-12; and Hebrews 2:1-9. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
In the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, there are solemn passages known collectively as the Suffering Servant passages. They speak of a righteous one who suffers on behalf of others. From the earliest days of Jesus' followers, believers have applied these texts to Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Suffering Servant passages helped them to see Jesus’ tortured death not as defeat, but as suffering endured for others. The cross was not only “He died;” it was “He died for us.” We often look at this from our own perspective, but there is also a hint of what those Suffering Servant passages may have meant for Jesus:
“Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.”
The cross is Jesus’ final proclamation of the gospel. It is His unwavering commitment to the message of peace, forgiveness and love. He will not return hatred for hatred, violence for violence. He submits to the evil of others rather than take any part in it.
But there is the glimmer of hope that Jesus found some consolation in the promise that His testimony unto the point of death would make a difference. In the Suffering Servant passage, the righteous one bears our iniquities to “make many righteous.” As He suffered, hopefully, in “his anguish he shall see light.” Maybe the “many righteous” are the light that gave Christ hope in the time of His betrayal and desertion. Maybe the possibility of our faith today lessened Jesus’ burden on that first Good Friday.
Jesus gave the last of what He could on that horrid cross. It is a bit reassuring to think that maybe our faith helped Jesus in His last hours. I’d like to think so. As the author of Hebrews writes: “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” We can give something back to Jesus in our faithfulness and I find that comforting as I have to look up at that cross, that hate-filled cross, every Lent where Jesus gave-up everything for us.
Wednesday, April 10th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 10th: Psalm 20; Habakkuk 3:2-15; and Luke 18:31-34. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Yesterday’s Daily Devotional of the UCC was written by Rev. Tony Robinson. His meditation was based on the same Gospel passage we read today. He says in part, “I'm not sure the disciples were dumb, or at least that I am any smarter than they were. There are lots of times when I've heard only what I wanted to hear, not what was being said.” And I have to agree with him.
Jesus is blunt and the disciples are not stupid. They simply cannot process what Jesus reveals. They have already made up their minds who He is and what He must do. They are drawing on a thousand years of tradition that prepared them for a powerful, conquering Messiah. How do you reconcile that with “he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him …”? Not to mention, what in the world would “rise again” mean?
Our expectations are powerful and they can even silence the voice of God. Last evening was our final Lenten Discussion. Rev. Mic Comstock talked with us about the early Congregational tradition that each local church manifested the roles of Christ as king, priest and prophet.
Then he focused on what it may mean for a congregation to be the prophet. This took us an hour and from the feel of our questions it could have gone on much longer. He did, however, convey the traditional warning that personal opinion can masquerade as prophetic revelation.
The Congregational tradition reaches back to the earliest example of the church by insisting that it is the agreed upon pronouncement of the entire congregation that expresses the prophetic role. The dialogue and consensus of the community works to amplify the voice of God so that it may be heard above individual expectations.
Currently, we are becoming excessively individualized. The anonymity of the web has created platforms that elevate any and all thoughts that may cross our minds or well up from the bile in our guts. Maybe we need to return to the example of the filter of the church where discussion and argument are welcomed, but as respectful dialogues.
Rev. Comstock mentioned that along with Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday evening worship, the church community would gather on Thursdays to discuss how to live the Christian life in their then current circumstance. They would debate, for example, the Christian merits of remaining loyal to the king or rising up in rebellion for noble principles. Maybe the church can be the place where again differences of opinion may be shared and compromise found. And maybe this in itself is prophetic.
Lent is the unmistakable reminder that God does not have to follow our expectations. So may we listen for God’s voice even when it sounds so different than our own. And may this humbleness also help us to listen to each other.
Tuesday, April 9th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 9th: Judges 9:7-15; Psalm 20; and 1 John 2:18-28. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
If you’ve been reading more of the Bible this Lenten season, and I hope you have, if you’ve become more engaged with the Word of God, then you may find yourself both celebrating and arguing with the text. This is not a lack of faith. This is relationship. This climaxes in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus brings God to come and live among us as one of us. I don’t know how much of a service it is when we treat Jesus as so holy that we separate salvation from incarnation. There’s a difference between sanctity and sanctimonious. Jesus’ life shows that He can handle our questions and concerns. Can we?
The Old Testament has a raucous relationship with God, which is not to say an irreverent relationship with God. The Hebrew text is not shy in sharing the author’s tumultuous relationship with God.
At this weekend’s Youth Group gathering, Rev. Jenn Valentine shared a meditation with us based on Psalm 13 from the New Living Translation of the Bible. It goes like this:
“O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
2How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
3Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
4Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
5But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
6I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.”
I had never caught the imagery of the Psalmist chasing after God demanding justice while God seems to continue walking away. I was astonished by vs 3’s “Turn and answer me!” The Psalms are part of the liturgy of the Jewish faith and they do not shy away from an honest relationship with God. When God feels distant and unperturbed, the person of faith calls Him out. This may seem uncharacteristic to our liturgical ears, but the Psalmist vents and then ends with praise for Yahweh. It is relationship.
In my own relationship with the text, when I read today’s passage from Judges I smile. I love its taunting message to power. Those who seek to rule over others, to subjugate and dominate them, do so because they have nothing productive to offer. Can you imagine this passage being read to one of Israel’s or Judah’s kings, or, for that matter, to any of today’s abusers of power? It makes me smile.
But I have to admit that I am left unimpressed by the sentiment behind the passage from 1 John. Raymond Brown wrote with such penetrating insight in his commentaries on John, and he emphasized the insular nature of that community. Anyone who disagreed and left, even for another Christian community, was an “antichrist.” The author was sure the end-time was upon them because people chose to believe in Christ differently. This is a spiritual affliction from which we suffer still today as Christians and churches.
Lent is our chance to continue to deepen our relationship with Christ, and sometimes that means challenging God with our questions, but it also means being faithful enough to wait for answers, even answers that are unexpected. Don’t be afraid to say, “Turn and answer me.” A living relationship can handle it.
Monday, April 8th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 8th: Exodus 40:1-15; Psalm 20; and Hebrews 10:19-25. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
In one of my Old Testament classes somewhere along the line, I learned about amphictonic leagues. These would be loosely knit groups that were held together by a shared religious faith or shrine. The term comes from ancient Greece, but it applies as well to ancient Israel.
The twelve tribes assembled around a sanctuary to Yahweh at its center. The Tabernacle with its Aaronic priesthood that today’s Exodus passage describe is that religious shrine. It held the tribes together. Yahweh was literally at the center of their lives.
When the movable Tabernacle became the permanent Temple, David made sure that it was placed in neutral location so that all of the tribes could claim equal title to God’s sanctuary. Jerusalem was taken from a foreign people and became David’s capital. It sat at the border between northern Israel and southern Judah. Again, the sanctuary was at the center of the people of Israel, not unlike Washington, D.C., was at the center of the earliest United States of America.
During the Middle Ages, when the world was being discovered by European explorers, maps still insisted on God at the center. Christians designed maps that reflected discoveries, but also overlaid these with theology, and as such, Jerusalem was drawn at the center of the world.
We have obviously moved beyond these physical definitions, but is it not comforting to think in a spiritual sense of God at the center of our lives? The psalmist once wrote: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.” Such a reliance on God testifies to a more tangible faith-life than many today expect. Often we place God at the fringe and we’re comfortable with that. God doesn’t intrude that way. But God at the fringe can’t inspire and transform us or our world the way God at the center can.
Jesus is a transformative Saviour. No one expected a Saviour like Him. He changed everyone who believed in Him, and He still will do the same if we let Him live at the center of our lives. This is something to at least consider in these last weeks of Great Lent.
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