March 2018

 

March 26: Looks Can Be Deceiving
 

Yesterday we focused our worship on the Friday of Holy Week: Good Friday. Mark’s account is stark, painful, and lonely. Even after Jesus breathes his last, a Roman centurion gets in one last barb. “Truly,” he says, with a smirk and roll of his eyes, “this was God’s son.”

To the jaded centurion it looks like Jesus of Nazareth died like countless other Jews. The charge against him -- “King of the Jews” -- must be a joke. Kings aren’t crucified next to common criminals.

Not a single mourner is there, no friends or family, no comforting words. Passers-by laugh: “Ha, you who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” 

Even the priests mock Jesus. “He saved others but he can’t save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross so that we may see and believe.”

Jesus hangs there and cries out like everyone else, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The crowd shows no sympathy. “He’s calling for Elijah. Let’s see if Elijah actually comes to take him down.”

No one believes in this guy. What else can the centurion think? All he sees is another Jewish messiah dying a pitiful death on a cross.

Ha, truly, yeah right… this guy was God’s son.

The way Jesus breathed his last looks like every other condemned Jew’s defeat by death, but looks can be deceiving. The stone that sealed his tomb looked like it could not be rolled away, but looks can be deceiving. It looked like the end of the story for Jesus, for the disciples, for the good news of the Kingdom of God, but looks can be deceiving.

We know what the centurion didn’t. We know the real story. We know that even the demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God. We know the temple curtain was ripped from top to bottom when he died. We know the stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, Jesus was raised from the dead and is the Living Word, the Messiah, the Son of God.

We know Jesus defeated death for us. Though it looked like Christ’s defeat, death lost that Friday. Sin lost that Friday. Pain and sorrow and despair and evil lost that Friday, and that’s why we call it GOOD.

We call it Good because God won a great victory, rendering death stingless and sin powerless. It didn’t appear that a cosmic victory was won on a cross on a Friday afternoon. It didn’t look like the Son of God was dying to raise us to new life, but looks can be deceiving. The war is over, the victory won. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

The centurion may not have realized the truth, but we can say with faithful certainty, “Truly, this man IS God’s Son.”

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 

March 19, 2018: Failure is Not the End
 

On Thursday of Holy Week, the disciples fail Jesus. Again. Thursday’s story is one of a gracious meal, a desperate prayer, and an obedient son. But it is also a story of human failure: disciples who can’t stay awake and keep watch, disciples who run, disciples who betray, disciples who deny, religious leaders who conspire to murder, and judges who miscarry justice. Maundy Thursday hits me harder than any other day of Holy Week because I know the story so well. I’ve lived it. I’ve failed, too. I’ve failed Jesus.

As we look back over Holy Week, we discover we are not alone. On Palm Sunday, the crowd failed to recognize Jesus as more than a political messiah and challenger to Rome. On Monday, the Temple failed to live up to Jesus’ expectations of fruitfulness. On Tuesday, the religious leaders failed to protect and support the widows they were called to serve. On Wednesday, the disciples failed to see who Jesus is and what is about to happen to him, and failed to respond to the reign of God in their midst. So far, the only one who hasn’t failed is an unnamed outsider woman.

It’s a theme in Mark: while the Kingdom of God is at hand, there is failure afoot. Those closest to Jesus constantly fail to hear, fail to trust, fail to understand, fail to follow. It’s usually those on the outside who hear and see best. Is it because they are so desperate to hear good news that they actually listen? Maybe we, who believe we are close to Jesus, become so comfortable with our position that we stop keeping watch. We fall asleep, and we miss the Kingdom. We fail.

We’ve failed, but we can’t admit it. There’s a stigma around failure: failed marriages, failed businesses, failed classes, failed attempts. We believe admitting failure makes it final. “I failed, we failed,” sounds like a stone sealing a tomb: dead and final.

If we admit failing, then that’s who we are: failures. The story is over, the grave is sealed, it’s time to leave the cemetery. Judas is forever the betrayer, Peter is forever the denier, and the rest of the disciples are forever deserters.  

But that’s not how the story ends. Jesus does not abandon the disciples despite their biggest failures. Their story doesn’t end on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday, and neither does ours. Followers may fail, but Jesus does not.

God finds us in our failures and gives us new chances and new life. God constantly creates beautiful things out of human failure. You could say failure is God’s best medium.

New life comes through failure. We can’t have new life without death. We can’t be raised without dying. Sometimes failure is the tomb we have to enter to be raised.

Holy Thursday reminds me that failures are not final. Failures are part of life, part of my life and part of yours. Failures are opportunities for us to experience grace and resurrection. Failures are not final unless we let them be. Jesus still has a great commission for the failing disciples. He has one for us, too. When we fail and enter our tombs, God calls us out and raise us up for something great and beautiful, again and again and again.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 

March 12, 2018: An Unreasonable Act 

 

Yesterday our worship focused on Wednesday of Holy Week, when Jesus dines in the house of Simon the Leper. It is an unreasonable act. Jesus shouldn’t be with someone unclean like Simon, but the Gospel is unreasonable for who it includes.

In the middle of dinner, a woman interrupts to pour an expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head. It is unreasonable for her to barge in on a group of men. It is unreasonable for her to touch a man she is not married to in such an intimate way. It is unreasonable to use an expensive perfume in such a frivolous way.

The disciples, for once, are the voice of reason. “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor” (Mark 14:4-5).

Jesus does not agree. “Let her alone,” he says. “She has done a good service for me” (Mark 14:6). But hasn’t Jesus’ ministry been focused on the poor? He says he came to preach good news to the poor. Three hundred denarii would be great news. Doesn’t he see how unreasonable he is being?

What Jesus sees is the disciples’ focus on the poor. The disciples are so concerned with the problem of poverty that they miss the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. The crowd on Sunday was so preoccupied with the problem of Rome that they missed the coming reign of God riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds see, but they don’t see. They miss the Kingdom moment.

The Kingdom is coming for the poor, but ministry to the poor is a response to the Kingdom of God, it is not the Kingdom itself. Jesus made the same point about fasting earlier in his ministry (Mark 2:18-20). Our primary response must be to Jesus, who represents and ushers in the reign of God. Working for justice is necessary, but sometimes our churches become so focused on social witness that we miss seeing Christ in our midst and responding to his presence.

The unreasonable, unnamed woman sees something the disciples miss. She sees what the disciples should have heard three times: Jesus is going to be killed. She sees what is coming. She sees the pain and anxiety on Jesus’ face. She sees the threat Jesus’ message and presence pose to the religious leaders. She sees the cross on the horizon. She sees what Mark tells the reader in the first verse of the Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The woman’s unreasonable act is exactly the extravagant act Jesus has been waiting for his disciples to take. In contrast to the poor widow we we met on Tuesday, this woman gives everything she has to Jesus, not to the den of robbers. She pours out everything, even breaking the jar, for the one who gives his broken body for her.

She sees in Jesus what Jesus did not see in the Temple: the love and power and reign of God, so she knows where to put her best. Seeing the truth in Jesus and the truth of what lies before him, it is perfectly reasonable for her to do the unreasonable.

The good news of the Gospel makes what is unreasonable perfectly reasonable: to give our lives away, to break boundaries, to include the excluded, to be not afraid.

It’s Wednesday of Holy Week. We know who Jesus is, and we know what is coming. What do we have to break open for Jesus today, if not our hearts? 

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 

March 6, 2018  Engage: Lent
 

Last month you had the opportunity to attend our first Engage service on a Saturday night. This month I invite you to attend our first Sunday afternoon Engage service. Engage Sunday services are worship services for all ages, and include elements designed for our youngest worshippers.

The Engage service at 4 pm Sunday, March 11 will be held in Fellowship Hall. Some songs have been picked out with children in mind so they can easily sing and dance to the music. We’ll also have a special hands-on children’s message. While the adults sing a couple of songs and hear a message, the children can work on a collaborative art project involving coloring popsicle sticks. At the end of the worship we’ll collect the sticks and turn them into a special piece of art.

We’ll all have the opportunity to do an art project that will end up as a mission project. Each participant will get to paint a special cross portrait: see an example in this short video. Our Deacons and members of our Care ‘N Share teams will deliver the paintings to Derry members who are homebound or living at retirement communities in our area.

This month’s Engage service is focused on Lent and the cross. I hope you’ll join us for a different kind of worship experience filled with music, art, and messages.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker