Another Palm Sunday (A Poem)

Another Palm Sunday,
Dead leaves on the road,
Dirty cloaks from even dirtier people,
Dear God,
Here comes a donkey,
What are they saying?
What does this mean?
He looks so uncomfortable,
A hundred other places,
He’d rather be,
Than sitting on an ass,
Me looking at him,
While he looks at me,
What a mess,
People sreaming and shouting,
The world’s going to Hell,
I’m guessing He knows,
Whatever THIS is,
It won’t end well.

–Richard Lowell Bryant


My Big Fat Greek Discipleship Test (John 12:20-33)

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”  It’s not a question.  These visiting Greeks make a statement.  They don’t ask questions.  Why not?  They’re Greeks.  Think about who the Greeks were and their reputation in the ancient world.  The best philosophers, writers, soldiers, historians, and writers were all Greek.  Homer, Alexander the Great, Sparta, Athens, the traditions of ancient Greece.  We like to think UNC Basketball or Duke Athletics have long traditions of winning and ego; imagine what it would have been like to be a Greek from Sparta or Athens!  It’s like having gone to Harvard, Yale, or Oxford become a Navy SEAL, and then conquered the known world.  When John tells us “some Greeks” came to speak to a group of disciples he wants us to be aware of the baggage (both good and bad) they bring with them.  This is a group of people Jesus hasn’t encountered before.  It means Jesus’ message is going to places no one expected it to travel.

It’s also significant that John tells us that Philip and Andrew are from Bethsaida in Galilee.  He wants us to know that Jesus disciples are definitely NOT Greek.  John sets up the contrast.  If you read too fast you miss this and this may be one of the most important points in the passage.  These are Greeks: Ivy League educated, multilingual, worldly, well traveled, elite Special Forces types seeking Jesus.  They’ve just presented themselves to Philip from Galilee.  Philip is from Galilee.  Galilee is not Greece.  Galilee is the backwoods of the backwoods.  To get to Galilee, go to nowhere and take a left.  Galilee is 1st century hillbilly moonshine country.  They talk funny in Galilee.  They’re not going to college in Galilee.  Are you starting to get the point John is trying to make?  This is a clash of cultures.

These carpet bagging no good Yankee types (remember Greece is north of Judea) have come to the festival and demanded to see Jesus.  This is what’s going through Philip’s mind.  Those people didn’t even have the common courtesy to ask, “Was he busy?”  “Excuse me, do you know Jesus?”  “Or, can you help me find Jesus?”  Who do these fancy Greeks with their Greek language think they are with their slow, loud talking?  “Sir, wee waant too see Jee SUS.”

It’s easy to follow what happens next.  But don’t breeze by the simple stuff.  We do this.  We want to hurry by this dialogue to get to the point where Jesus starts his mystical teaching about light, darkness, and who truly understands the coming of the Son of Man.  It’s all important.  However, John is the most complex and esoteric of the four gospels.  If we’re not careful, we can become bogged down in John’s weeds.  If we pay attention on the way into the jungle (with conversations like this) it’s much easier not to get lost and keep our bearings when we’re in the thick of it.

The Greeks tell Philip.  That’s the first jump.  Then Philip tells Andrew.  This is the second jump.  How do you think it sounded when Philip told Andrew?

“You’re not going to believe this?”

“What am I not going to believe?” asks Andrew.

There is a group of Greeks who just walked up to me of the clear blue and asked, get this, “We want to see Jesus.”  Can you believe that?  No questions, no courtesy.

“You got to be kidding me?”

“No.  I’m not kidding you.  What do you think we ought to do?” asked Philip

“I guess we ought to tell Jesus”, says Andrew.  So both of them go and tell Jesus.  There’s your third jump.  After starting with the Greek, three hoops later, the request the Greeks made finally lands on Jesus’ desk.  How long did this take?  Was it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or maybe longer?  Who knows?

It doesn’t really matter.  We know it didn’t happen instantly.  There wasn’t a text message exchange between Phillip, Andrew, and Jesus.  We can’t read the emails.  We do know this:  someone asked to see Jesus and the disciples allowed culture, language, stereotypes, doubt, and other hoops to get in the way.  Someone wanted to see Jesus and they made it harder than it needed to be.

What gets in the way of people seeing Jesus?  We could name hundreds of obstructions which prevent people from encountering Christ.  You might say drugs, alcohol, power, corruption, or any number of manifestations of sin.  However, that’s not the question this passage poses:  what are the things that stop people (hinder or slow down) an encounter with Jesus that are wittingly (and unwittingly) used by disciples of Jesus?

Disciples of Jesus:  people who ought to be greasing the wheels, making the calls, opening up the back channels, and doing everything possible to clear any possible obstruction to reach Jesus because they already know Jesus. In fact, I’ll go one step further:  seeing a disciple of Jesus ought to be the next best thing to meeting Jesus personally.  Think of it as a customer service representative for Jesus, what can I do, to remove any barriers between you and Jesus today?  The last thing a disciple of Jesus wants to do is erect new barriers or embrace existing obstacles to encountering Christ.  Disciples look for ways around or opportunities to remove anything which inhibits someone’s ability to see Christ.  Do we see this in Philip and Andrew?  Is this our own practice?  I think these are fair questions to ask.

We’re disciples, Christians, and followers of Jesus.  When someone comes to us; either directly or indirectly and wants to see Jesus, what are the barriers that might inhibit their ability to see Christ?

Before I go any further, I want you to understand me:  I’m preaching to me.  I’m looking myself in the mirror here as much as I’m looking at each one of you.

What comes to mind when we think of the hurdles to seeing Jesus and Jesus in our lives and actions?

I think the first clue comes from the text.  I’ve said it a couple of times already this morning. It’s the dreaded “c” word, “culture”.  What do I mean by culture?  Think back to the beginning.  John wanted to make sure he told us the Greeks were Greek and Philip was from Galilee.  That matters.  Culture, geography, language, and history all impact how we see Jesus.  How we talk, who our parents are, where were were born, and countless other things are the building blocks which make us unique people. Those cultural realities can either be something we use to shut out the world or we take them to build a bridge connecting someone outside our culture to someone who is truly beyond culture:  Jesus.

As I used to preach in Ireland:  Jesus is not a Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Greek, Methodist or Assembly of God, or anything else we may wish to label him. Jesus is Jesus.  This is why Jesus can connect in some way to all of us.

The second clue also comes from the scripture.  Doubt is an obstacle that prevents other seeing Christ in the lives of disciples.  What do I mean by doubt?  Philip had to go to Andrew.  What was this about?  He didn’t go straight to Jesus.  There was a measure of doubt and anxiety.  Are these people right for Jesus?  Should we present this people to Jesus?  He wanted to run in by Andrew before he made a fool of himself before Jesus, or so he thought.

Try this on for size:  I want to invite someone to church.  We’re a small group, I don’t know if they’ll like us.  Will people speak?  I should ask someone first.  Somehow, someway, we have come to doubt that Jesus is a good fit for everybody.  We know Jesus should be a good match but you still don’t want to let anyone and everyone get access to Jesus.  What if your own relationship to Jesus becomes marginalized?  Will Jesus like these new people better than you?

Doubt takes many strange forms.  We can rationalize doubt as being in Jesus’ best interest more than most other actions as a disciple.  Philip wanted Andrew to agree with him.  He wanted to hear Andrew say, “Yes, these snooty Greeks are not right for Jesus.  He’s in a mood and it might upset him further.  It’s best if they don’t meet him today.”  We can find a way to feel good about dragging our feet and acting on our doubt.  Doubt becomes an obstacle to seeing Jesus we often make sacred, pray over and institutionalize; especially in United Methodism.

Lastly, I think there are natural obstacles to seeing Jesus.  Time is one that jumps off the pages of this encounter.  There are some difficulties to encountering Christ that are not of our making or choosing.  What do we do then?  We find a way around them.  Money is always present in my mind.  As a former missionary, I’m cognizant of language barriers.  If someone doesn’t understand you they can’t know you.  But that same idea applies to people speaking the same language.  Even when we speak English, we can talk past each other.  Being on the same page, as I learned in Ireland, saves lives.

I believe the best way to encounter the natural barriers to seeing Jesus is to remember these two simple realizations:  our hands are God’s hands.  Our lives and words can be a reflection of Jesus’ life work and teachings.   We can talk about Jesus is clear simple language.  We can cut out middlemen like Andrew and deal with our doubts.  Through the gift of prayer, we go straight to Jesus.  What a friend, isn’t that what we sing?  Culture doesn’t have to be a burden, barrier, or baggage.  Take the bricks down and build a bridge.

Richard Lowell Bryant

It’s Time To Jump Off The Saint Patrick Bandwagon

We’re three days away from Saint Patrick’s Day.  It’s time to roll out the “What We Can All Learn from Saint Patrick” articles and essays from Irish loving bandwagon jumpers everywhere!  Aren’t we all a little bit Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day? Don’t we all have some Irish religious opinions on this the High Holy Day of Irish loving Celtic Christian types everywhere?  Why yes!  I believe I do have something to say!

Please, spare me the sentimental claptrap about a semi-mythical slave trader whose legends have nothing to do with the religious realities in a secularized Ireland or a politically divided America.   This is not one of this articles.  You’ve been warned.

Saint Patrick, the man venerated each year on March 17th, is a combination of myth and multiple people, who reputable historians can’t accurately describe, define, or delineate from countless other figures in post-Roman Britain.  In many ways, the mythological figure of Saint Patrick symbolizes much about modern Ireland:  religious contradictions built upon political misconceptions.

In this country, where more Irish live than in Ireland proper, we have idealized images of green fields, thatched cottages, and the Ireland we see on PBS specials.  We know of the Ireland we hear from relatives and stories like Angela’s Ashes.  Two weeks on a bus around the Galway Coast, one go at the Blarney Stone, and a few dollars to and you’re as Irish as Michael Collins or Saint Patrick himself.

Sadly, that’s not Ireland.  After giving two of the hardest and most demanding years of my life to living and ministering in an Irish town that once held the reputation as the “most bombed city in the world” (after falling prey to the Irish propaganda machine-yes, some of it Guinness fueled); I can honestly say I am no clearer today on what Ireland is or what Saint Patrick means.  Anyone who gives you a definite answer is drunk on their own Guinness.

If anything, I’ve grown more certain of one fact: Ireland resembles the rest of Europe in that the church is dying.   In the land where Saint Patrick was a missionary, where he is still revered as a saint in the North and South, the church he is credited with founding is dying.  The Christians who are his descendants learned nothing from him despite embracing his legacy and teaching, year after bloody year.

The church in Ireland (Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Catholic) isn’t dying because of feuds over scripture, gay marriage, or any of the things we’re fighting over.  I think it’s finally hitting home that the churches in Ireland stood silent for centuries while its members murdered each other in the streets and fields of the Emerald Isle-all while celebrating the common legacy of Saint Patrick. They killed each other.  United Methodists, on the other hand, are committing denominational suicide.  Why not do it while we tell ourselves Saint Patrick was an environmentalist mystic?  As Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted would say, “Oh, go on now!”

No, to paraphrase the great Canadian vocalist Shania Twain, Saint Patrick and his legacy “don’t impress me much”.  Maybe it was the day I was beat up by a group of thugs on the street outside my church.  Maybe it was the day I was yelled at by church members for taking my family to view our town’s local Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Perhaps it was a combination of factors.  For one reason or another, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized:  the Saint Patrick’s Day myth is harmful and wrong.  Look what it’s done to Ireland.  When your Christianity (and idea of church) is built on a myth, no matter how inspirational the blessings and the prayers attributed to a fifth century slave trader appear to be, your Christianity is still formed on a myth.  Eventually people figure out the truth (no matter how green the beer is and how good the parades are) and stop coming to church.

What myths like Saint Patrick are we recycling?  Too many for me to name here.

Richard Lowell Bryant


A Trinitarian Methodist Universalist Reads John 3:16

John Milton, The Guy Who Gave You Your Idea of “Perishing” in Hell

Don’t tell anyone I told you this.  But between you, me, and the internet; I’m a Universalist.  I guess I’m a Trinitarian Universalist.  (Cue rim shot!)  Keep it quiet!  I don’t want this getting back to some crypto-Calvinists lurking in the shadows of online Methodism.  This is between us.  We’re cool, right?

But seriously, I’m a Methodist Universalist hiding in plain sight.  I eat BBQ chicken, pay my taxes, send my kids to the Orthodontist, and have my oil changed regularly.  I also believe God has a grand plan to save us all.  To put it athletic terms, God wants the win.

The Hell most of us believe in was shaped by John Milton’s Paradise Lost (and Dante) more than anything in the Bible.  I love Milton but I’m also comfortable not putting him on par with Paul, John, (George or Ringo for that matter).  Culture shapes our theology.  We live and die by beliefs not formed by scripture.  This realization should make you more than a little uncomfortable.

One reason we need the idea of Hell is because it helps keep good people sane.  It’s difficult for us to understand those who commit radical acts of evil.  These days, acts of evil are regularly attributed to a lack of mental health resources, proper psychiatric care, and someone being under medicated.  Despite this, you’ll still hear the word “evil” bandied about.  If we’re going to stop evil, beyond the thoughts and prayers level, we need identify reasons.  Churches are good at fighting evil, especially the social ones which tear families and communities apart.  The place to fight evil is on this side of eternity.

The desire for justice (and vengeance to a degree) is one of the deepest human emotions.  We really don’t want to know the causes of evil.  Whether it was society, video games, or access to firearms; it’s easier to call it “evil” and ask the devil to open the gates of Hell.  Somebody must pay.  Where else are you going to put all the people who you’ve deemed unworthy to receive God’s grace?  Hell seems like the best option for everyone we’ve deemed deplorable and unredeemable.

What if, in God’s eyes, everyone is worthy of love despite our collective unworthiness? Is it possible God sees things we can’t possibly perceive? I hope so.

Remember what the apostle Paul said, “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”?   I know.  When you put it that way, it’s best to take the Heaven/Hell debate out of the hands of any human being.  Again, I know.  None of us ought to be condemning anyone to Hell or giving away free tickets to Heaven.

My universalism is grounded in six words, “for God so loved the world”.  God loved us before anyone of believed in God, went through Sunday School, Confirmation class, church camp, or we accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.

God loved us into being.  Love, in the context of this passage, is simply another means of talking about creation.  And once we’re talking about creation (as created beings ourselves), we realize there’s no other way to talk about ourselves and describe our lives apart of from creation; that is God’s love.  We can’t step outside our lives and look dispassionately at what God is doing.  If we take one step away from God’s creative love, we’re still in the heart of God’s grace.  The gift of God’s son makes this point even clearer.  At any moment we think we’re able to be objective about our relationship with God, we’re overwhelmed with a graciousness (a gift) we’ll never be able to understand.  No matter where we are or where we look, we are unable to overcome the reality that our existence is formed, nurtured, and maintained in the presence of God’s love.  The cross not only directs us to see God’s love in places where we’ve refused to acknowledge God’s presence but sends the unmistakable message:  God’s love is not controlled by the boundaries of death and time.

God’s love is real.  Does God’s ability to love us, anyone, or anything; given the expansive nature of what we know of God’s grace and love, hinge on any single individual’s assent?  I hope not.  God’s love either is or it isn’t.  When we start debating who God can love and why; we’ve strayed over a line that was never meant to be crossed.

I’ve said all this to say:  Love precedes belief.  Belief is a response to God’s love.  Our belief in God does not constitute, define, or create God’s love in or for us.  This is what John 3:16 says.  God didn’t need us to believe in God.  God exists beyond our assent, belief, and permission.  God wouldn’t be God if he depended on my mood to conjure his presence up each morning.  God’s self image was doing just fine without our petty machinations.

The remainder of the verse says, “Whoever believes in him won’t perish but have eternal life.”  It’s an unfinished thought.  John 3:16 makes no sense without John 3:17.  The equation does not balance.  You can’t have one without the other.  Our mistake, throughout years of Christian tradition, has been to give the world half a story.

In an effort to frighten people into heaven and out of hell, we’ve ignored the ever present reality of God’s love and placed the cart before the horse.  We’ve told the world that to get God’s love, you’ve got to believe in God first, although the creator in the universe already believes, loves, and cares for all of us, we’ve lied!  We’ve given ourselves the power.  God will only love you if you say yes.

If you emphasize only half the story, rearrange the context, talk real fast, and move your hands like a magician this is what John 3:16 appears to be; is it any wonder this most beloved part of scripture has become little more than a watered down meme, poster, and something to paint under a football players eyes?  John 3:16, when used in spiritual isolation, is little more than a slogan.  It’s become more akin to a magical spell (like something out of a Harry Potter novel) that we utter and expect mysterious things to occur by simply repeating the words in right order at the correct time.  Is there any wonder we keep getting it wrong?  Has our catchphrase lost its punch?

John 3:16 makes no sense without John 3:17.  Verse 17 should be memorized in tandem with verse 16.  If we quote John 3:16, we should also follow it up with 3:17.  Why?  Because it lays waste to the idea of perishing and any notions of Hell and condemnation we build create around the notion of perishing.  News flash:  we’re all going to perish.  Somehow, someway, we’re all going to go.  Perishing isn’t the issue.  Is perishing forever?  Will our belief in God guarantee eternal life?  John 3:16, if you stop there, indicates you need one to get the other.

Look at the next verse.  “God didn’t send his son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  That’s one translation.  Here’s an older, even stronger translation.  “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  That’s a whole new ball game.  Jesus didn’t come here to condemn anyone, set up a litmus test religion, or create more hoops for people to jump through in order to guarantee their place at the pearly gates.  There’s no “if, then” tension in John 3:17.  Through Jesus, everything that is already God’s, i.e. “creation” might be redeemed through one great act of love, despite our sinfulness and disbelief.  Did Jesus die for those who believed in him?  Or did he die for everyone, even those who placed the nails in his hands and lifted him on the cross?  If he didn’t die for everyone, then we might as well pack up and go home.  If the Cross was only for those who already believed and had their ducks in a row; we’re all done.  If it was just for the John 3:16 people, then there is no more to say.

I don’t know if we’ll ever meet the standards of belief set by John 3:16.  The text says, “Believe in him”.   I believe in God but the religious world run by fallible people keeps moving the belief goal post.   Beliefs change depending on whose Pope, President, or Bishop.  John 3:16, when it becomes a man manipulated benchmark, creates an unreachable standard.

But, if what happened on Good Friday was for John 3:16-17 people, an event where love proceeds belief, where condemnation wasn’t the reason for the season, then the Good News still matters to people like you and me.  I can keep going.  There are songs to sing and prayers to pray.  There is hope.   Amen to that.

Richard Lowell Bryant

John (Wesley) 3:16

What does this verse, slogan, meme, and sometime magical spell mean to United Methodists on the edge of a denominational meltdown?  Probably the same as it’s always meant.  Yes, Virginia, unlike any other set of words in the Bible, whether we realize or not, we attribute unexplained powers and possibilities to the mere utterance of John 3:16.  We do this: “Just say it once and you’ll be saved!” Harry Potter could learn a thing or two from we Christians.

For many, it’s a verse believed to have permanent, even ecumenical meaning.  It means the same thing today it meant yesterday and on the day before that.  Its self apparent clarity is unchanging since Nicodemus posed his question and Jesus gave his reply.  Some hold that “God so loved the world” to be a self evident truth on par with Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal”.

For other, it’s like a supernova.  A long time ago, a supernova was a bright, shining star.  By the time the light reaches us (after its collapse), we’re seeing what it eventually thousands of years ago.  In the present, it longer exists.  We have no idea what it means today.  When the supernova exploded in the dark reaches of space, it meant a certain combinations of gases and gravity went dark and collapsed upon itself.  This we know.  It has taken years for us to catch up to something that occurred before Earth existed.  We’re not unpacking something new. (Yes, it’s new to us.) We’re simply trying to understand a past which no longer exists.

John 3:16 was the Big Bang moment which formed our Christian universe.  There are real limitations on how close we can come to seeing, experiencing, and studying this moment. To paraphrase Nicodemus, we can’t go back into the celestial womb.  Once it occurred, through the fragments of space, time, and denominational telescopes we’re only looking at fragments of matter from something that happened so long ago (it might as well have been 400 billion years ago from our limited human perspective) and is no longer reflective of a real time event.  Nicodemus isn’t still with Jesus in a night time meeting where Jesus explains metaphors about rebirth.  The event is over.

However, does this mean God no longer loves the world?  God still loves the world.  Yes, hell yes!  My point is this:  I don’t believe the third chapter of John is the best way to tell the story of God’s ongoing love and grace.  John 3:16 is confusing, tired, and getting a bit old.  In fact, I don’t think we’re paying attention to it.  We’ve used and abused this passage to such a degree that it’s lost any meaning, beauty, or hope it once offered.  It’s a punch line.  Jesus was never a punching bag.  Besides, there are better passages “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

John 3:16 sets up a litmus test.  “So that everyone who believes in him won’t perish,” that’s how the verse goes.  God believes in me on days when I am a struggling theist.  United Methodism can’t evolve into a litmus test faith.  Litmus tests leave good people behind.

I will never be convinced that God offers us love and grace with a catch.  I never really saw Jesus as big on making people jump through hoops.  I believe God helps us through our belief and unbelief.  I see this when I sit across a kitchen table with a widow who’s just lost her husband of 67 years.  She’s angry at God, unbelieving at the loss she’s experiencing, and yet praying to God to join her on her painful journey.  Nothing about John 3:16 brings help, hope, or love to that kitchen table.

I told her God loves her in her anger, doubt, sadness, and disbelief.  It doesn’t matter what John 3:16 says.  God loves you, no strings attached.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Do Something Different with the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)

If you want to do/use this, you’ll need a lunch box with a sandwich, a bag of chips, and Little Debbie cake (or variation).  You might try putting the notes in the lunch box on a brown paper bag.  

Laws similar to the Ten Commandments pop up all over what we now call the Middle East, in some recognizable form, 2000 to 1600 years before the birth of Jesus.  The cultures of the Fertile Crescent came to a collective understanding at about the same time and place that family matters, murder was wrong, theft a crime, and adultery destroys the moral fabric of communities.  After four thousand years, those ideas are still true.

When the version of those rules we’re most familiar with arrives in the English speaking world, it transcends its original audience and becomes something more akin to a founding document of the western Enlightenment.  For this we can thank King James I of England and the proliferation of his translation.

The words, like Jefferson’s in the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, became ours.  They were engraved, sometimes in stone but more often in the collective psyche of the American unconscious.  Each “thou shalt” beckon us to come forward.  The corresponding “thou shalt nots” slow down our bent to self-destruction.

In our quest to make Moses’ laws stick and become part of the fabric our nation and the English speaking world, we made them something they were never intended to be:  commandments.  The Bible calls them the “ten sayings” or “ten statements”.  You might even translate as the “ten words”.  The phrase “Ten Commandments” appears nowhere in Hebrew.  We made that up.  We took a harsh word and applied it to something in the Bible that God never said. Imagine, if people did that to the 10 commandments what if they’ve tried to do with things Jesus said?  That’s a discussion for another day.

They made something up, it stuck, and that’s determined for years how Christians have looked at this most important piece of scripture.  It’s possible, no, it’s not just possible, it’s a certainty this one editorial decision has warped more relationships with God any other thing in human history.  They are not commandments.  They’re sayings, words, parts of a conversation God is having with humanity.  If you start there it changes everything.

I want the 10 commandments to speak to us, like a note, placed in a lunchbox packed by a parent.  Yes, this is what they’re like: a note in a lunchbox written by a loving parent.  You’ll never forget that note.  You’ll remember that note long after you forgotten any stone monument outside a courthouse.

The first thing that jumps out at me is this:  We make God more formal and distant than God wants to be. God’s not as cold and stone like as we make God out to be.  God’s talking and eager for dialogue.  God is speaking, saying, and talking. God is speaking living words not standing still in dead stone.

What are those living words?  What is God saying?  What has God written?  I think we’ll find it is inspiration marked by brevity.

Let’s open our lunchbox.  Let’s see what God packed:

1) Don’t forget who made your lunch with love and care. No one else will do this for you.  God does this.  I do this, says God.  I’m God and I love you.  This is basis for everything.

2) Don’t trade your sandwich for something better. We will come back to this one over and over again.  You’ve got all you need for lunch (and life) right here and front you.  We have love and trust.  It’s our thing.  In fact, we’ve got love and trust in ALL things.  Why substitute anything else for what God does?  Who or what can make a sandwich like God does?

3) Do you know how hard it is to get up early in the morning and make a tasty sandwich? All of the work, effort, and time?  Please don’t take my love or the work I do for granted.  Your lunch, this sandwich, the bag of chips, the cake, and the soda is the embodiment of my love given in love.

4) Don’t forget to take a moment to side and eat your lunch/sandwich in peace. Don’t rush, eat in the go, or forget to eat.  You need a moment.  It is important to you and your health (spiritually, physically, and mentally).  The pause (let’s call it sacred time), what we’re doing right now, helps you remember the first three things we talked about.  So pause and take a deep breath.  Enjoy your sandwich.  Look around and notice life going on around you.  This time is about renewing our relationship with each other.

5) Relationships are important. I know you probably get tired of me writing and talking about that but it’s true.  I this is why a priority on our relationship with who made this particular sandwich comes after a reminder about remembering the Sabbath.  (The rabbis were always debating with each other, after the 10 commandments were written, why they were in this particular order.  What was the meaning of the order?  They’ve been talking about these questions for 2000 years?  Welcome to the club!)  Sabbath, weekends, Saturdays, Sundays, vacations, holidays; that’s when we get to know our Moms and Dads.  When spend more time with our parents on Sabbath time than at any other time.  Sabbath is important to honoring our relationship with who makes the sandwich and packs the lunch.  Sabbath creates the framework to really enjoy and appreciate how you dad uses mayonnaise and your mom’s selection of ham. Honor is a deep word with many ways in can be expressed, even with something as simple as a ham sandwich.

The second big thing that jumps out at me is this:  Life is about engaging with the present, honoring the past, and loving what’s in front of you while not taking anything for granted. 

Now, the sayings seem to get a little sterner.  These are the ones people know if you ask them to name one or more of the 10 commandments.  For some reasons, these are the ones that come to mind.

6) Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we need to be reminded that no sandwich is worth dying over. Life is too precious to die over trivial things like sandwiches.  Give away your sandwich before you take someone else’s.  Other’s sandwiches aren’t yours to take.  Whether you translate this as “do not kill” or “do not murder”, there’s too much death in our world.

7) We’re back to the placement issue? Why is adultery right after murder?  We always think somebody has better sandwich that’s tastier and going to fill us in ways God’s well packed lunch never will.  I don’t know.  Sandwich sharing, like this, divides communities, families, in ways that take the life right out otherwise vibrant people and situations.

8) You’ve got a sandwich, chips, and a little Debbie Cake. Why would you consider taking someone else’s?

The last thing which  jumps out at me is this:  The last four commandments are about looking at someone else’s relationship with God and seemingly forgetting that yours exists at all.

9) Focus on the goodness of your lunch, not the irrationality of the world around you. Speak words of truth and gratitude.

10) There’s stealing, adultery, and finally jealousy. Your sandwich is yours.  Don’t envy someone else’s Hot Pocket.  If you want something else, get up earlier, go to the store, cook it, and pack your own lunch.


You Picked The Wrong Week to Talk About Bearing Crosses and Dying, Jesus – Mark 8:31-38

We are obsessed with dying and yet, we want to live forever.  This tension, between the awareness of our mortality and the desire to live, is tearing us apart.  We’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive, as long as we don’t have to stop doing the things which kill us.  Case in point: the debate which is currently polarizing American life.

More than ever before, we are aware of the many diseases and illnesses which can end our lives.  So are the pharmaceutical companies.  Death is big business.  The idea of keeping us alive makes some people rich.  We take pill after pill and treatment after treatment to prolong our lives and fix our problems.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts, it’s not enough.  We still die.

If we’re in the wrong classroom at the wrong time, crossing the intersection a second to late or simply not paying attention; our lives can change forever.  That’s how death works.  Death never keeps our schedule.  Our main premise is ignorance.  We don’t know when or where we’re going to die.  Choice is not an option.  We live until something alters the course of our well ordered lives.  Would it surprise you to know that, in one way, Jesus challenges this notion?

Jesus makes the radical claim that death is an option we should all willingly choose to accept.  However, he’s not talking about walking gracefully into old age or succumbing to the randomness of cancer. Jesus is saying to anyone and everyone who will listen: you must be willing to lose your life (before the appointed time) because of him and because of the Good News.  In this instance, I’m convinced the gospel writers want Jesus to be taken literally.  At best, this is Jesus’ most audacious claim.  At worst, in the wake of ancient Roman attacks on early Christians or modern massacres like the ones at Stoneman Douglas or Sandy Hook, some may see his words as offensive and hurtful.  Why should the true mark of faithful discipleship be a willingness to embrace death?  Can’t you hear a parent of a young disciple who was later crucified asking that question?  Wasn’t there another way?

Those who choose Jesus, also accept his manner of death, the cross.  Jesus is asking the impossible.  He’s setting an unreachable goal.   Jesus knows that his words will alienate, dishearten, anger, and disturb most of the crowd who’ve gather to hear him preach.  This is his goal.  He’s not out to win a popularity context.  Again, Jesus is asking the impossible.  He wants to see who remains.  Who believes in the impossible?

We’re not big on contradictions and irony.  When it comes to religion, we like it cut and dry, black and white, and straight and narrow.  We want to be told if you do this, you’ll get into heaven.  It’s what I call the 72 virgins theory of Christianity.  No one wants to martyr themselves (like an Islamic terrorist), but some Christians would like it to be as simple as being told if you do “x” on Earth you’ll receive “y” in Heaven.  That’s us.  We don’t want to think about what we’re doing and God knows we don’t want to suffer or stand up for too long.  Since that’s the case, Jesus asking us to die on a cross might present a problem.

Yes, Jesus is different.  Unlike everything that drives the modern news cycle, Jesus is counterintuitive.  Jesus is a master at asking us to consider the possibilities of life between two contrasting positions like life and death.  We see this in his parables.  God’s love is like the tiny mustard seed; small but as expansive as the universe.  In this instance, to lose one’s life is to gain life.  Salvation is found in loss, not acquisition.  Salvation is not so much a “ticket to heaven” we acquire (in modern parlance) but a life to be sacrificed for others.  That may make sense in principal or theory.  Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be taking this idea one step further.  He wants it applied in real life.  Who wants to talk?  Who is ready to walk?

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  That’s what he said.  It’s hard to make a metaphor out those seven words.  Not that we don’t do it.  We (modern Christians) make metaphors, images, and allusions from “take up your cross” and redefining the “cross” all the time.  It wasn’t that way with Jesus or his early followers.  When they said “cross” they meant an actual “cross”; the device on which persons were executed.  A “cross” wasn’t a euphemism for a personal problem, a nagging pain, an illness, or anything else you felt you had to bear.  A cross was a cross, one of the cruelest devices for human torture and execution ever devised by man.  We need to be clear, when they say cross they mean cross.  When we water down our cross language, we’re not only losing the meaning of what Jesus is saying but we’re devaluing the lives of all those people who actually died on crosses.  Do we really have crosses to bear?  I’m not sure we do.

Jesus is asking those who want to follow him to be prepared to accept that they’ll bear their own crosses.  This brings me back to the beginning.  When you choose to bear your own cross, you’re taking the randomness out of death.  You know that cross bearing will lead you on a collision course with dying.  The people who control the government may control the time and the place of the crucifixion but the outcome is never in question.  Jesus wants his people to understand the certainty of the outcome.  The powers at be will not let Jesus or those closest to him live.  What they’re saying, doing, and urging ordinary people to in response to his teaching is too dangerous.  The Romans will kill him.  It will be on a cross.

Jesus’ request is left lingering in the wind.  How do you respond to a man whose best pitch to hang on till the end is, “we’ll all get to die together”?  I know there are modern day martyrs who bear contemporary, literal crosses.  The history of the church is replete with the stories of those who have followed Christ to the bitter end.  Once, in Armenia, I met a man who had been captured by Azerbaijani forces during the civil war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990’s.  This Armenian Christian was crucified by his Azeri captors.  His body still bore the scars and wounds of this torture.  I didn’t know how to respond.  What does one say to a crucified man, when you meet one in person?  I have no idea.  No words could convey my emotions.  I said nothing.

Jesus asks us to do the impossible.  Cross bearing and dying are impossible tasks, especially for comfortable middle class people like us.  Jesus knows this.  Unless Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu is nearby, I’m not sure anyone of us is up to task.  What Jesus asks is impossible for us to do.  No one wants to die in bed, even at the end of a full life.  We don’t want our children murdered in school hallways.  The idea of accepting a painful execution as the key to saving our lives and showing we’re not ashamed of Jesus seems out of reach it appears impossible.   No, it is impossible.  I have a hard time recruiting help to teach VBS and fold bulletins.  Volunteers to be crucified are out of the question.

We can’t bear a cross in the same way Jesus or the earlier disciples did.  Our time is not his time.  Their pressures are not ours.  Despite what conspiracy theorists tell you, the greatest threat to religion in America isn’t the government or liberals.  It is apathy.  People are finding better things to do with their time.  Whether your minister wears a chasuble or an untucked shirt and stands beside a glass podium, the public has caught on to our predictability.  No one is going to ask you to anything stressful.  We want you to comeback.  Death talk bums people out.

Jesus’ impossible cross bearing standard can’t be met because no one is asking us to die or needs us to die to keep the church alive.  There is too much death in our world as is.  Instead of dying on metaphorical or literal crosses, Jesus is demanding a new kind of impossible:  we make ourselves heard.  We speak out on issues and act together on those matters that are preventing the kingdom of God from being realized in the present day.

Consider the impossibility of praying the “Lord’s Prayer”.  As much a manifesto as it is prayer, these words serve as an outline for the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven.  The prayer addresses the core economic and social issues of our time:  inequality and hunger.  How are churches addressing hunger and poverty in our pews, communities, nation, and around the world?  These issues are life and death for people within walking distance of our church communities.  Someone is bearing hunger because they can’t afford to buy medicine, pay rent, or meet other basic needs.  The Lord’s Prayer highlights the impossible possibility of making Earth look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.

We’re called to be kingdom bearers instead of cross bearers.  The impossibility of bringing the kingdom into being is now our responsibility.  Will we save a version of the church in an attempt to save ourselves?  Or, will we consider the impossibility of praying the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus, so that the words of the prayer apply beyond the narrow realm of our own lives but on all the “Earth, as it is in Heaven?” When you slow down and think about the words, it sounds impossible.  That’s where the possibility begins.

Take up the Kingdom of God and follow Jesus.  Jesus went to the cross so we didn’t have to.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Richard Lowell Bryant