Easter letter

To my fellow pilgrims with whom I travel to the cross of Christ 

A few years ago I was preaching at an early morning service on the practice of prayer. I talked for a bit about the formal prayers which we learn in our childhood and the handy prayer acronyms that well-meaning Sunday School teachers and youth leaders have passed down through the generations to “beginner” Christians.

Then, I stepped out from behind the pulpit, walked right up to the front row and offered the unsophisticated thought that prayer is simply coming before God as we are – and being open to God doing the same. 

That was the first moment that I took my shoes off in front of a congregation. I’m still not sure how it happened exactly. I hadn’t planned to do so. I didn’t even register that I had done it until I spotted a colleague doubled over in laughter, trying to take photos of my feet. But that is my most natural state of being: barefoot, in the garden, like a child who is unafraid and unashamed to walk with her holy and loving and life-giving God.

Over the past seven weeks we have been walking the long and dusty road to Jerusalem. Like Jesus who had travelled that way many times before in both his childhood and his ministry, we revisit the familiar ground of our faith:
~ the palm-strewn streets of Jerusalem,
~ the pounded earthen floor of the upper room upon which Jesus knelt to wash his disciples’ feet, 
~ the green of the olive grove in which he prayed in such agony of spirit and received the kiss of betrayal,
~ the cold stone of Pilate’s court which resounded with the hateful cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
~ the torturous hill upon which he stumbled under the weight of the cross,
~ the dark and dreary road of grief and despair that the women walked as his lifeless body was taken from Calvary and laid in a borrowed tomb,
~ and, then, the rough path that flies by beneath our feet as we run breathlessly to see for ourselves the truth – that he’s not where he’s supposed to be! He is risen!!

I hope that as we have travelled together, we have not found ourselves just going through the motions, listening to the same old story in the same old way, revisiting ground so familiar after 10- 20- 50 years that it fails to move us …

… but, that as we are given, again, this remarkable glimpse into who God is and how much God loves us, we are able to
     kick off the shoes that confine us, 
wash away the grime that has gathered,
             receive the assurance that we are forgiven,
escape from our own narrow expectations,
and walk, and dance, and run, and laugh, and dare, and dream
with the God who defeats death that we might come to life.

Over the next 50 days, as we move from Easter to Pentecost, may we come before God as we are and be open to God doing the same, knowing that such a holy encounter will not leave us unchanged.  

Yours, in Christ,
Yvonne 

Dead.

A reflection for Good Friday on What Darkness Brings To Light

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

John 19:38-42

Our Gospel reading today puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

We are unable to marvel at Christ’s compassion as he pleads with the Father to forgive those who have treated him so unjustly, so horrendously. We cannot cheer for the criminal who sticks up for Jesus and so earns himself a place in Paradise. We are not moved by the agony of God-with-us thirsting, breathing shallower and shallower, questioning why he has been forsaken.

For he is dead.

The spectacle is over.

And the crowd is hurrying back to their homes because it is nearly Passover and there are preparations to be made: houses to be tidied, meals to be prepared, tables to be set.

But isn’t that always the case with death? The rub, the salt in the wound; the final, unbearable agony on to of the already excruciating loss? How quickly life moves on ….

The flowers fade. The cards and calls stop coming. The last lasagne or chicken-pot-pie comes out of the freezer, is defrosted, and eaten. People get busy and conversations become awkward as you get the sense from what is not said that you should be moving on; when, really, its as a result of the guilt that they feel for not being there for you as they had intended that makes others unable to look you in the eye.

So you keep yourself busy – through the first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary. But you realise just how many firsts there actually are: the first holiday that you don’t take your usual camping trip, the first time you sit down at your favourite coffee shop alone, the first time something funny happens and you start telling it to someone who’s no longer there ….

So you’re stuck, as the firsts turns to seconds or thirds and the loss really doesn’t get much easier and you discover that a wave of tired can overwhelm you for no particular reason at all.

Death is final. Irrevocable. And – for those who loved its victim with all their heart – changes life completely.

Our Gospel reading today puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

Christ is dead – and with him, the hope of the world.

The spectacle is over.

And the crowd is hurrying away from the darkness of it all in case some taint should linger and be carried home with them.

And yet, it is in the darkest place that something quite unexpected, quite amazing happens.

In the absence of Jesus’s male disciples, two other men step up to deal with Jesus’s body: Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man and a member of the Jewish ruling council, who had vehemently opposed the decision to have Christ crucified; and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the rabbinic tribunal who we remember for that very confusing conversation about needing to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Both were secret disciples. As members of the religious and political parties that shared power with their Roman rules, both stood to lose much by aligning themselves with the crucified King of the Jews:

  • their position,
  • their standing in the community,
  • their creature comforts,
  • their freedom,
  • and, maybe even their lives.

But in the gravest of moments, at the darkest of times, when everyone else had abandoned the lifeless, useless, blood-stained body of Jesus and just a small handful of weeping women stood watch over it from a distance, wondering what to do next in the face of such an unexpected, unjust, tragic death – Joseph and Nicodemus declare their love publicly and practically as they petition Pilate for Jesus’s body, prepare it for burial with a lavish amount of myrrh and sandalwood, and lay it (as Isaiah had prophesied) in a rich man’s tomb. Tradition suggests that this may even have been Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb – freshly hewn into the cliff of a nearby, private garden.

Through the darkness shines
their courage,
their generosity,
their faith,
their love,
their commitment.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if they would ever have identified themselves as followers of Jesus if the story had not ended in this exact way. Without the darkness, would their relationship with Jesus ever have come to light? Without the tragedy and injustice of such a death, would the world have been prepared for Sunday’s truth: that Christ has come to life?

Today, our Gospel reading puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

Christ is dead.

The spectacle is over.

The dreams of his disciples lie in rubble and ruin.

And the crowd is hurrying back to their homes …

… homes which are lonely and quiet because there is no one else left in the family …

… homes which are fearful and bleak because daddy is a mean drunk or mommy’s new boyfriend is looking at me in an inappropriate way …

… homes which are filthy or bare because there’s not enough time or not enough money …

… homes which are cold and uncomfortable because there’s no love left there anymore …

… homes which are prison for the very old, the very ill, the very depressed …

… homes which aren’t really homes, just a rough, warm spot somewhere out of the wind and the rain ….

This Good Friday, as we encounter the courage, the generosity, the faith, the love, and the commitment of Joseph and Nicodemus in a place of darkness and despair – the place of Death – I wonder what their story may bring to light in our own lives and in our own understanding of what true discipleship might require in this dark world
into which Jesus came,
and suffered on the cross,
and died.

Who will carry the light in the darkness?

Prayer

Untiring God,
Your love pursues us:
there is no place in heaven or earth or under the earth
where we can hide from You.

Gather us up in Your arms 
– gently, for some of us are bruised, and broken, and bleeding.
Dispel the shadow of death,
the despair that engulfs us, 
with the bright dawn of Your life.

Look upon us with unconditional grace and mercy;
lead us, slowly, in our yearning
for redemption and a brand new day.

Give us patient faith in times of confusion,
strength to meet hard times to come,
and courage to place our hearts, our lives, our spirits,
into Your hands,
confident in the day
when every word will be spoken in kindness,
every tear shed for joy,
every home a safe haven,
and every ending just another beginning
as the first-light comes
with the blessing of Your own face shining upon us.

Amen.

Table talk

As I sat down to write this letter, I was very aware of the fact that the chair beneath me was not at all comfortable to sit on, the walls were sparse (and powder blue!), and the bookshelf before me was bare. I was – once again – in an unfamiliar space: this time my “new” little office at the Team Ministry Centre. 

I took a deep breath and touched the familiar objects that I had brought from home in turn: a leather-bound Thompson Chain Reference Bible (like the one my mom gave me when I first started preaching at 18), a scented candle (a present from treasured friends), and a bowl of black and white pebbles (that I handed out throughout the Southern Region on Ash Wednesday).   

Outside, the cars rumbled past. Inside, cups clinked as Annie put the kettle on for a cuppa and John whistled away as he looked over the finances. I smiled as I remembered the faithfulness of God who journeys with us in the midst of the everyday and the ordinary, as well as the new and the unfamiliar.

For me, the major seasons of the Christian Year – Christmas and Easter – should enfold us in this liminal space where things are simultaneously new, yet familiar. Christ’s cross and his cradle must bring new meaning to how we engage with the dailyness of human routine and relationship. And the old, old story which we hear again in this season has to be listened to with fresh ears if we are to discover its significance in a world which is constantly questioning its/our relevance.

This year, I find myself particularly drawn to the table at which Jesus sat with his disciples for one last, long conversation before his betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane and painful death on Calvary. I keep thinking back to the laughter, the arguments, the teasing, and the sharing that took place over Sunday roasts in my childhood home. We never pretended to be a perfect family but the table was always a meaningful place of togetherness, whether we were at peace or warring with one another (my mom might have an entirely different perspective!). 

I wonder what went through Jesus’s mind as he knelt before each of his disciples and washed their dusty, calloused feet … 

… as he broke bread with his friends and predicted that one would betray him … 

… as he anticipated being disowned by the one on whom he would one day build his church … 

… as he comforted them, commanded love, and promised the coming of the Holy Spirit … 

… as he prayed and prayed and prayed – for them, for himself, for all yet to believe …

… as he went out into the night knowing what cruelty and despair awaited them all….

I wonder what it means for us to be disciples at and of that table:

  • what part does meal-sharing have in our worship, our decision-making, and our mission?
  • how can we be wounded, imperfect people and yet break bread together and love one another with the same love that Christ had for us?
  • who would be invited, excluded, or not even thought of?
  • what challenging conversations would we need to have to prepare us for what lies ahead?
  • what might Jesus pray for us? what would we ask for ourselves?
  • where do we go when the meal is over? what do we do next?

In the midst of our familiar celebrations of Easter and Pentecost, I encourage you to read again the “table story” of John 13:1 to 17:25 and to engage with some of these wonderings – around your dinner table or the communion table – that we may encounter and offer Christ to one another and the community around us in a new way.

Yours in Christ
Yvonne

What darkness brings to light

A service for Good Friday

Opening notes

On Easter Sunday we focus on coming to life, in and through the power of the risen Christ. But in order for us to come to life, we must first sit with the darkness of death. This service is a solemn space in which people can grieve the suffering of Jesus for the sake of our sin and remember their own losses. It has many elements that would be found in a funeral/memorial service.

Despite having a number of children in my children in the congregation for whom I have written this service, I decided not to have our usual time of conversation. I want them to experience the silence and the ritual of this moment. At their table in the front of the sanctuary, however, I have prepared a space for them in which they can discover the theme of the service in their own way: black cardboard, metallic sharpies (markers), a box of different crosses from a Godly Play lesson, and my own messy example in which I have drawn freehand nine different imitations of those crosses that spoke to me – some overlapping. After the service, these will be put in the sanctuary windows. The gold and silvers literally shine on the black background!

Metallic markers on black cardboard.

I have also incorporated a silent “pilgrimage” to the large metal cross on the church grounds. I have pre-cut lengths of red ribbon which congregants will be able to tie to it as a symbol of their confession. It will also be visible to members of the community from the shopping centre across the road.

The lament

This is the night
where violence is the victor
as ambitious men measure a man’s worth in silver
and fearful men turn their backs on a friend,
and powerful men trade what is right for whatever keeps them popular.

This is the day
when the sun refuses to shine 
on the tear-stained cheeks of those who bear witness to such cruelty
or the bewildered faces of those who can’t take back their wrongs
or the hardened hearts already moving on to their next bit of entertainment.

This is the time
in which God goes ahead
into the nightmare landscape of pain and suffering,
into the breach between divine love and human sinfulness,
into the dark,
into the deep,
into death.

Out of the depths we cry to you:
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

TiS 350 There is a green hill far away (verses 1-4)

Old Testament reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)

As it was prophesied in the book of Isaiah, so has it come to pass:

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

TiS 356 Here hangs a man discarded

(sung to the tune of O sacred head most wounded – 339 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oza5iOPtQkA)

Pilgrimage of confession/pain

The prayers of confession are done as part of a silent pilgrimage to the cross (located in my instance on the outside of the building). Everyone is given a red ribbon as they walk out of the sanctuary to tie to the cross as a symbol of laying their sins on the Intercessor. 

After some silence, a prayer in the face of tragic death is offered (based on some of the language and imagery of Psalm 22). This will connect with people on two levels: the first, as a lament of the injustice of the cross and expression of the questions may have about whether it was really necessary; the second – of which we need to be aware – is at the more personal level of recent or unresolved grief for those whose loved ones have died.

Sovereign Lord,
our great God of compassion,
as we gather around the cross of Christ
we can hardly believe what happened.
Our hearts are shaken with sorrow,
our certainty with disbelief,
for a life so full of promise has been taken
and we do not understand.

Cradle us in our confusion,
meet us in our anger,
contain our shock and sadness,
bear the questions that have no answers,
ease our regret and shame.

We must believe that you do not despise our cries of deep despair –
that You do not look the other way when we are in pain.
You are the first responder to our sufferings:
let us remember that “it is finished”
that we might overflow with life again.
In Jesus’ name.

Chorus: Amazing love (what love is this)  

Gospel reading: John 19:38-42

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

Prayer of invocation

O God for whom the darkness is as dazzling as light,
You are our very present help in times of trouble.
With You we have nothing to fear
and in Your hope we place our trust.
In the mystery of life and death before us,
speak to us now Your eternal words of life.
Amen.

Guided meditation:
what darkness brings to light  

I am amazed how in the worst of times, we sometimes get a glimpse of the best in people. My meditation will focus on how Jospeh and Nicodemus, secret disciples who were afraid to be seen of him in the light of day for what it might cost them, in this moment step up, out of the shadows, and claim his body. While it is true that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, sometimes the darkness is necessary for us to work out what we really believe and where we’re headed and to see sources of light that escaped our attention before. 

This is a wonderful place to lead people in an imaginative prayer exercise beginning with our common experience of having our eyes adjust in a dark room when something unsettles us in the middle of the night and finding all sorts of unexpected light sources that orient us, and leading to a prayerful consideration of what our current worries, struggles, or pain might be revealing to us.  

Prayer of petition

Untiring God,
Your love pursues us:
there is no place in heaven or earth or under the earth
where we can hide from You.

Gather us up in Your arms 
– gently, for some of us are bruised, and broken, and bleeding.
Dispel the shadow of death,
the despair that engulfs us, 
with the bright dawn of Your life.

Look upon us with unconditional grace and mercy;
lead us, slowly, in our yearning
for redemption and a brand new day.

Give us patient faith in times of confusion,
strength to meet hard times to come,
and courage to place our hearts, our lives, our spirits,
into Your hands,
confident in the day
when every word will be spoken in kindness,
every tear shed for joy,
and every ending just another beginning
as the first-light comes
with the blessing of Your own face shining upon us.

TiS 349 In the cross of Christ I glory 

Benediction (and moment of remembering)

This is a memorial prayer (available in Tess Ward’s “Alternative Pastoral Prayers” which sends people away to experience the wait for a new day. Afterwards, opportunity is given to those who would like to light a candle in memory of a loved one for whom the words are equally true.

Long the journey we must now make
for one of our kind has left us and we cannot be the same.
Slow the feet tread moment by moment,
a wonder that morning and evening keep coming round.
But weaving the old story into the new cannot be hurried 
for there are no landmarks and no maps.
We must weep over their bones until we carry them within us.
And when the winter of our grief is past
and the rains are over and gone
we will arise and come away,
put our hand in the hand of life,
see the world afresh with newborn eyes
as the flowers appear on the earth again
and the time of singing is come.

Go gently with God.

Come to life

An “all-in” service for Easter Sunday

So often we want to rush to the end of the story – to banish the darkness and celebrate the light and life of Christ shining radiantly beyond the confines of the empty tomb. This service is intended to make room for the sorrow of the women who went to tend to Jesus’ body to give way to the wonderful news that he is risen.

Lamenting in …

As little children we are often afraid of the dark and of the unseen things that might lurk there.

As adults, we are more comfortable with turning the lights out; more certain that in the morning the sun will rise and banish the nightmares away. Yet deep within us, many fears remain: fear of change, fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of anything terrible happening to the ones that we love, fear of being the one left behind – grief-stricken and alone …

… like the mother, the dear friend, the faithful disciples of Jesus who had stood as helpless witnesses to his suffering and death; who in the dismal light of early dawn and with great despair in their hearts travelled together to his tomb … . 

TiS 345 Were you there? (verses 1-5 only)

4/ 5 women walk into the church with  symbols which they place on a bare altar. 

  • One carries the Christ candle with five nails pressed into it in the shape of the cross. 
  • One carries a large stone to represent the cold, sealed tomb.
  • One carries a folded white table cloth to represent the folded grave clothes. 
  • One carries a perfume diffuser or incense stick to represent the spices that they brought for his body. 
  • The optional fifth brings a bright basket of eggs (two normal and two which have have had the insides blown out) to represent new life and be used in talking with the children – this symbol is not placed on the altar, but on the floor in front of it.  

As they lay their items on the altar, they pray:

1st: Lord, I weep with all who suffer,
                              with all who are persecuted,
  with all creatures who endure our cruelty.

2nd: Lord, I weep with those who are lonely,
                                 with those who have buried a beloved,
                                 with those for whom life is harder than death.

3rd: Lord, I weep with all who are oppressed,
                                 with all who are bound by their addiction,
                                 with all who are wrapped up in suspicion and hate.

4th: Lord, I weep where the land is burning,
                                 where war has erupted,
                                 where tempers run high.

5th: Lord, I weep with babies abandoned
in garbage bins and school bathrooms,
                              with children abused by the people they trust,
                              with young people bullied, and silenced, and shamed.

Together: Lord, I weep. I weep. I weep.                                                     
                                
 They join the congregation, sitting at the front of the church. 

Looking for life …

The transformation of the altar is enacted as the Gospel is read.

Luke 24:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 

The incense/diffuser is lit and placed to the side of the altar (on the rail, pulpit, a smaller table).

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

The stone is lifted and placed on the side of the altar, on the ground, opposite side to the basket.

While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 

The nails are pulled out from the candle and placed next to the stone. The candle is lit and placed on the side with the incense.

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The table cloth is unfolded and draped over the altar. The candle is returned to the centre.

Alleluia! This is the Gospel of Christ.
Praise to our Lord! Alleluia!

Prayer:

Living One,
no tomb can keep You,
no door is closed to You,
no life is shut off from You.

Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith,
out of death into life eternal.
Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord.
Amen.

TiS 370 Christ the Lord is Risen Today

Opening up …

Children’s Address (or sermon starter)

As you look at our Easter table, do you notice anything strange about it? Something that maybe doesn’t really belong there? (As my basket is a giant yellow chick popping out of its shell, I’m sure that the kids will be quite quick to spot it).

Hmmmm … this looks a little out of place. Should we see what is in it? Invite the kids to take a peek – but don’t let them touch yet. Yes! Yes! It’s full of eggs! These must be Easter eggs!! Would you like to eat one? (Taking care to pick a heavy egg which obviously still has yolk inside it, offer it to one of the children who should recoil at the thought of eating a raw egg).

Depending on their responses say something like, So it’s not an Easter egg? It’s just a normal chicken egg!?! Well, if it’s just a normal chicken egg then there should be something inside it. 

Crack the egg open into a bowl. O yes, you’re quite right. That’s not an Easter egg at all. I wouldn’t want to eat that either – not unless it was scrambled, with a little bit of cheese and tomato sauce on top.

But did you know that are some old, old stories that tell us where that the first Easter eggs were actually chicken eggs to start with? 

My favourite is the story of Simon the Cyrene. Simon was a farmer. His wife had sent him into Jerusalem one day to sell his produce to all the city folk who were preparing for a special feast  that  evening.   Simon had eggs to sell, something that everyone would need for their Seder table.  But when he got to the marketplace, there were people everywhere, shouting and pushing and spitting. So Simon put his basket down and pushed his way to the front to see what was going on. There, on the road, surrounded by soldiers was a man struggling under the weight of a wooden cross. He looked weak, like he had been up all night and taken a really bad beating.

As Simon watched, the man fell to his knees with exhaustion. One of the soldiers kicked him in the side. Another yelled at him to stand up. Simon just couldn’t help himself. He rushed forward to help – and so the soldiers ordered him to carry the cross of Jesus all the way up a hill called Golgotha or Calvary. 

There Simon watched as the whole sky turned black and Jesus died, hanging on that cross between two criminals. His heart was sad, but as he turned back he suddenly remembered: he had left his basket of eggs behind! His wife was going to be soooo mad at him.  He rushed back to the marketplace, hoping, hoping, hoping – and yes! There they were! Right where he had left them!! Remarkably not a single egg was missing, but, even more remarkably, the eggs were no longer white but brightly coloured and glittering. What a surprise!

Not like these eggs. Break the second full egg into the bowl. When we break them, we know exactly what we’re going to get. And that can be a little bit boring, and very disappointing.

Maybe that’s what it was like for the women we read about in the Gospel story. They went to the tomb which had been sealed shut with a large stone – knowing that inside would be Jesus’ body. Where there’s a closed tomb or a covered grace, there’s always a dead body. That’s just the way it is.

Next, pick up one of the blown eggs without really drawing attention to it and break it in the same way as you did the others. It should crumble in your hand.

Wait a minute! That isn’t right! That shouldn’t happen!!

Repeat with the remaining egg. Note the children’s curiosity and exclamations.  

These eggs are empty. Just like the tomb was when the women got there. They expected to see a body. But that’s not what they found! Instead they met two angels who asked them why they were looking for the living among the dead.

And that’s what Easter is all about – surprises. The unexpected happening right in front of our eyes. An empty tomb, a living Lord, new possibilities.

The children can be engaged in an activity like decorating or hunting for these “signs of life” – edible ones this time. 

Old Testament Reading (if using): Isaiah 65:17-25

 “See, I will create
    new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
    nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
    in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
    and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
    and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
    will be heard in it no more.

“Never again will there be in it
    an infant who lives but a few days,
    or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
    will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
    will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
    they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
    or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
    so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
    the work of their hands.
They will not labour in vain,
    nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
    they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
    while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
    and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.

Meditation/Reflection: Coming to Life

My focus is on “coming to life” in response to the angel’s question: why do you look for the living among the dead? The Isaiah passage points to the nature of the resurrection life that Christ makes possible: healing, delight, health, security, fruitfulness, meaningful work, reconciliation etc. The second half of the service consists of symbolic rituals/responses enacting this new life.    

Let us pray (words by Tess Ward – adapted):

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

As we leave the old
and step out into the new this day,
bring new life to our fingers
that we might touch the signs of Your life among us
and have faith.

The elements for Holy Communion are brought to the table
during the singing of:

TiS 373 Hail Thou Once Despised Jesus

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life in the sacred meal we eat
that we might know You
in the breaking of our daily bread.

The elements are blessed and communion is shared.

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life
to the work of our hands this day
that we might trust
the abundance of Your gifts. 

Thank offerings are brought to the altar or collected by stewards.

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life
when You interrupt our selfish dreamings
and name those that need Your love and care
as our sisters and brothers. 

The names of the sick and hurting are spoken.

Living One,
we go to look
where we last found You
but that place is now
stony and dead,
for You who lead us forward
to new life are always
one step ahead.

Bring new life to our eyes
that we might see You beside us behind our closed doors
and set forth with hope and with wonder
to proclaim Your eternal life
and everlasting love for the whole wide world.

Closing hymn: TiS 380 Yours be the glory

Sending out …

Alleluia!
Go in joy and peace with the Living One
who leads us forward.

Alleluia!
In the name of Christ, we come to life!

Facing the Shadows

A Liturgical Drama 

Preparations

  • All banners, cloths, books, flowers etc. are removed from the sanctuary
  • On the altar, a candelabra or seven single candles are set in a semi-circle 
  • Bread and wine/grape juice in “earthy” looking vessels are ready to be brought into the sanctuary
  • Stations for hand- or foot-washing are set up outside the sanctuary – basins, warm water, towels, a drop of essential oil
  • Volunteers needed:
    • Foot-washers – preferably leaders/elders in the church
    • Communion “stewards” – preferably not the regular stewards but an unlikely and diverse-looking group 
    • 7 readers (with a torch light to assist with their reading)
  • If using a data projector to display responses and songs, there should be a black slide as a “placeholder” to maintain as much darkness as possible.

Upon entering …  

As people enter the church, the mood is upbeat. Those washing their feet (or hands) engage them in conversation about the week that has passed. In the sanctuary some of the hymns or choruses from Palm Sunday can be played to create the link in the story and set the “supper scene.” 

Once most of the congregation is seated, the seven readers come forward to light their candles.

Leader: God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.
Response: Jesus Christ is the light of the world. 

Call to worship (by Thom Shuman)

It was a night of hopeas they gathered so long ago,
God who rescues people from despair and oppression.
You offered grace without blemish
as they left behind the years
of loneliness, grief, and bullying,
daring to follow you
into a future known only to you.

One of the footwashers brings a basin and towel and lays it at the foot of the altar.

It was a night when salvation drew near as they gathered so long ago,
Lord who kneels to serve us,
as you tried to ready your friends for all that would happen.
In humility, you washed their feet
so they might follow you down the dusty road of death;
in love, you transformed a simple meal
into moments of grace and comfort.   

The communion stewards approach with bread and wine and “set the table.”

On a night like this, we gather to draw near to one another and you,
Spirit who shares these stories with us.
Here, is the basin with the living water
which washes away our fears and foolishness;
here is the towel we can use
to wipe the tears of all who weep
from grief, oppression, and loneliness;
here, we find that bread,
which, though broken and dropping crumbs,
feeds us with hope, fills us with strength
to serve our sisters and brothers;
here, we are offered the cup
which causes us to thirst for justice.

The bread and wine is shared with the stewards. The elements are distributed among the congregation but are not returned to the altar. 

(Words by Tess Ward) The “leader” raises hands high and says:
Praise to You, Friendship Giver,
for showing what love is,
for coming to our table and bringing us supper,
with the kiss of death hanging darkly over you.
As You tenderly wash each traveling foot,
In the lastness of it all,
In the job of love to be poured out, come what may,
Praise to You.

All of the lights in the sanctuary and surrounds are turned off. 

Facing the shadows

Leader: God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.
Response: Jesus Christ is the light of the world.

Leader: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world
Response: and we loved darkness rather than light.

TiS 345 verse 1 

Were you there when the crucified my Lord?
Were you there when the crucified my Lord?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble;
Were you there when the crucified my Lord?

Reader 1. The shadow of betrayal – John 13:21-30 (TPT)

Then Jesus was moved deeply in his spirit. Looking at his disciples, he announced, “I tell you the truth—one of you is about to betray me.”

Eyeing each other, his disciples puzzled over which one of them could do such a thing. The disciple that Jesus dearly loved was at the right of him at the table and was leaning his head on Jesus. Peter gestured to this disciple to ask Jesus who it was he was referring to. Then the dearly loved disciple leaned into Jesus’ chest and whispered, “Master, who is it?”

“The one I give this piece of bread to after I’ve dipped it in the bowl,” Jesus replied. Then he dipped the piece of bread into the bowl and handed it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And when Judas ate the piece of bread, Satan entered him. Then Jesus looked at Judas and said, “What you are planning to do, go do it now.” 

None of those around the table realized what was happening. Some thought that Judas, their trusted treasurer, was being told to go buy what was needed for the Passover celebration, or perhaps to go give something to the poor. So Judas left quickly and went out into the dark night to betray Jesus.

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The first candle is extinguished.

TiS 342 verse 1 

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Reader 2. The shadow of denial – John 13:31-38 (TPT)

After Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the glory of God to surround the Son of Man, and God will be greatly glorified through what happens to me. And very soon God will unveil the glory of the Son of Man.

“My dear friends, I only have a brief time left to be with you. And then you will search and long for me. But I tell you what I told the Jewish leaders: you’ll not be able to come where I am. So I give you now a new commandment: Love each other just as much as I have loved you. For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.”

Peter interjected, “But, Master, where are you going?”

Jesus replied, “Where I am going you won’t be able to follow, but one day you will follow me there.”

Peter said, “What do you mean I’m not able to follow you now? I would sacrifice my life to die for you!”

Jesus answered, “Would you really lay down your life for me, Peter? Here’s the absolute truth: Before the rooster crows in the morning, you will say three times that you don’t even know me!”

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The second candle is extinguished.

TiS 342 verse 2 

Forbid it Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

Reader 3. The Shadow of ignorance – John 14:1-11 (TPT)

“Don’t worry or surrender to your fear. For you’ve believed in God, now trust and believe in me also. My Father’s house has many dwelling places. If it were otherwise, I would tell you plainly, because I go to prepare a place for you to rest. And when everything is ready, I will come back and take you to myself so that you will be where I am. And you already know the way to the place where I’m going.”

Thomas said to him, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going, so how could we know the way there?”

Jesus explained, “I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I am the Life. No one comes next to the Father except through union with me. To know me is to know my Father too. And from now on you will realize that you have seen him and experienced him.”

Philip spoke up, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be all that we need!”

Jesus replied, “Philip, I’ve been with you all this time and you still don’t know who I am? How could you ask me to show you the Father, for anyone who has looked at me has seen the Father. Don’t you believe that the Father is living in me and that I am living in the Father? Even my words are not my own but come from my Father, for he lives in me and performs his miracles of power through me. Believe that I live as one with my Father and that my Father lives as one with me—or at least, believe because of the mighty miracles I have done.

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The third candle is extinguished.

TiS 350 verse 1 

There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified
Who died to save us all.

Reader 4. The shadow of negligence – Luke 22:39-46 (TPT)

Jesus left the upper room with his disciples and, as was his habit, went to the Mount of Olives, his place of secret prayer. There he told the apostles, “Keep praying for strength to be spared from the severe test of your faith that is about to come.”

Then he withdrew from them a short distance to be alone. Kneeling down, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup of agony away from me. But no matter what, your will must be mine.”

Jesus called for an angel of glory to strengthen him, and the angel appeared. He prayed even more passionately, like one being sacrificed, until he was in such intense agony of spirit that his sweat became drops of blood, dripping onto the ground.

When Jesus finished praying, he got up and went to his disciples and found them all asleep, for they were exhausted and overwhelmed with sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “You need to be alert and pray for the strength to endure the great temptation.”

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The fourth candle is extinguished.

TiS 350 verse 3 

He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.

Reader 5. The shadow of violence – Luke 22:47-53 (TPT)

No sooner had he finished speaking when suddenly a mob approached, and right in front of the mob was his disciple Judas. He walked up close to Jesus and greeted him with a kiss. For he had agreed to give the religious leaders a sign, saying, “The one I kiss is the one to seize.”

Jesus looked at him with sorrow and said, “A kiss, Judas? Are you really going to betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”

When the other disciples understood what was happening, they asked, “Lord, shall we fight them with our swords?”

Just then, one of the disciples swung his sword at the high priest’s servant and slashed off his right ear. Jesus stopped the incident from escalating any further by shouting, “Stop! That’s enough of this!” Then he touched the right side of the injured man’s head and the ear grew back—he was healed!

Jesus turned to those who had come to seize him—the ruling priests, the officers of the temple police, and the religious leaders—and said, “Am I a criminal that you come to capture me with clubs and swords? Wasn’t I with you day after day, teaching in the temple courts? You could have seized me at any time. But in the darkness of night you have now found your time, for it belongs to you and to the prince of darkness.”

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The fifth candle is extinguished.

TiS 350 verse 4 

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate,
Of heaven, and let us in.

Reader 6. The shadow of detachment – Luke 23:13-25 (TPT)

Pilate gathered the people together with the high priests and all the religious leaders of the nation and told them, “You have presented this man to me and charged him with stirring a rebellion among the people. But I say to you that I have examined him here in your presence and have put him on trial. My verdict is that none of the charges you have brought against him are true. I find no fault in him. And I sent him to Antipas, son of Herod, who also, after questioning him, has found him not guilty. Since he has done nothing deserving of death, I have decided to punish him with a severe flogging and release him.” For it was Pilate’s custom to honor the Jewish holiday by releasing a prisoner.

When the crowd heard this, they went wild. Erupting with anger, they cried out, “No! Take this one away and release Barabbas!” For Barabbas had been thrown in prison for robbery and murder.

Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, tried to convince them it was best to let Jesus go. But they cried out over and over, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

A third time, Pilate asked the crowd, “What evil crime has this man committed that I should have him crucified? I haven’t found one thing that warrants a death sentence! I will have him flogged severely and then release him.”

But the people and the high priests, shouting like a mob, screamed out at the top of their lungs, “No! Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Finally their shouts and screams succeeded. Pilate caved in to the crowd and ordered that the will of the people be done. Then he released the guilty murderer Barabbas, as they had insisted, and handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The sixth candle is extinguished.

TiS 342 verse 3 

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Reader 7: The shadow of death – Luke 23:44-55 (TPT)

It was now only midday, yet the whole world became dark for three hours as the light of the sun faded away. And suddenly in the temple the thick veil hanging in the Holy Place was ripped in two! Then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, I surrender my Spirit into your hands.” And he took his last breath and died.

When the Roman captain overseeing the crucifixion witnessed all that took place, he was awestruck and glorified God. Acknowledging what they had done, he said, “I have no doubt; we just killed the righteous one.”

The crowds that had gathered to observe this spectacle went back to their homes, overcome with deep sorrow and devastated by what they had witnessed. But standing off at a distance were some who truly knew Jesus, and the women who had followed him all the way from Galilee were keeping vigil.

There was also a member of the Jewish council named Joseph, from the village of Ramah, a good-hearted, honorable man who was eager for the appearing of God’s kingdom realm. He had strongly disagreed with the decision of the council to crucify Jesus. He came before Pilate and asked permission to take the body of Jesus and give him a proper burial, and Pilate granted his request. So he took the body from the cross and wrapped it in a winding sheet of linen and placed it in a new, unused tomb chiseled out of solid rock. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was fast approaching.

The women who had been companions of Jesus from the beginning saw all this take place and watched as the body was laid in the tomb. 

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
Response: Christ, have mercy.

The seventh candle is extinguished.

TiS 345 verse 4 

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble;
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

A deep moment of silence is observed in the dark.

The sending

After the silence, a single candle is lit.

Watchful Spirit who stays awake
and guards us through the night:
Be with all those who have been betrayed by another,
Misunderstood by another,
Denied by another,
Neglected by another,
Attacked by another, 
Disowned by another,
Killed by another.

Illuminate the shadows that dance deep within us 
That we may see how “another” may actually be me
And, through the passion of our Lord, grant us protection,
Through his suffering, our salvation,
Through his hurt, our healing,
Through his death, our deliverance,
And through his light, life eternal.
Amen.

The people leave the sanctuary in silence. 

The desolation of death

*Easter Eve: John 19:38-42*

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid him there.
Verses 41-42

Darkness has covered the land –

not just darkness in the sense of night
but the darkness of betrayal
the darkness of denial
the darkness of disbelief
the darkness of mockery
the darkness of abandonment
the darkness of human barbarity
the darkness of death.

You know the desolation of this moment:

you who have buried a loved one, a child;
you who have been beaten, ridiculed, bullied, abused;
you who have been surprised by a positive result on an HIV test when you have always been faithful;
you who have watched the tiny bag of possessions – all that you own – taken from you and burned to nothing;
you who have witnessed people run screaming for their lives as bullets riddle their bodies and bombs drop from the sky;
you who have sat in the isolation of a TB ward …

… you ….

As silence settles in the tomb
and darkness and desolation within our hearts
we wait
in anticipation of the morning
and in the assurance that we are not alone.

“If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”                                                                            Psalm 139:11-12

Last lessons: Love

*Good Friday: John 18:1-19:42*

And again another passage of Scripture says,
“They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
19:37

Saving love is costly.

People humiliate us; they try to rob us of our dignity, to strip us bare; they make it their mission to alienate us, destroy us, outstrip us.

Yet love forgives.

Jesus prays for his enemies “for they know not what they do.”

So often we know precisely what we’re doing: we deliberately and knowingly deny, betray, turn away …

… yet through love we are forgiven.

And this love assures us of this: that when we recognize our need for conversion, for transformation; when we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour, we are saved from the power of sin and death in this life and claim the promise of newness, the promise of eternity, the promise of Paradise …

… not as some ethereal vision or distant dream. Even today, Jesus makes life more bearable, more beautiful, by connecting us through the cross to one another in a way that comforts and takes responsibility for our Christian brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, and indeed, for the whole world.

Yet there are times so dark, so difficult that we wonder how we will survive, endure, let alone thrive on life’s abundance.

In the midst of the darkness, Christ cries out that he has carried out pain; that we are not alone. On the cross, love laments so that we can know that we will never be abandoned, never be forsaken.

In fact, in our fragile humanity, in our needs and our longings, God moves us beyond superficial, surface-level relationships to a spirituality that is drenched in the Living Waters of God’s Spirit.

We praise God today that God’s saving love sees what is started through to the end. In a world of half-done things and best intentions, we are moved by the knowledge that the One who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it.

God is not done with our lives until we find our final resting place in God’s heart; until our spirits rest completely and safely in God’s hands.

Are we ready to offer our lives, our hearts, our love, our all to God’s saving love today?

 

Fasting by feasting

*** a sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 and John 60:30-35, 41***

Today is the beginning of Lent – a 4o day period of repentance and fasting as we prepare for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection in which we focus on our relationship with God, often giving up something as a sign of our desire to walk the way of suffering and sacrifice with Christ.

For many of us, this is not a new commitment; not a new journey. Many of us have, in fact, grown up in homes and churches where the Lenten language is familiar and fasting is  common practice. Really, even the secular world now recommends that people participate in this Christian custom because of the health benefits associated with abstaining from certain meals or food groups.

So, at the beginning of this well-worn, world-sanctioned season, let us acknowledge that, like the Israelites, we are well-practiced in these particular religious rituals: we lament in loud voices, we come forward for the imposition of ashes with sad faces, we dress somberly, we dismiss our colleagues’ invitations to lunch with an offhand “I can’t. It’s Lent. I’m fasting.”

But often, like the Israelites, our outward actions do not reflect our inner state. Truth be told, we feel smug in our self-imposed suffering; proud of ourselves for our willpower, our discipline, our sacrifice. And just below the often-authentic desire to repent, to be different, lurks the unconfessed belief that God will owe us something good for what we’re putting ourselves through, for doing the right thing.

And yet, like the Israelites who went through the right religious motions, we miss the point of this period, of this practice, and the fast we offer is not really the kind of fast that God desires.

Sure, we may cut out sugar, but that means nothing if our lives lack the sweetness of God’s love. We may give up caffeine, but it’s pointless when we still cling to to our grudges, our disagreements, our prejudice. We may go without meat, but what does that matter when we show no concern for those who go without bread, without shelter, without dignity, without justice on a daily basis? We may even waive all but one meal a day, but if we won’t abandon our ambitions, our pride, our busyness it’s all for nothing.

This struggle is not a new thing. Even Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, wrote in the 4th century to the Christian community of the time:

“Do not limit the benefit of fasting to the abstinence of food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbour, forgive him his offenses. Do not let your fasting lead to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults – so all the labour of your fast is useless.”

How do we get it so wrong? And how do we, on this first day of Lent, put aside the “right” religious rituals to which we have become so accustomed and enter into a true spirit of sacrifice and penitence?

Our Scripture reading from John’s Gospel holds the key.

The story is set after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 where the crowd wants to crown Jesus as king, and a time of teaching at the Feast of the Tabernacles where the crowd wants to kill him for preaching against the legalism that binds them in favor of what God really wants.

In the conversation with those who have followed him hungry for more, the question from the people reveals their preoccupation with their history, with the beliefs and practices of their ancestors handed down over many generations: “What miracle will you do?” they ask him. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So what will you do?”

Jesus shocks, and even offends some of them, by explaining that he is the real miracle – the true bread sent from heaven to give his life for the world.

It is a disruptive moment in which Jesus challenges their tradition, their faith; in which he proclaims that they should not be following Moses, a man who worked miracles, but God in heaven who made such miracles possible. He contests their tendency to follow after that which is temporary and unsustainable while that which is transformative and eternal is right in front of them. He opposes their desire to be satisfied – to be full – by revealing that it is only in the brokenness of his body and the giving of his life that they can enter into the abundant and the everlasting.

Perhaps our preoccupation with tradition is why our fast fails; for instead of fixing our eyes on our Father in heaven, we focus on that song, that ritual, that preacher who – for a moment – made us feel satisfied.

Perhaps it is our infatuation with the tangible: we fast from food, from television, from Facebook, from the things that we can physically give up rather than the powers that possess our minds and our spirits – the lust, the fear, the hatred that has taken hold in our hearts.

Perhaps it is our absolute lack of understanding that the fullness of life is not found by mourning and praying and fasting for forty days but in a costly and ongoing commitment to the broken and shared life of Christ… which is why so many of his listeners grumbled. They wanted a ready supply of food for their stomachs, not a lifetime of sacrifice and surrender. And, honestly, are we any different?

This year, may the Lenten invitation be clear: not just to fast for the sake of fasting, or because that’s what we think good Christians do, or because we hope to earn God’s favor going forward for the rest of the year; but rather to feast on Christ, to feed on the eternal, to nourish our souls with God’s Word, to spend time in his presence, to open ourselves up to uncomfortable conversations, to make ourselves vulnerable and available to that broken and shared life, and to be surprised by the abundance…

of mercy,
of generosity,
of forgiveness,
of love,
of peace,
of joy  that emerges when this season centers around the Bread of Life and the fullness of life on offer in Christ.

A true fast starts with and is sustained by feasting on the One who gave up all that we would never be hungry, never be thirsty. Will you grumble and complain, or partake and eat in the Feast that is set before you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final word

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
~ John 19:30

It is finished. We’re over. I’m done. Goodbye.

Endings bring to most of us a tumult of emotions:
sometimes a deep sense of relief and a welcome anticipation of something new, something better to come;
sometimes hopelessness, despair, the crippling cries of a broken-heart as we have to let go of someone or something that we long to hold on to;
sometimes numbness and disbelief at what we have come through and an aimless, empty wondering about where we should go next;
sometimes a sense of victory and accomplishment, of soaring confidence at what we can do when we put our minds and our hearts and our resources into a goal or a project.

Jesus’ last words on the cross are so final.

So sudden given the hours of unending agony that he has endured since the anguish of the garden in which he so fervently prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

It is finished.

There is a temptation for us to read into those three little words our own emotion at endings: It is finished! Jesus is triumphant! He’s done it! Sin and death have no power over the world any more! He has accomplished what the Father sent him to do!

It is finished. Thank God it’s over. The pain. The suffering. The abandonment by friend and Father. I don’t know if I would have been able to endure such torture. And if I’m absolutely honest, I’m glad I don’t have to watch what he was going through anymore.

It is finished. He’s dead. He’s gone and we don’t know how to carry on. He meant everything to us: he called us, he taught us, he loved us. He gave our lives a sense of meaning and purpose but he’s been killed, murdered, annihilated and we don’t know what to do or where to go.

It is finished.

Where does that leave the remarkable story of God-with-us? What does it mean for us as we try to make sense of the endings within our own lives?

Luke’s Gospel, fortunately, leaves us with a more complete conclusion.

Darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
~ Luke 23:44-46

The ending is the same: this chapter in the Christ-story is complete; his suffering is over; his mission of mercy and reconciliation fulfilled but the primary emotion at the end is not one of victory nor relief, nor brokenness nor disbelief.

It is trust.

Trust in God to turn the page and begin the next chapter; to play God’s part in the fulfillment of the promise. Resurrection has not happened but in this moment hope has dawned as Jesus lays himself to rest within the Father’s hands.

It is an amazing moment given those heart-wrenching words that broke free from thirsty lips about an hour before: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It is finished; the sense of being alone, of being lost in the darkness and the depravity of human sin.

In the final hour, with his final breath, Jesus lays his past, his present, his future into the hands of the One he was always trusted, whose love is certain: his Father.

It is finished. May this become your final word today. The sin that holds you, the hurt you hold onto, the anxiety about your future, the parts of your story that need to come to an end, the desire for revenge or success that drives you, the dark depression from loved ones you have lost, the disbelief and doubt that has gained a foothold at unanswered prayer, the whole unpredictable tumult of human life, the feelings of forsakenness and wondering about where God is in the midst of your circumstances – let them be finished as you commend your life into God’s hands trusting in the sufficiency of God’s love for this day and tomorrow.