Never stop a mentally ill person from buying a gun,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop a broken soul from pulling a trigger,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never pass legislation,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop the next school shooting,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are an easy cliché,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are sometimes hard to say,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are difficult for survivors to hear,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are like all prayers: words.
May our prayers be more than words. May they be words brought to life by the Holy Spirit.
Forgive us of the sins of indifference. Let us not be overwhelmed by the pain. Instead, empower us to act to bind the broken, heal the hurting, preach peace, vanquish violence, and embody the Good News of Jesus Christ. May we move beyond comforting thoughts and our comfort zones to confront the principalities and powers of this world so that the deaths we see will not be the permanent reality we are currently forced to embrace.
I lift my fist, in allergic opposition to the pollen all about me, my nose and eyes stand in full revolt. I blow its green dust, rebuke pollen’s seasonal hold where it lands as I look and sigh the unending mist, never ceases to be, everywhere I touch, and everything I see.
Palm Sunday isn’t about the parade, procession, a prophecy fulfilled, or the palms. It’s about the search for the ongoing answer to the question Jesus first posed to the disciples in Matthew 16, “Whom do you say that I am?” At the core of the Palm Sunday events, we find the disciples, crowds, temple leaders, and Roman elites all asking the last question from today’s gospel lesson, “Who is this guy on the donkey?” Is he just a teacher from Galilee, or is he something more? There are lots of excited people gathered in the streets. At first glance, the event looks like some popular revolt or protest. (Some things never change, look at the news from Israel even today.)
Few people recognize him. Is he the rabbi from Nazareth? Who is the man at the center of this ill-formed parade? What is his name? Do they call him Jesus? Whom does he claim to be? Is he an anointed one or a teacher, a prophet, all three, or something else? Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15) The crowd asks, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:10-11)
This is what Palm Sunday is about. Palm Sunday is a question of identity. It’s the quest for the historical Jesus, the theological Jesus, the economic Jesus, the sociological Jesus, the Jewish Jesus, the Christian Jesus; it’s everything we’ve tried to see Jesus as and understand him to be for the past two thousand years simplified by these two questions from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus wants to know whom we think he is, and others want to know our understanding of Jesus’ identity. So who is Jesus for us, and who is for the world?
Is Jesus more than just your savior? Is he just a guy on a donkey you see in a crowd from a distance? Like spotting Santa Claus across a sea of people at a chilly December Christmas parade? You know Jesus and what he does, but does he impact your life?
Who is Jesus to you? On Palm Sunday, we see Jesus from a distance, say we believe, and go about our business and move on. That’s the reality of Holy Week for the masses. Is this the extent of our relationship with Jesus? We claim it’s personal, but I believe many of us have never given Jesus’ question in Matthew 16 much thought. We know whom the church says Jesus is, but who do we think Jesus is, and how does that impact how we live our lives and relate to our other people?
As we approach Palm Sunday, how might we answer the Matthew 16 question more precisely than the Joe Friday “just the facts” version found in Matthew 21?
I say Jesus is my friend. To quote Snoopy, I need all the friends I can get. So, I say he is my friend.
I say Jesus is someone who brings out the best in me. When I’m in the presence of the resurrection, my whole perspective changes. I see death as a lie. I see Jesus’ message of hope, life, and love as something which can heal my brokenness at my most profound level.
I say Jesus is the person who does what I cannot do for myself. Jesus saves me. I cannot save myself. I do not accept the pull oneself up by your bootstrap’s myth of American exceptionalism and that we are all self-made people who make it by our initiative. I also need Jesus. I can do nothing without Christ. Christ is my savior. In my weakness, I rely on his strength. There is no shame in admitting my faults. Why? Because Jesus, my friend Jesus loves me and makes me a better person than I would be without him. When I look at the world through his eyes, I can see. Without him by my side and in my life, I am blind to suffering, oppression, evil, and sin.
Palm Sunday isn’t really about the parade or the palms. Instead, it’s a gut check. Palm Sunday is about Jesus’ identity. Before we go to the cross, we all have to ask ourselves, who do you say Jesus is?
Lent isn’t quite over. For some of us, it feels like Ash Wednesday was only yesterday. Yet, for others, Lent may seem like the most protracted liturgical slog in history. We want it to be over. When will Holy Week be here? I’m calling for patience. A Holy Lent can still be found, even in these waning days. If we stop, take stock, find the energy for one more deep breath, and look around, we might realize how far we’ve come and the potential for changing our lives in Holy Week. We cannot take these last few days of Lent for granted. How do we make the most of the time remaining? Instead of practicing further acts of self-denial, we can make an act of pilgrimage. We can resolve to live more like Jesus. We can follow in Jesus’ footsteps as we round the dusty corners toward the Mount of Olives and prepare for Lent’s conclusion. We can be more like Jesus.
Find and confront your local Pharisees. Do your best to challenge the religious status quo. Start using parables and rabbinic wisdom like John Wick wields Japanese jujitsu to knock down the religiously inspired hypocrisy, bigotry, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Spend time with sinners. Seek them out wherever you can find them. Share the expansive love of God with people the church would prefer to exclude.
Bring God outside the Temple (Church). Whether you’re in the checkout line, the gas station, on a walk, or anywhere other than the church: bring God, a smile, and a willingness to listen to others with you. That’s what Jesus did.
Have your character and conduct attacked by other religious people. Jesus was always on someone’s poop roster.
Know the value of a small group, Christian community, friendship, and fellowship. When the chips are down, those people are going to be the ones who pull you through.
I wonder if John thought no one would ask this question. Did he think his readers, whether in the late 1st century when he composed his gospel or in the early 21st century as we reread it on the 5th Sunday of Lent, would be so amazed by the miracle of Lazarus’ resuscitation that we wouldn’t notice that it’s tragic for a man to die once; it’s downright troubling to make him die twice.
Lazarus was dead; that much was true. He had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus and the disciples arrived in Bethany. The dead man’s sisters, Mary and Martha, were also close friends of Jesus. In Lazarus’ last hours, they sent word to Jesus, begging him to come and heal their brother. Jesus hesitated. For reasons they could not grasp, Jesus waited until Lazarus died before he came to Lazarus’ side. By this time, the man was dead, and the sister’s grief was raw. Rightly or wrongly, they blamed Jesus. His presence could have made a difference. Jesus could have saved Lazarus’ life. In these moments, John allows us a glimpse of Jesus’ raw, unfiltered humanity. We read the shortest and most poignant verse in the New Testament, “Jesus wept.” Jesus, we know, is conflicted. Here is an opportunity to show God’s power. Yet, his close friend had to die for the world to witness that power. Mary and Martha were overcome with grief. Jesus blamed himself for Lazarus’ death despite understanding the “plan.” Amidst his hurting friends and disciples, not to mention his pain, the grand plan seemed like the least of his worries.
We know what happened next. The stone was removed, and he called Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus didn’t have a near-death experience. Lazarus had a death experience. He was dead for four days. That’s almost a full workweek. He’s checked in, got his white robe, been through orientation, and enjoying the all-you-can-eat brunch when suddenly he’s summoned to the manager’s office and told he’s returning to Earth. Remember 1st century Palestine, a place with no indoor plumbing, a life expectancy of 37, massive poverty, slavery, and Roman oppression. God, you must be kidding. Lazarus asks, “If I go back, that means I’ll have to die again one day and do this all over again?” “Yes,” says God. “That stinks,” says Lazarus. “No,” God says. “You’ll stink to high heaven when you leave the tomb in a moment. God has a wicked sense of humor.
Lazarus died twice. Dying isn’t fun, especially if you’ve watched a loved one in a hospice journey from life to death. Lazarus got to do it twice. I’m not sure that’s the miracle we think it is. Long after Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and ascended, Lazarus hung around Bethany with his sisters living to die again. We all know we’re going to die. It could be today or tomorrow. It could be decades from now. Lazarus had been there, done it, and got the t-shirt. Imagine having been to heaven and tolerating daily life. It would be intolerable. I can picture people coming to Lazarus, peppering him with questions: “What was it like?” “Were the streets paved with gold?” “Did you see my grandmother?” I see him at some point, growing tired of talking about heaven, waiting for his return trip, and wishing Jesus had left him on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
We do a disservice to the gospel when we overlook Lazarus. He’s the original guy who was Left Behind. This is as much his story as it is Jesus’. He’s not just a foil for making a miraculous point. He’s a human being, like all of us. So as Jesus weeps, don’t forget to tell Lazarus’ story.
I’m fond of William Shakespeare. I quote him often. I think he’s the greatest master of the English language. So, if we think he’s boring, I don’t think we hear him correctly. He took an unwieldy English language and turned it into art. He made it funny, multi-dimensional, and come alive. He made it rhyme in ways that are incredibly difficult to do. Have you ever tried to write in iambic pentameter? It is challenging. Moreover, he invented new ways of communicating. He took the “play,” something the Greeks perfected, trimmed it down, and made them exciting and watchable. In this process he created the soliloquy. Do you remember the soliloquy from English class?
It’s a speech, a talk that a single character gives to let you know what’s on their mind. It’s kind of an inner monologue combined with a speech. The audience and a character hiding off stage secretly listen to the character giving the soliloquy. I’ll give you two quick examples, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
Juliet and Romeo are starting to fall in love. They met at a masked ball. Romeo wants to express his love. So he goes and hides under her balcony. She gives her soliloquy. He pops up and says, “I’m right here.”
Hamlet is a much darker play. Neither, however, have a happy ending. His daddy (the king is dead) and his uncle has married his mother. He’s an unhappy kid anyway but this makes things worse. In Act 3, scene 1, he’s walking around holding a skull asking, “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune.”
The first time you see it, it’s incredibly moving. Then, whether they are in period clothes or a more modern production, you pick up on Hamlet’s angst and anger. But after the third or fourth time, it starts to get old. You want him to get on with the story. The redneck in me starts to come out. I want to shout at the stage, “Get on with it. Now what?” Stop moping about with the skull and make a decision. You know your uncle did it.
That’s how I feel when I read Psalm 23. It is a soliloquy of sorts. We know it as well as we know these tiny pieces of Shakespeare. We want it sung, read, and printed at our funeral. It’s published and hung on our walls. It’s on Bible bookmarks. We quote this scripture. But what do we do about it? Is our knowledge only superficial and ephemeral? After the 1000th time saying it, repeating it, and looking at it, what will we do about it? Now what? The Lord is your shepherd. Now what? What are you going to do about it? So what? How is that going to change how you live your life? How will these comforting words push you out of your comfort zone?
It is one thing to say the Lord is your shepherd. But how do you live as if the Lord is your shepherd? We say the Lord is our shepherd. Often, we lead ourselves around the pasture because we think we know better than the man with the staff. We want to go here. We want to go there. Is the theme of your life being shepherded by God? I’m not saying being a sheep. Are you willing to be shepherded?
He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Now what? Are you willing to be led by God? Are you ready to be led anywhere and everywhere by God? Humans are inclined to lead themselves into conflict, violence, arguments, and trouble. Are we willing to be led by God into places of restoration, stillness, and healing? Are we willing to admit that we have problems that need to be healed? Are we willing to accept that we are broken, and without times of restoration, we will fall apart? Without consenting to be led, we will die in the pasture? Are we willing to be led or die of thirst? Or do we think we know better?
He leads me through the right paths for his name’s sake. Now what? Are we willing to be led by his name and not our name? Are we willing to be identified by the name of Christ and not our family name and have our identities subsumed entirely and totally by that of the shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth? The right path is a path that is a path that centered on the identity, purpose, and passion of Jesus Christ-not us. We are at our best selves when our names and paths are aligned with the path and name of Jesus. Where do we find this? We go back to the Beatitudes.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil. Now what? Are we going to let fear control us or let faith guide us? Are we going to talk faith or walk faith? It’s easy to fear evil when we’re trying to lead the shepherd when we’re trying to go first. When we think we’re in charge. However, if the shepherd leads, fear diminishes exponentially. It’s not that our worries are non-existent or life is perfect, but we can function, despite our fears.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Now what? Your force me to recognize the humanity in my adversaries. You force me to face my fears and my foes. You move me to a place where I can consider making peace. A shared meal is the best place to find reconciliation, forgiveness, love, justice, grace, and mercy. If you want to reconcile with an enemy, share a meal. Now what? God provides. God provides for everyone. God provides opportunities for healing between you and your enemies. Notice they aren’t God’s enemies. They are my (your enemies). That’s now, what. That’s putting it into practice. That’s an unimaginable blessing. You might even say your cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Now what? Does that mean everything is going to work out fine? No, far from it. It means if we let God go first if we consent to be led, there will be an order, a purpose to our lives that would not be there otherwise. What kind of person do you want to be? What is your purpose in life? Are goodness and life central answers to both of those questions? Are you able to say: I want to BE a good person? I want to BE a person of mercy. How does that happen? We stop giving orders to the shepherd. We stop giving lip service to the Psalm and give life service to the actions behind the words of the Psalm. We take the next step, the now what step.
This is what, I believe, the second half of the sixth verse means, if we take the next step, we will dwell (live) with God for the duration of our lives. We find purpose and meaning. God will be at the center, and we can align our “who we want to be” and our “now what’s” outward from there. Being led by the shepherd becomes who we are; being shepherded is our way of life.
So how do you make the 23rd Psalm you can live today, not just something they’ll read at your funeral? Give this a try. Embrace this 23rd Psalm as a way of life, not a comfort blanket. You are not a sheep. Sheep are dumb. You are made in the image of God. Remember these points:
I am willing to be shepherded
I will be open to life’s abundance. I will reject scarcity.
I will acknowledge my need to be restored, that I am broken and need healing.
I realize fear is a choice, I am not abandoned, and God precedes me.
I accept that God wants me to restore relationships with my enemies. Therefore, eat with your friends, and share table fellowship with your enemies. Break bread together.
I will order my life with a God-centered purpose, a central meaning, and a life theme, which will be God. This will help us determine who we want to be and should be, inspire others, create a legacy, and deal with adversity. Life will not be perfect, but it will have meaning.
So, what if we take denying ourselves (for Lent) literally? We deny ourselves because we realize we can’t make it alone. We need someone else to help us carry the cross. Self-denial as the most basic Christian means of asking for help.
Usually, we deny our personhood because it challenges the idea of a relationship. We encourage our autonomy because it rejects the concept of community. We underscore our individualism because it also rejects intimacy. Self-denial creates a safe space for us to hide if we so choose. Lent, by design, isn’t the best season for sharing. It’s that way by design. Lent makes us quiet, private, and shy. This is what happens when we deny ourselves. I’m not so sure it should.
To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross really means — not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in a relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be sure of our connectedness. If we reject the cross, we leave each other.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying.
Because Lent cannot be just about ourselves and our sacrifices, somehow, we must define our identity as connected to Christ and a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is a radical communal experience in many ways. People are willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People are eager to talk about their Lenten disciplines — out loud, even to strangers.
Why? Because we realize Lent is not just about us. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, not the reclusive self that denies the need for Christian community or the self that thinks it can survive on its own. The solitary self that rejects the most profound challenge of humanity — belonging.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. Instead, it’s an invitation to realize we need other people. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what being human is all about — intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent do we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others acknowledging who we are? We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to become narcissistic in its purest form, where those around us are only pawns to placate our self-perceived power and importance.
Let’s face it. This is easy to do. And this is where many of us go astray. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Our sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “denying yourself.” The feeling that our power trumps that of our people, the Scripture, and our God.
So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on us alone and seek the help of others. To curb the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some skewed assertions that we have all the answers. Finally, to reject the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our worth without the call of God we initially heard.
The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that we can’t live in this world alone. We need Jesus. We can’t live our lives without being in a relationship with others.
I feel, I hear, I know, I think, God that you are real and I am small, standing here in my bare feet, I feel my heart, Beat Beat Beat the rhythm of life pulsing through my simple veins, with each pump your grace rains, through the corners of my body and soul, Life God, Life, I need more of you, Take me to where you are! the rhythmic corners of your beating heart, on the Street, where People meet, the Divine is seeking, to find and gather, those who are Scattered, Up Down Around and All about.
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