Food for Thought-I’m His Friend (A Maundy Thursday Meditation)


We are told that Jesus had to die. There are variations upon this statement depending on which theory of the atonement you choose to explain how Jesus’ death forgave everyone who has ever lived for their sins. Jesus chose to die. Jesus came to die. You sins were so great; an innocent person had to die. That person was the son of God. Whatever you call it, it comes back to death. Jesus died. You didn’t. You should have died. Jesus did. He shouldn’t have died (though that was always in the divine plan) because he was an innocent person. Betrayers were all around; Judas, Peter, and you. In the midst of that betrayal, Jesus died and you lived. Not only did you live but you were forgiven. This is what we are told and taught. Do you feel guilty yet? How do you feel about your new found freedom from sin? The freedom came at the expense of an innocent man’s life. An innocent man, whom we are told that prophets 600 years before his birth prophesied about his death, yet somehow up to the moment he was arrested nothing about his death seemed inevitable. Despite this, we are told his death was a foregone conclusion and we bear the responsibility for his blood. We are sinners. His death was the only possible answer for our sin. So we have been taught, so we have been told.

Did Jesus die because he loved us or because he wanted to control our behavior? Did Jesus allow himself to be betrayed to the Roman authorities because he believed his disciples would take his message of the Kingdom of God and loving one’s neighbor beyond the confines of Roman Palestine? Or did he believe that by dying he would create an institution which said, “Unless you believe in Jesus’ death as way to gain the reward of eternal life you will burn in Hell forever”?

Jesus did not die to forgive our sins. Death does not forgive sins. There is no implicit forgiveness in death. Death itself neither redeems nor condemns. The horrendous violence of the cross does not make right the violence of our lives. Killing one thing does not make another thing beautiful. In a strict Trinitarian sense, God is a divine child abuser who allows his son to be executed in such a horrible manner or a deity with such callous indifference we must look away. To follow a Johannine Christology, i.e. to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father, then we are seeing some bizarre divine suicide-the death of God for the entire world to see. Forgiveness comes from life; life comes from love. The church is in the resurrection business.

We are in the business of loving people back to life. This is what Jesus does for each one of us. Jesus forgives our sins by loving us back to where we are whole people. Whole people don’t come to church seeking salvation for the sake of some eternal reward, the come seeking to serve each other and the Jesus who calls us friends. For me, the moment of redemption comes in John 15:15 on the night he’s arrested, Jesus says to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” When Jesus said I was his friend, that’s when it hit me, he loved me and no matter what happened next, I was going to be OK. Jesus did not have to die when he died. He chose to die when he died. He chose to call me his friend. That’s how I know I’m forgiven. I’m his friend.


Food for Thought-Where Was God When Germanwings 9525 Crashed?


I wish I knew. I don’t say this lightly. Some people aren’t going to like this but I’m going to say what’s been bothering me since I first heard the news on Wednesday. If I as a pastor can’t speak my mind, then who can? I’ve been wrestling with this question for three days now. Amid the discussions about mental health and cockpit security, the “God” question has been foremost in my mind. From the moment we realized the passengers and crew were aware of a serious problem (via the in-flight recorder) they too must have known their own deaths were imminent.

Why did God allow 149 innocent people to perish on the side of a French mountain? This question can be posed in any number of ways involving tragedies ranging from disease, famine, and natural disaster. Why does God permit any of these things? For the moment, I only want to talk about the plane crash.

I hear accounts of miracles on almost a daily basis. Listening to stories of God’s divine intervention and miraculous actions are not new to me; they are part of my work. Earlier this week, a man came to the church to tell me the story of his fiancé, crippled in an automobile accident last year now slowly regaining the use of her limbs. This he assured was a miracle and a response to his unceasing prayers. God had intervened on the night of the accident and saved the life his beloved. Now, she might walk again. I hope so. I prayed with him for over 30 minutes about his life and the life of the woman he hoped to marry.

I read in scripture that God actively intervened to deliver the Israelites from military catastrophes and social disasters. Jesus healed people day in and day out of his three year ministry.

It would seem easy for the God who divided the Red Sea, raised Lazarus, and is doing miraculous things for nearly everyone I encounter on Facebook, to cause the electronic lock to fail on the interior of a cabin door of an A320 about to crash in the French Alps so the pilot might save the lives of 149 innocent people. For some reason, that miracle doesn’t occur. That would be a miracle I would love to weep about, hold up to the world, and point to the mysterious workings of a great and wonderful God. I can’t do that; because my God, the God who worked that way in Exodus, Joshua, Matthew, and Mark is not working that way on a Germanwings flight over the French Alps. I don’t know where that God is now. I would like to know where that God has gone. How can this God be credited with so many things in my world (pre-mature babies born safely, people healed of cancer) and no one hold the same God accountable for the unspeakable terror of which Flight 9525 is only one example.  Some will call such statements heresy.  I call it a fair question, especially at Easter.

Perhaps that idea of God died en route to Dusseldorf.  Like a modern day version of Calvary on a Good Friday that never ends, God has fled the scene we are left to pick up the pieces. So we wait, for redemption, deliverance, and meaning from torn up doctor’s notes and aviation experts.  Woven in between the frantic words of explanation is the one truth of Holy Week: God can die and we must acknowledge this reality.

Food for Thought-Without Zechariah, No Palm Sunday Mark 11:1-11


There are “How” shows which are or have been very popular on television in recent years. “How I Met Your Mother” and “How to Get Away with Murder” are two which come quickly to mind. This week’s Gospel lesson could be a pilot episode for one such series, “How to Get Yourself Killed at a Jewish Religious Festival”.

For one reason or another, this was the festival for Jesus to pick a fight with the Jewish and Roman authorities. His ongoing, tit for tat struggle with the establishment, which had lasted for three years, was now going to come to a head. Why now? Why stop at this moment when, if he so chose, he could remain free and continue preaching in the Galilee? Why would Jesus provoke a confrontation that would certainly end in confrontation, arrest, and likely execution?

The easy way to answer those questions is to say, “Richard, it was in the divine plan. When Jesus arrived in Bethlehem, as a newly born infant, he arrived carrying a set of “divine plans”. Whether planted in his human brain or God brain, we don’t know. But he knew that after exactly three years of ministry he was to be in Jerusalem so Judas could betray him so he could be arrested and subsequently die for the sins of the world.” Oh, so Jesus is just some sort of divine robot with no ability to think or act on his own. Gotcha!

I’m no longer OK (not sure that I ever was) with that understanding of salvation history. When you subscribe to that idea, one doesn’t have to put much thought into the wonderful events of Easter and the real motivation of the events unfolding around you. For instance, if Jesus was born to die for our sins and the salvation of humanity, why not let Herod kill him as an infant? If we only need the sacrifice of a sinless being who was both God and man, why wait so long to kill him? If that’s truly what his life is all about, i.e. death, then why not let him die as an infant? Understanding the resurrection is about Jesus’ teachings concerning the Kingdom of God, not a man on a pre-programmed suicide mission.

In the three years following John the Baptizer’s death, Jesus covered a great deal of territory. He encountered thousands of people and his message hit critical mass. In many ways, he had gone as far as he could go without going to a very visible next level. The time to take it to the next level, where his impact would be the greatest, even risking his own death, was at a major religious festival.

So the question on Jesus’ mind is how can he stir the pot, how can he move the ball into scoring position? He is not downloading data from a divine USB drive the Angel Gabriel left with him 33 years earlier outlining step by step instructions on the last supper, Judas’ betrayal, and how to get crucified. Jesus knows what he is doing.  However, the outcome isn’t based on a script or scripture.  The events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week unfold subject to the political, social, and religious realities that are changing by the minute.  Jesus is aware of the outcome and what it may or may not be.

When he arrives in Jerusalem, he needs to enter in such a way that it will send red flags and push buttons among the Jewish and Roman leaders. Jesus wants to be noticed by people from every strata of society. This is exactly what he does. He rides in to Jerusalem, on colt/donkey, reminiscent of a leader once mentioned in the prophet Zechariah five centuries earlier. The working idea is that on the other side of town, Pilate’s entourage was entering the city at the same time. As you can imagine, Pilate’s parade was bigger, better armed, and included real horses. We are told to assume that people put two and two together and said, “look, here is Jesus on his humble donkey just like I remember reading in Zechariah (though literacy is about 1% among the Jewish population) and Pilate with his mighty white horse, look at the overwhelming contrast between these people.” As much as I would have really liked that to have happened; I think Jesus’ entry was lower key, at least until he arrived at the temple later in the day.

There are three to four times in the Hebrew Bible when an important “leadership” figure rides into a town (or village) like a conquering hero on a colt. In each of these occasions, this is seen as symbol of the leader’s humility. The most notable example of this is found in Zechariah 9. With this in mind, the gospel writers (writing years after the events occurred) sought to match Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with these Old Testament parallels. Their challenge, when recreating the story of Palm Sunday, was to build the story of Jesus that would resonate with their own 1st century Jewish communities. Zechariah was the right choice for their parallel. So much of what we find in our story from Palm Sunday to Easter is originally found in the Book of Zechariah.

• The anointed on riding a donkey into Jerusalem
• Waving palm branches
• Crowds shouting “save us” or hosanna
• Someone paid 30 pieces of silver (you can’t make this up)

The Gospel writers, living and writing years after the events of what we call Palm Sunday used the Book of Zechariah to create the details and create we call Palm Sunday. Educated first Jewish audiences would recognize the parallels. Christians who don’t know the Old Testament have come to believe they events of Palm Sunday are history. In fact, it’s recycled Jewish history from 500 years before the birth of Christ that has nothing to do with the Messiah. (The leader mentioned in Zechariah 9 is a de-militaristic king, anyone who understood the scripture would know this.) Zechariah tells the story of the rebuilding of the temple following the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The book does focus on the restoration of Israel’s right relationship with God.

What are we focused on at Palm Sunday? Is it the drama, the blood? Stories written to keep the peace amid first century splits within the early Christian church by recreating historic events by using 600 year old details from the Hebrew Bible, or restoring a right relationship with God?

Food for Thought-A Lewis Carroll Inspired Collect for Holy Week


Almighty God, as we prepare to step through the looking glass of our lives into the topsy-turvy world of resurrection living; fashion our hearts and minds for the Mad Hatters of Maundy Thursday, the Damnable Dormice of Good Friday, and the blank stares of the March Hare on a bleak Saturday afternoon.

As we recall your tea party, a celebration of life and living of gifts and giving; may we say what we mean and do the things we remember not for a queen or king but you, our friend, in whom we believe. For much we have heard and some we have not seen and yet we still, even today, say we believe.


Food for Thought-Judas Is A Lie


I do not believe in Santa Claus. I have serious concerns about existence of the tooth fairy.  I am able to add to this list one other individual.  I do not believe Judas (as depicted in the Gospels) is a real person.  Long before the Gospel of Judas emerged as a complete document around 2006, I thought the Judas of history to be part and parcel of God’s divine plan of salvation.  If Jesus had to die and someone was to betray him, then Judas played a role in the drama like anyone else. Judas was not a bad guy.  If anything, I believed him to be doing what had to be done, most likely at the personal direction of Jesus.  If you really hold to a prophetic understanding of Jesus’ ministry and death (and the idea Jesus knew someone would betray him), how can Judas’ actions be shocking?  Instead, they are a foregone conclusion that those who ascribe omniscience to Jesus must readily admit Jesus saw coming. How can Judas’ betrayal be seen as anything other than one step along the road to Jerusalem, planned an orchestrated by Jesus from Palm Sunday onward?  This is the understanding I held for many years and is essentially the same idea reflected in the mid-2nd century text known as the Gospel of Judas.  In this work, Judas is not the stock caricature of evil we have always assumed or the gospels have portrayed him to be.

So why Judas?  Jesus was going to die at this Passover.  Anyone could have arrested him at any time after the events of this tumultuous week.  There was no need for an inside man.  Jesus had been in and out of the temple all week long.   Judas’ act of betrayal was physically and spiritually irrelevant.  If Jesus was going to die, why blame his arrest on any one person in particular? If Jesus’ death is inevitable, why would we blame the one man who initiates the actions that culminate in God’s divine plan?  Jesus would be arrested and history would unfold.

However, someone had to be blamed.  Jesus was an innocent man and despite the early church’s readings of Hebrew prophecy; plan or no plan, someone was going to be the fall guy.  Since there wasn’t a real Judas (as we understand him), one was going to be created.  This is what occurred.

Paul, the earliest Christian writer (who’s putting pen to papyrus around 50 CE) says nothing about Jesus’ betrayal or anyone named Judas.  In retelling the story of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he never mentions Judas or Jesus’ betrayal by his closest disciples.  Instead Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11 that Jesus is handed over.  Jesus is arrested.  This we know.  It didn’t take a betrayer to do this.  They knew where he was staying outside the city.  It was no secret.  Someone in authority gave the order to find him.  Doesn’t it seem odd that Paul would leave out an important fact like Judas, something that has grown to define our idea of the Passion Stories?

In 1st Corinthians 15:1-6, Paul continues to pass along the earliest accounts of Jesus’ resurrection (within 20 years of Jesus death) to the church in Corinth.  Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter (Cephas) then to the 12.”  How many people did Jesus appear to after the resurrection?  Peter and the 12.  That would mean Judas (if there were a historical betrayer) was still with the group immediately following Jesus’ death.  (Note, Paul doesn’t use any names.) Wouldn’t Judas’ have already been persona non grata by this time? Had Judas truly betrayed Jesus in the garden and received his 30 pieces of silver (and the disciples gone in hiding) Judas would be long gone.  Shouldn’t they have already been down to 11?  If we accept the traditional chronology and Paul’s veracity, Judas was present when Easter occurred.  This is what the earliest Christian communities believed and Paul was teaching.  This couldn’t be more different than the distortions which appear in the gospels that became the Judas myths we perpetrate each Easter.  Paul was not aware of traditions developing in the early church of Judas as a traitor.

New traditions were changing history to fit specific theological  agendas as Christianity moved away from Judaism and became a faith of Gentiles.  That’s how this new tradition chose such a common name for its evil story.  Judas, stands in for the entire Jewish nation, whom Matthew’s gospel held accountable for the execution of Jesus.  Judas is the Greek spelling of the word “Judah”; Judas is Judah, Judah is Judaism.  In creating a villain named Judah (Judas), we are seeing the roots of anti-Semitism, as the divide between Christianity and Judaism grew in the 2nd and 3rd century CE.  The versions of Judas’ story in the gospels became well adapted lies to fit a version of reality which never occurred.  Yet, as decades passed from the original events, no one was alive to question their authenticity.

Food for Thought-Psalm 51 Questions and Reflections


I can imagine they liked to sing. They were a singing bunch; like pirates. I can hear the disciples walking down the Galilean hills singing these words. Once I put multiple voices to the words of the Psalm, it no longer seem melancholy, penitential, or sad. Instead, the words of Psalm 51 seem to be brimming with joy and life.

I can imagine that music allowed the disciples to put things into perspective and calm their spirits.

In the music of Psalms, we find words in which the disciples can place their hopes and fears, words in which they can try to understand their individual and collective realities. The stories of their lives are told in the Psalms they sing.

I think these verses are ones the disciples knew, had sung before, or first heard as part of a sermon or exhortation from John the Baptizer. When we read Psalm 51, we’re hearing the melodic glue that held the apostolic community together.

It is in verse 10 where the words begin to cling to our souls and take meaning from the world around them. What does it mean to “put a clean heart” into our bodies and a “new and right spirit” within us?

a) What would this look like?
b) We don’t want the Holy Spirit to be taken away from us. We need that companionship. Why is this so important, particularly in an era that had no understanding of the Holy Trinity?
c) “Restore the Joy of My Salvation”- How do I get back to a place where God’s priorities outweigh my own? My salvation is still there, in place but it needs restoration. Your salvation is not in jeopardy; it needs a reorientation back to God’s priorities. Central to that restoration is a sense of joy.
d) Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Once all of these things have happened, “I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you”.
What does that look like?

Teaching transgressors? Who are the transgressors? What are your ways? Who or what constitutes a sinner? What are they returning to or from?

Food for Thought-God Wants Less Religion – A Look at Jeremiah 31:27-34


In Jeremiah 31, scripture says the Lord will “remember our sins no more”. That’s good, that’s certainly a comforting statement to hear. Early on in the passage, the Lord says all shall “die” for their sins. Parents, who have eaten sour grapes and their children (whose teeth have been set on “edge”), will die. In fact, everyone whose teeth are “on edge”, regardless of their dietary habits will die. However, there seems to be a clear break between who’s dying for their teeth/grape sins in verse 30 and the events surrounding the new covenant the Lord is making in verses 31-34.

In other words, the “death for sins” doesn’t seem to be related to the new thing God is proposing to do with this new covenant. No one appears, at face value to have to die, for the new covenant to be implemented. Secondly, there’s nothing redemptive about the sour grape eating people dying. Their death is not for some higher purpose; so that someone else might live. They are simply dying at the hands of a vengeful Old Testament God. The new covenant and all of the blessings which go along with this new arrangement (no one needing to teach others, people innately knowing the Lord’s will), will occur not as a result of someone or anyone having died at all. In this instance, God is saving people because this is what God wants to do.

There is no quid pro quo for salvation. In fact, God says he wants less religion. In verse 33, Jeremiah writes, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.” “No longer shall they teach one another,” did you catch that? He means people like me would be out of a job. We would all have such an innate understanding of God’s teaching that preachers and churches wouldn’t be needed. What a liberated world that would be! Children and adults would come to the right moral and ethical understandings of how to live without the baggage of organized religion. This is what God is proposing in Jeremiah 31. The greatest part is that our sins, inequity, garbage, junk (whatever term you choose to use) will be forgiven without another person being tortured to death.