Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bottle Shock


            “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
(John 15:1-11 ESV)

There is a movie every oenophile should watch.  Bottle Shock is a 2008 release with Alan Rickman and Chris Pine, and is the true (though embellished) story of the first California vintner to win in a blind tasting held in Paris in 1976.  The two winning wines that year were a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.

What Bottle Shock demonstrate is the absolute devotion a vineyard owner must have to his craft.  To make a great wine requires a great deal of patience, time, attention, and skill.  These people love their plants.  In Bottle Shock when vineyard owner Jim Barrett is trying to make a great Chardonnay, he finishes bottling it and nearly throws the wine out because it turns brown in the bottle.   Seeing the brown wine, he assumes he simply lacks the skill to produce a great wine, not that there is something wrong with the grapes themselves.  What Barrett needed to do was to wait.  And then he needed to wait a little longer.  When he did, he discovered that the cloudiness of the wine corrects itself once the wine gets over the shock of going from an oak cask to a glass bottle.

John 15 has always been a troubling passage to me.  I was taught that, “nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ.”  But that’s not what John seems to be saying Jesus said.  “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” is a pretty intimidating statement.  “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” is even worse! 

Is this just John being John interpreting Jesus?   Maybe Jesus never really said these exact words.  But I can’t say that without my whole understanding of what is truth flying out the window.  Maybe Jesus was speaking metaphorically at this point and just wanted to underscore the seriousness of discipleship.  That’s a little easier to handle, but is also untrue to the text.  Even if Jesus had said, “Every branch in Israel that doesn’t bear fruit…” we could breathe a little easier, because then he’d be talking about the Jews who rejected him outright – the natural branches – and not about believers in general.  No, unfortunately we are left having to grapple with the awful thought that Jesus really meant what he said.

Now, before you go and cower in a corner for fear you haven’t born enough fruit (whatever that might mean), remember that Jesus’ motive in saying this to us isn’t to “scare us straight,” as if intimidation might get us to do the right things.  His motive is “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full,” a thought John echoes in his first Letter when he says, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.  (1 John 1:3-4 ESV)  He doesn’t want to scare us.  He wants us to rejoice!

Our Western ears are what are at fault here, not the Scriptures.  We are so performance-oriented that we fail to see the point Jesus is making isn’t that there is some standard of performance we have to live up to in order to remain in the vine, but rather that those who “abide in my love” simply do bear fruit.  Let’s be honest.  Those of you who garden, no matter how much you love the plant you are tending: don’t you occasionally have to cut off some of the branches just because they are clearly dead?   We can get all hung up on the question of Eternal Security if we want to, but if we do, we’ll miss that Jesus was telling them something wonderful about what happens to someone who does abide in him.   And I think I can trust him, a wise vinedresser, with what will happen to the branches that have died.

I described the love he’s talking about here a few days ago (April 15, 2011) when I said that, agape “is not a love motivated by passion.  It is a love motivated by value. Our sin has drained us, every one of us, of any regard of affection.  There is nothing lovely left about us.”  Our value to God isn’t our fruit-bearing potential.  We have, all of us, proved ourselves to be unworthy servants.  But we are not worthless.  Our value to him is simply that we are part of the vine that is Christ, whether we were grafted in or of the natural plant.   That we bear fruit is a natural consequence of being “in Christ.”

There is no thought in John 15 of the Father gleefully cutting away the branches that have died and throwing them in the fire.  My father was a woodworker, and I can tell you Dad loved the pieces he produced.  When one had simply been glued back together too many times and had no conceivable function, Dad still had a hard time throwing even one stick of something he crafted away.  So great was his respect for the wood that now, 25 years after his death, I still have a closet full of antique chair frames I can’t seem to part with.

I rejoice as I abide in the knowledge that he counts me as of such value that, though I often feel like an unproductive twig, even though I am brown in the bottle right now, he is tending me obsessively, that he might perfect me in his love and produce a prize-winning vintage in the end.

Jon

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Morning Watch: Motive


“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
(Acts 2:22-24 ESV)
            Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
(Acts 2:36-38 ESV)

Christian theology for the past seventeen hundred years at least, has placed a huge emphasis on doctrine, that is the ability to understand and clearly verbalize certain things, as what secures the eternal condition of men’s souls.  And not just things  about belief in Christ.  We also have to believe certain things about death, Heaven, Hell, the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the rapture, the tribulation, the Millennium, the end of the world, the last judgment, a new heaven and a new earth, and the ultimate consummation of all of God's purposes, or so Christians have said.

The question we have been asking ourselves has been, “What must I believe in order to be saved?”  But that’s not the question the people listening to Peter’s sermon on Pentecost were asking.  They asked, “What shall we do?” in response to Peter’s preaching. 

The testimony about Jesus arose in a Jewish context.  That’s why he begins his message (Acts 2:14) by quoting Joel.  Of course Peter is preaching to Jews.  Whatever non-Jews were in Jerusalem on Pentecost, AD 33 were an insignificant part of the population.  “This Jesus…you crucified” is aimed squarely at the Jews of Jerusalem.   In Acts 2:14 he addresses them as “Men of Judea” (the Southern Kingdom).  In Acts 2:22 he calls them “Men of Israel” (the Northern Kingdom).  So he is talking about ALL of Israel.  He also quotes Psalm 16 and Psalm 110.  These also would have been very familiar to all of the people Peter was preaching to that day.

So what did Peter think was important to preach on in that first Evangelistic sermon?  Or is it just evangelistic to Christians of later centuries, who have wanted a major theme to be “how to be saved,” or at least for it to be something about the End Times.  But the only mention of escaping the torments of Hell is in reference to Jesus.  And the word Peter uses is “Hades,” who, in GREEK mythology was the only child of Cronus and Rhea.   In popular culture of the time, Hades had come to mean  “the depths of the earth.”  Basically, this was a really uncomfortable place where people’s souls sometimes (very rarely, and due to particularly heinous sin) ended up for re-education as they moved toward final rest.  But this was not equal to our modern Christian concept of Hell.  The original (Hebrew) version of Psalm 16 that Peter is quoting uses the word “Sheol” – simply the place of rest – as Jews had no understanding of Heaven the way we think of it either.  It may be that Peter replaced the Jewish word Sheol with the Greek Hades as a way of saying that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”  It may also be that Luke, realizing he was writing a World document when he penned Acts, was making accommodation for the growing Gentile expansion of the faith. 

But the amazing, troubling thing for all of us who have been trained to use a five-verse “gospel” presentation to lead people to Christ, is that Peter never mentions escape from Hell as of any concern to his audience.  What Peter is saying that the One who was, in himself, the answer to all that concerned contemporary Judaism had come, and that the people of Judea and Israel had sinned in such a massive way as to put their One True Hope to death.  The good news, as Peter presents it on Pentecost, isn’t that you or I can be saved from Hell, but rather, that neither our sin nor death itself could prevent Jesus from being crowned Lord and Christ. 

Peter’s audience responded in shock.   They now realized the massive nature of their sin and the immense holiness of God.  They were cut to the heart and basically grabbed Peter by the lapels and said, “What are we to DO now?  Peter, tell us how we can make this horror right.”

Peter’s answer totally blows seventeen hundred years of the emphasis of Church Doctrine, from Nicaea to today, out of the water.  He doesn’t say, “Believe in Jesus (and the church, and the Virgin Birth, and the Trinity, and let’s throw in Biblical Inerrancy for good measure), and you’ll be saved from hell.”  He says, “Repent (from the sin you just committed) and be baptized,” and you will “save yourselves from this crooked generation.”   Not every Jew in Jerusalem is going to understand this.  But if YOU have understood it, you’ll be saving yourself from the hellish hearts of people who, like you, crucified the Lord of Glory. 

I don’t want you to misunderstand me.  Jesus clearly spoke of hell during his ministry, even telling a parable about it (The Rich Man and Lazarus).  Jesus also spoke of the church, the Trinity and all the rest.  But could it be that our motive in embracing Jesus as Lord would be more about the wonder of how radically he changes hearts, right now, than it is about our eternal destiny?  To “repent and be baptized” is a heart response, not a mind response, and knowing all the right things isn’t going to save me.  I blew it, and now I’m going to turn away from all that, simply because Jesus is Lord.

Jon

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Another Loaf of Bread


Lord’s Day Message: Another Loaf of Bread
Luke 24:13-35 ESV
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
            So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
           
This is the Word of the Lord!

Thanks be to God!

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

These two disciples, whose presence in the Easter narrative is our only clue that they ever existed, are talking about a particular kind of aching or craving that is actually very common to human experience. 

We can dispense with the purely physical here.  They had not eaten something earlier in the day that gave them what we call heartburn.  But there is a burning deep within that all people know.  It is really a kind of love.

A chef knows it when he is cooking and tastes his sauce.  Out of the vast array of spices on his shelf he knows there is one in particular that is lacking that will make this sauce perfect.  Nothing else will do.  He needs a pinch of clove, otherwise this sauce can just be thrown out.

Poets and writers know this longing.  They furiously write a whole page or paragraph that might have taken them 10 minutes to produce, and then sit there with a dazed expression on their face, staring out the window at… nothing… for hours until the word comes that makes all the rest more than just so much drivel.  In finding that word they have moved from being a casual conveyer of thoughts to being a mover of hearts.

Artists know there is only one color that will perfectly express for all time what they saw in the rose they were trying to paint.  Yes, in today’s world they could have simply taken a picture of the rose, but in a few brush stokes with that color, so much more than the rose is there on the canvas.  Their own burning desire is impressed along with the image of the rose because they chose that color and their hand was on the canvas.

But you don’t need to be a cook or a poet or an artist to have known the feeling these two disciples knew.  Human lovers of all kinds have experienced it all down through the ages, beginning with Adam’s eloquent exaltation upon first seeing Eve, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”  Nor is this merely a physical or sexual desire, though sexual desire shorthands our explanation of it, for the burning of passion is like what they felt in its most base form.  Even the most committed lovers know that sometimes there are situations in life when just one person will fill the aching hole in their heart at the moment, and it isn’t the person they are married to.

Did not our hearts burn within us?

One thing more that we need to say is that this burning they are talking about is irrational.  If the experience of “being saved” was something merely logical, based on a person’s knowledge about God, these to First Century Jews would have used totally different language to express it.  For they understood what is lost on our ears, that in their culture the goodness or badness of a man – a salvation based on his actions – had to do with a different organ.  If they were looking for intellectual enlightenment to save them, if they were placing their hope in correct doctrine, they would have said, “Did not our kidneys burn within us,” because, to the ancient Jews, a man was judged to be good or bad based on the condition of his kidneys, not the condition of his heart. 

The heart was the inner core of a person’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  The heart was the fountain from which all those other longing loves sprung.  And so, when these two disciples said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us,” they were talking about that irrational, subjective, intangible deep ache that says, “All the rest is  rubbish if I don’t have this one.”  Without this, I am helpless.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French writer and philosopher wrote in his Pensees, “What does this [greed and] helplessness proclaim, except that there was once within us true happiness of which all that now remains is the outline and empty trace?  Man tries unsuccessfully to fill this void with everything that surrounds him, seeking in absent things the help he cannot find in those that are present, but all are incapable of it.  This infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite, immutable object, that is to say, God himself. 

He alone is our true good.  From the time we have forsaken him, it is a curious thing that nothing in nature has been capable of taking his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, snakes, fever, plague, war, famine, vice, adultery, incest.  From the time he lost his true good, man can see it everywhere, even in his own destruction, though it is so contrary to God, reason, and nature, all at once.”

Pascal knew that this kind of longing, owned when we do not know what it is we are longing for will drive us to excesses of all kinds, to gluttony, alcoholism, wild addictions to adventure and risk taking, even to suicide, because we are sending a signal out into the universe that is not being answered by the one-and-only thing that can.

Did not our hearts burn within us?

The funny, almost sad thing about these two guys walking on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus is that they had gotten all wrapped up in discussion.  Sometime between dawn on Sunday morning and mid-afternoon, Ceopas and his friend had started to walk and talk to each other.  The narrative never tells us why they were walking out to Emmaus.  The home base for Jesus and his disciples when they were in Jerusalem was in Bethany, not Emmaus.  Maybe one of them had relatives in Emmaus they wanted to tell about the strange events that morning.  That would make sense, since they clearly had someplace they were headed where dinner was going to be waiting for them.  I suspect a good many of us will get into our cars after worship this morning and drive to other towns to spend Easter with family. 

On the roughly seven-mile walk they had gotten into heated discussion about “all the things that had happened in Jerusalem.”  This is the kind of discussion that can make a long walk or a long car ride go by very quickly.   In this kind of discussion there is a lot of energy, a lot of back and forth: clarify, joust, volley, aerate until one of you suddenly says, “Oh… we’re here.  I don’t remember passing exit 39.” 

Of course, all that discussing didn’t stop the burning in their hearts or fulfill their longing.  In fact, they were so wrapped up in discussion that they didn’t even recognize Jesus when he joined them on the road.  They were so all about the flight of thoughts they were having that they simply couldn’t see.  

You can discuss Jesus to death, and still not see Jesus. 

Did not our hearts burn within us?

Another sad thing is that after all that discussion, when the “stranger” joined them they were very articulate in expressing what the object of their longing was.  They said, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  In their hoping they had all the right information.  They knew it was Jesus they were hoping in.  They knew that their longed-for Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.  They knew that he was a Prophet.  They knew that he had spoken with authority and that he had acted in such powerful ways.  They had seen his sermons and his signs, and they knew this was the One Israel had hoped for.  They knew the prophecies and how Messiah would be rejected by the chief priests and rulers of the people.  They even knew that he would be crucified and rise on the third day.    Even if Jesus hadn’t said all these things directly to them, which he did, they still had the Hebrew Scriptures, and it was clear from them that HE was the One to redeem Israel.  

What they stumbled over was that sometimes you can hope for something so long that your longing itself blinds the eyes of your heart. 

Did not our hearts burn within us?

Beyond that, they were amazed, and they still didn’t get it.  I think the reason may be that they had gotten pretty invested in the script of what was going to happen. And nothing, absolutely nothing had gone the way they expected.  If I were writing my own script for that first Sunday morning I’d have had Peter, John, and James go to the tomb because by now they were expecting a Resurrection.  If nothing else, they were three strong men and would have some hope of being able to remove the boulder that had been rolled in front of the opening to the cave where they had hurriedly buried Jesus on Friday afternoon to avoid desecrating the Sabbath.  But that’s not what happened. 

The Bible tells us that the first people to see the empty grave were a group of women.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the disciple we know as James the son of Alphaeus, and a woman named Joanna, along with a few other mourning women were doing something quite irrational and had brought spices to anoint a body they had no reasonable hope of reaching.  They had understood the longing for the one thing.  

And while the story they had told the assembled disciples had shocked them and amazed them, it had not answered the longing Cleopas and his friend felt, or they would have gone to the tomb themselves.  But instead they left the city and went out to Emmaus because the thing they felt they needed to do was to spread the word about the amazing and unbelievable tale the women had told them.

You can be amazed by Jesus and still have that burning in your heart.

Did not our hearts burn within us?

Even when Jesus sat down with them and poured over the Scriptures that told plainly about who Messiah would be and what he would do, they still didn’t see.  Why?  It was all there:

Isaiah 50:6 – Messiah spat upon and beaten
Isaiah 53:7 – Messiah would be silent before his accusers
Isaiah 53:12 – Messiah poured out his life and was numbered with the transgressers.
Isaiah 53:9 – Messiah buried in a rich man’s tomb
Issiah 53:4-6 – Messiah would die for our sins
Psalm 22:1 – Messiah forsaken by God
Psalm 41:9 – Messiah will be betrayed by a friend

Zechariah 9:9 – Messiah enters the city riding on a donkey’s colt
Zehariah 10:12 – Messiah would be pierced
Zechariah 11:12-13 – Messiah betrayed for 30 pieces of silver

Jesus had said as much to them when he was alive.  In John 5:39 he says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have life, and it is they that bear witness to me.”

Did not our hearts burn within us?

For the past several weeks we’ve been looking at how God uses little things to bring his purposes about.  You can discuss Jesus and not recognize him.  You can hope in Jesus and not recognize him.  You can be amazed by Jesus and not recognize him.  You can even study the Scriptures about Jesus and not recognize him. 

My daughter-in-law Alice had a pastor when she was in college who had worked as a barista in a coffee shop while he was trying to plant a church in Indiana where she went to school.  He had stumbled upon a great formula for evangelism and church planting, and so as he trained other young men to go out and plant he also gave them a business model for a bi-vocational life, and he and they planted coffee shops and churches all over the mid-west. 

A few years later, the pastor was in a horrible car accident and was in a coma for a long time.  When he came out of the coma he couldn’t remember anything about his former life.   His amnesia was complete.  He languished in a rehab hospital for a very long time until one day a friend stopped by to see him, carrying with him two cups of coffee, the particular blend of coffee the pastor served at his coffee shop.  The moment he smelled the one and only one kind of coffee that he had worked with and lived with and brewed and blended and chatted with people over and introduced himself and Jesus to; the particular kind of coffee he knew so well – the minute he smelled THAT coffee, all his memories came flooding back.

It wasn’t the discussion or the hope or the amazement or the studying that caused them to recognize that it was Jesus with them.  It happened when he picked up a simple loaf of bread and, as he had the previous Thursday, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.  These two hadn’t been in the room that Thursday night, so I have to assume that Jesus had picked up many, many, loaves of bread and blessed and broken them throughout his ministry.  It wasn’t the bread that gave them life.  It was the bread of life breaking bread with them that caused them to recognize him.   It was the repeated action of sharing the most basic part of life – eating together with Jesus – meal after meal after meal after meal that had satisfied the longing of their hearts, and that will satisfy that longing in you and me. 

Has your heart been burning?  Maybe it is because you’ve never sat down and really dined with Jesus.  There’s a richness there you can’t get from talking about him or hoping someday Messiah will come, or being amazed by miracles, or even studying the Scriptures.   But when you go to visit your family this afternoon, Jesus will be there.  When you go back to work tomorrow morning, Jesus will be in your office.  When you sit and watch TV with your family night after night, Jesus will be present.  But until you break bread with him and recognize he was there all along, you’ll still be left saying, Did not our hearts burn within us?

Amen.
 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Do This


It occurred to me after I sent out The Morning Watch this morning, that one of the number one principles of non-profit work is to give people the opportunity to give.  Having run a non-profit for 25 years, I know how important it is to make it easy for people to do what you’re hoping they will do.  If you do want to “stop on the way to church” tonight, http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org lists all the known homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens in the US.  I’d suggest giving them a call before stopping by to make sure your specific donation will be helpful and timely.

I also want to make sure that none of you who read The Morning Watch think I am in any way implying that any or all of you aren’t involved in active discipleship of the sort I suggested.  I write The Watch to challenge myself.  If it provides a challenge to others as well, I rejoice.

Sincerely in Christ,

Jon

Do This


No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
            Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
(1 Corinthians 10:13-17 ESV)

One of the greatest mistakes in the history of worship was when the church sequestered the elements of Communion behind great iron fences for fear some fraction of the host might become defiled or fall on the ground and be trampled, while at the same time the church sequestered the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted from any real interaction with the Source of Life, with Christ himself. 

The church fenced off not only the Host to keep it safe; it kept the people separated from the Host as well.  At the very least, the bread and wine might saved some from starvation.  You see, the temptation Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 10:13 isn’t that some of us might have an affair or slander someone or lie or cheat or murder.  His big worry is that some of us might replace knowing the living Christ with interacting with an inanimate object. This is idolatry of the very worst kind.

What does it mean that we who are many are one body?  Paul sheds light on this in his discussion on the excesses of the church at Corinth.  “When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.”  (1 Corinthians 11:20-22 ESV)

Tonight many of us will go to church and participate in a re-enactment of the Last Supper. At church we will eat a cube of bread and half an ounce of grape juice and barely, if at all, give any thought to how that may connect us in some mysterious way to the other people lining up at the rail with us.  Since we’re going out anyway, some of us may choose to stop and have dinner out before or after, because it is easier than cooking at home. 

The cost of dinner out for 2 these days (without drinks) averages $40.  You can do it for $15 if you want to go to McDonald’s.   I just checked, and a 64 oz. bottle of Welch’s Grape Juice and 2 loaves of Hannaford’s Giant White Bread (22 oz. size) will set you back $6.09 here in New Hampshire.  Of course, you could stop on the way to church and pick up 12 loaves of bread and 6 bottles of grape juice, drop them off at your local soup kitchen, and forego the dinner out.  Maybe then you’d have a little different experience when the pastor hands you the Elements tonight and says, “This is my body, broken for you.   Do this in remembrance of me.”

Jon


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Taking a "Sick Day"


O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.
           
Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.
           
Behold, they say to me, “Where is the word of the LORD? Let it come!” I have not run away from being your shepherd, nor have I desired the day of sickness. You know what came out of my lips; it was before your face.
 (Jeremiah 17:13-16 ESV)

The most difficult balancing act a pastor does in the ministry is striking the right balance between preaching and shepherding.  Because preaching is the public face of ministry, most congregations are looking for a really, really good sermon every week.  Pastors who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag don’t generally last very long with their congregations.   But the preacher who can grab a group’s attention and hold it week after week will probably be preaching to good sized crowds, no matter how Biblical the message is or isn’t.

There are people bothering Jeremiah in this passage.  They are the taunting sideliners who say, “I’ll come to church when the pastor delivers a sermon worth listening to.”  Those are people who have already written off the Word of God.  They have already forsaken the Lord because they have disconnected themselves from what Jeremiah calls “the fountain of living water.”  They aren’t hearing the Word of the Lord quite simply because they aren’t there to hear it, or if they are there, they aren’t there to listen, but only to criticize.

By contrast, Jeremiah has no pretense in his heart about his own oratorical skills.  He knows that the ability of the Word of the Lord to go forth doesn’t depend on his ability to deliver it.  When presented with the complaint that he really isn’t a very good preacher, Jeremiah replies, “I am a shepherd.”

Jeremiah is also a shepherd/preacher who begins all of it from an attitude of need before God.  If more of us who presume ourselves to be pastors would start our day every day with, “Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise,” it would prevent a lot of pastoral train wrecks.

When the going gets tough in pastoral ministry; when they tell you you’re not much of a preacher, and when you hear there are people sitting on the sidelines waiting for you to come visit them because they’ve got one complaint or another, it is really, really easy to say to yourself, “I think I’ll just call in sick this morning.”  

Visiting complainers, by the way, isn’t pastoral leadership.  That’s putting your finger in holes in the dam.  Sure, they’re going to complain.  But you visiting most of them won’t stop that.  As Jeremiah reminded us, they’ve already decided not to hear the Word of the Lord.  A shepherd doesn’t cater to bleating lambs.  He doesn’t sit down next to them to give them an opportunity to cry out.  What a good shepherd does is he leads them beside still waters and restores their souls.  That does mean using the tools in his hand, the rod and staff, effectively.  He doesn’t use them to inflict pain.  He uses them to lead and to guide.   

Jeremiah has answered the number one pastor’s question for himself before turning and asking it of anyone else.  This is the question I ask every person I mentor or shepherd each time I sit down with them: “How’s your soul?”  He knows how much it hurts to have your congregation constantly complaining and pulling against what you’re trying to do.  He knows he’d like to take a sick day.  He also knows he’s not going to do it. 

Jeremiah, how’s your soul?  It needs healing.  My soul is broken and my spirit is hurting.  Jeremiah, how’s your soul?  It needs to be saved.  I feel like they are closing in on me from every side, and I’m alone here.  Jeremiah, how’s your soul?  It needs to praise you, O God.  My soul is tired, and I just want to go somewhere and spend time praising you. 

Jon

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting in to see Jesus


Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
(John 12:20-26 ESV)


People are out there who want to see Jesus.  But the problem here is one of politics.  There were Greeks at the feast of the Passover?  Whether they had come to celebrate Passover with the Jews is questionable to me.  I think what John means is that there were Greeks who had come to Jerusalem hoping to see Jesus.  I think they knew perfectly well it was a real long shot as to whether or not they would get an audience though.  Still, these Greeks had come from someplace far to the north, though not necessarily Greece.  To call someone a Greek was to say they had a certain cultural perspective. 

This passage is probably here in John’s text to back up what he just claimed the Pharisees said after watching the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, “the whole world has gone after him.”  Well… here is an example.

So these Greeks have stepped seriously out of their cultural comfort zone and are visiting Jerusalem, not at any ordinary time of the year, but at Passover.  Passover was one of three great feasts when tens of thousands of Jews swelled the city to be near the Temple.   These Greeks were very politically and culturally astute however.  They went and sought out Philip, who was from Bethsaida, a little berg that was probably a neighboring town to Capernaum, up on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus conducted most of his earthly ministry. 

The thing to know about Bethsaida is that it was in the region called Galilee of the Gentiles, an area that was a great cultural melting pot, though dominantly Jewish.  They strategically chose to ask the person they felt would be most sympathetic to their concern.  Philip must have been particularly Greek in his thinking or schooling, because back in John 1:40 when Jesus first proposes going on mission into Galilee, he goes and finds Philip first.  This was the guy with the connections to get to know Greeks. 

Once the connection with Philip was made, Philip went and got hold of Andrew, who was Peter’s brother.  I think we can assume that Andrew spoke to Peter, who was one of Jesus’ inner circle of three and “had Jesus’ ear,” and that is how, in the middle of Passover week in the midst of the confusion and crush of people and on the heals of the riot that was the Triumphal Entry, some Greeks got a chance to speak with Jesus for a few minutes.

We never do find out what Jesus said to these Greeks.  But his answer to Philip and Andrew is not disconnected from the rest of the text.  His reply that “My hour has come” is his way of saying, “Okay, there are Greeks involved in this thing.  Now it is clear that this isn’t just about national Israel.  Once I am raised from the dead the whole world will hear.  These Greeks are here, and they will answer the call of discipleship, die to self, and proclaim the gospel.”  More than that, after Jesus rose from the dead it should have been obvious to the early church that the Gentiles were to be included in salvation.  Jesus ends by saying, “If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”  Well, here they were: Greeks in the middle of Jerusalem at Passover.  I guess that qualifies as “anyone.”

You and I are also “anyone.”  Does Jesus have to go to great lengths and lobby among your friends in order to get time with you?  Or will you go to great lengths, at great personal cost, and at risk of being ridiculed both by your friends and by the culture around you to go out and find someone who will take you to see Jesus? 

Jon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Just a reminder


Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
            Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
            Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
           
(Philippians 3:1-14 ESV)

The Apostle Paul was a gifted writer and a great arguer of logic.  When he got wrapped up in an idea, he could convince anyone of the validity of what he was saying.  Fortunately, Paul spent most of his later adult life arguing for what he called “the truth as it is in Jesus.”  Paul is first and foremost an interpreter of Jesus to the early church.  Though his writings are astoundingly clear and fairly concise, he does not lay out a single new idea about God that isn’t already present in the life, the ministry, the teaching, the healing, the person of Jesus himself.  You might say Paul only had one gun to shoot and shot it several different ways through the course of his ministry.

Philippians is a good example of this.  Beginning at chapter 2, verse 12, Paul gives five examples of his opening assertion: for the Christian disciple, to live IS Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). 

First, by way of instructing the Philippian church very briefly, he says, “work out your own salvation…for God is at work in you.” (2:1-18)  He tells them to be completely humble in their attitude toward one another, giving of themselves sacrificially in the same way Christ did.  Even if it means pouring out their own life blood, that’s the kind of service they ought to render, because that’s the kind of service their Master rendered.

Next, he gives the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Timothy was his protégé and fellow planting pastor.  Timothy looked after the interests of Jesus, and not merely his own.   Epaphroditus nearly gave his life serving Christ by serving Paul. 

Finally, in chapter 3 Paul says look, don’t get upset about this, but it is safe for you if I repeat myself.  Look out for people who are preaching something other than Jesus and calling it the Gospel.  That’s what he had already said in chapter 1.  Next he does something you wouldn’t expect.  He lumps himself in with the very people he seems to be speaking against!  He says he was, “a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  In Galatians 1:14 Paul affirms, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”  He was the worst kind of sinner: a religious sinner.  He was the kind of person any disciple of Christ would do well to stay clear of. 

But once again the message of Christ rings out: you have to die in order that you may live.  That is the good news.  That is what Christ did as he pioneered Salvation for all who believe.

The message comes with a warning though.  This is not some game you play when the mood strikes.  Being a Christian is about you taking whatever time Jesus gives you and spending it progressively dying to self and progressively living to him.  No, you’ll never become perfect in this life.  Paul attests to that here in this passage.  But the challenge is clear.  No one who desires to go back to “status quo” after meeting Jesus should expect to gain anything from the Lord.  In fact, they are in no position to call him Lord if they spend their remaining days, whether they live for one day more or fifty years more, as long as they have said no to his call to die. 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  (John 12:24 ESV) I am that grain of wheat.

“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23 ESV)  WE are part of “all”.

“Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:38 ESV)  YOU are whoever!

What else could Jesus possibly have meant when he said these things?  Raising the dead is easy.  Jesus, Peter, and Paul all did it. But  attaining the resurrection from the dead is about obedience to Christ.  Paul writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:
            If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
            if we endure, we will also reign with him;
            if we deny him, he also will deny us;
            if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
            for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of these things.”

And so… I am reminding you.

Jon

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday Message: God Uses Little Things


Palm Sunday, 2011
Immanuel Community Church

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey!”

These are some of the most confident, commanding words in all of Scripture.  God is singing out prophetically to his people with an image of potent humility that nearly defies words.  And yet here are the words.   Until you understand the prophecy and experience it the way Jesus did, you’ll never really understand Palm Sunday or the really huge thing that happened that day.

Jesus had started the day with his disciples in the house at Bethany where Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus lived.  This was where Jesus and his disciples stayed whenever they were in Jerusalem.  It is only about five miles out from the City, and while it is a challenging walk, it provided them at least some small amount of privacy and a place to retreat to at the end of a day in Jerusalem as well as a place to pause before going into the City on pilgrimage and rest after the long trip down from Capernaum on the Northwestern rim of the Sea of Galilee. 

That’s what they had been doing on this particular Sunday.  If the biblical record in Luke is in the correct order, Jesus had spent several days in Bethany after raising Lazarus from the dead, so this was already anything but an ordinary visit.  Since no one in Israel would have traveled on a Sabbath, he had waited until Sunday to move his entourage the rest of the way into Jerusalem for Passover week. 

They had already arranged a rental hall on the second floor of a house in the main city.  That’s where they would gather as a group and celebrate Passover on the coming Thursday evening.  Galileans and Pharisees celebrated on Thursday evening because for them, the day of the 14th of Nissan began at Sundown the night before.  The Saducees and most Judean Jews celebrated Passover on Friday evening because their day began on Friday at dawn.  So much for a consistent calendar!  In any case, this strange arrangement made it a whole lot easier on the priests in Jerusalem who, by law, had to slaughter all of the paschal lambs and goats between 12 and 3 pm on the afternoon before Passover.   Just parenthetically, what that means is that the priests who were working on behalf of the Pharisees who put Jesus to death were most likely sacrificing the Passover Lambs at the same moment that the Lamb of God was being sacrificed on a cross.

The walk in from Bethany took them from the village at the Eastern base of Mt. Olivet – the Mount of Olives – up a steep set of switchbacks, a climb of over 1000 feet, until they came to just a set of huts… it couldn’t properly be called a village, though it had a name… Bethphage.  That’s where scene one of the drama happened. 

Jesus had sent two of his disciples, whose names have been lost to history, on ahead of the group to commandeer a donkey and her colt from in front of one of the huts in Bethphage.  I’m sure the owner of the older donkey wasn’t surprised that someone would want to rent her.  Walking up the hill from Bethany was one thing, but people who came through Bethphage were often tired by the time they got to the top of this last rise, and frankly there was a little money to be made ferrying them down to the Kidron Valley beyond.  It isn’t very far from there, maybe another couple of miles into Jerusalem, but sometimes older people especially liked the service.

Two disciples, whose names have been lost to history.  God uses little things.

It was Jesus wanting the colt also that they couldn’t understand.  “A colt!  What does he want with a donkey colt?   After what happened with Lazarus there would be huge crowds waiting in Jerusalem.  The picture of Jesus riding down into the valley and up to the Temple at the top of Mt. Moriah on a colt!  That would make him look downright ridiculous.  It certainly wouldn’t be befitting of someone they knew was about to be proclaimed king of Israel. 

Two nameless disciples and a donkey colt.  God uses little things.

Just as the owner of the donkey wasn’t surprised to find someone wanting to rent his beast of burden, the disciples weren’t surprised when they got to the hut and there actually was a donkey there.  These guys had gone in and out of Jerusalem frequently over the past couple of years, and each time they had passed through Bethphage on the way to or from Jerusalem.  When they met the fellow who owned the two donkeys all they said was, “The Master has need of them!”  They didn’t even identify Jesus by name.  That’s because the man who owned the donkeys probably knew them by name even though you and I will never know who they were.   And even if he didn’t know who they were, he knew who Jesus was.  At this point everyone knew who Jesus was.

The man handed over the two donkeys happily.  As the two disciples walked off back down the hillside with two donkeys in tow, I like to think a little smile came across the donkey owner’s face and he shook his head as he stood in bemused wonderment in front of the hovel he called home.  I think it was probably this poor man who first thought of the 600 year old prophecy of Zechariah, and chuckled to himself, “Behold, your king is coming to you mounted on a donkey.”  The only part of his life narrative anyone would ever remember was that he was the person who let Jesus use his donkeys for a few hours one Sunday morning.

A poor man who eked out a living renting donkeys to passing travellers.  Two nameless disciples who went on an errand just because Jesus asked them to.  A donkey colt not yet old enough to really be ridden on.  God uses little things.

By the time Jesus and his followers reached Bethphage the man had already assembled all of his neighbors, and so the entire village of Bethphage followed Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all the rest of his disciples down the western side of the ridge and headed toward Jerusalem.  As they went, the man who owned the donkeys was heard shouting over and over again, “Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!”  He was yelling and crying like a madman, “Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Rejoice, O Daughter of Jerusalem!”  But his cries were drowned out by the growing cheers of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!”

One voice lost in a crowd, prophesying a few words first spoken 600 years before by an obscure Minor prophet.  A poor man who eked out a living renting donkeys to passing travellers.  Two nameless disciples who went on an errand just because Jesus asked them to.  A donkey colt not yet old enough to really be ridden on.  God uses little things.

At the point where they crossed the top of the ridge of hills called Mt. Olivet and began their decent, Olivet is about 2700 feet above sea level, with the Kidron Valley and the brook that runs through it all that separates pilgrims from the gates of Jerusalem, Mt. Moriah, and the commanding height where the Temple stood.   Moriah is 2430 feet tall, and so a natural bowl is formed between the mountains.

About half way down the Western slope of Olivet Jesus paused and just stood there for a long time.  At first the yelling and shouting continued, but people in crowds are still aware when one person among them is having an emotional moment.  And so it didn’t take any hushing before the sound died out and a profound hush settled over the whole group.   Some noticed he was crying, just like he had several days before when he heard his friend Lazarus was dead.

In the relative silence of the moment, one of the Pharisees, whose name has also been mercifully left from the text was insensitive enough to yell out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”

Jesus had crouched down on the hillside, being so overcome with emotion he could not really stand.  Back in Capernaum when he was teaching in the Synagogue they had brought a woman to him who was caught in adultery.  He had crouched down this way that day when the Elders of Israel were about to stone her.   The last time Jesus was in Jerusalem he had crouched down this way and told the leaders of the Jews plainly that he was the Son of God, and they would have stoned him that day except that they were in the Temple and didn’t want to start a riot.  Now he was crouching down and crying.  He turned his head slightly and picked up a stone from the ground and said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”


Suddenly, and so loudly the whole Kidron Valley seemed to shake, Jesus cried out “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Jesus said this around 33 AD.  Luke wrote it down around 60 AD.  It wasn’t until 70 AD when Jerusalem was sacked and the temple was destroyed for the last time.  I have think that someone was probably standing on this same hillside thirty-seven years later, watching the smoke rise from the besieged city, and that that person probably sat among these same stones and wept because they now knew the things that make for peace.

A few small stones.  One voice lost in a crowd.  A poor man who rented donkeys.  Two disciples who went on an errand.  A donkey colt not yet old enough to be ridden on.  God uses little things.

Jesus finally stood up.  Now the action of the riot escalated quickly.  He walked back over to where the main body of the growing crowd was.  A few of them had thrown their cloaks over the back of the donkey colt.  Awkwardly, Jesus got on her back and began to ride the short distance down into the Kidron Valley.  All the rest of the way down the hillside, until they reached the brook beyond, people were throwing their cloaks down for the donkey to walk on.  A modern observer would be reminded of the scene every spring at the Academy Awards when they roll out the red carpet, something people do for royalty and for presumed royalty.  They didn’t have banners to wave, so a some of them climbed some of the nearby palm trees and cut branches off to wave.  It was like a poor people’s coronation.  All the while, the chorus of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!” kept being passed back and forth across the crowd.  By the time they got to the bottom of the hillside and crossed the river, some of those cloaks had been recycled twenty times, as the cloaks at the back of the procession were passed up to the front to extend the red carpet all the way to the city gate.  For most of these people these were the only extra garment they owned.  Nights can get chilly in Jerusalem in the spring.  By the time they were done with the procession these cloaks weren’t good for anything except to be thrown out.  Why do we call it Palm Sunday, when the real sacrifice that day was a gift of clothing, hilariously thrown away to celebrate the Master’s arrival in Jerusalem?  Shouldn’t it be called Cloak Sunday?  Most of us today have closets, full of clothes we rarely use.  Have we given a spare sock to celebrate Jesus?  But this day the poor gave their only warm clothes to Jesus just because he was King.  Would you and I give our spare clothes to the poor just because Jesus is Lord?

Some cloaks.  Palm branches.  A few small stones.  One voice lost in a crowd.  A poor man who rented donkeys.  Two disciples who went on an errand.  A donkey colt not yet old enough to be ridden on.  God uses little things.

The narrative of Palm Sunday ends anticlimactically.  Mark’s gospel adds the tag that, after they arrived in Jerusalem and the mock parade had broken up, probably with good feelings all around and people congratulating each other on their part in the whole thing, that Jesus went into the Temple and simply looked around at everything that was there.  Mark says, “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  They has spent the whole morning and most of the afternoon getting here from Bethany.  Yes, it had been an exciting and emotional day.  But there was no coronation at the end of it.  There was no stoning by the Pharisees.  There was no confrontation with Pilate’s guards.  The crowd had simply dispersed and left Jesus and The Twelve to walk the five miles quietly back to Martha and Mary’s house out in Bethany, like members of a marching band in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, who realize they’ve gotten to the end of the parade and their cars aren’t at 34th street and they have to walk all the way back to Central Park with their trombones hanging at their side. 

On the way back up Mt. Olivet, they passed over the same path they had come down six hours earlier.   Cloaks.  Branches.  Stones.  Voices.  Two disciples, assigned to  where Martha had some food waiting for them, no doubt.  God uses little things.

On April 15th every year, Jama and I go out for a drink.  You see, April 15th is not just Tax Day.  It is the ironic anniversary of the day in 2002 when her father, who had spent his life trying to find ways to shelter as much of what he had made from the IRS as he possibly could so he would have a gift to pass on to his three children died.  Jama’s dad, who always seemed to be working on some form from the IRS died on Tax Day.  Jama’s dad was also a 50s-era dad who loved to toast a celebratory moment with an extra-dry martini with a twist of lemon.  That is why, two days ago, Jama and I went looking for a quiet bar in a hotel where we could raise a glass and toast dad. 

The first place we went to could make us a martini, they said, but they didn’t have the traditional long-stemmed glasses.  For some reason they now serve martinis in short glasses.  Maybe that is the stylish thing to do these days.  Anyway, that’s why we left the more elegant digs of the Crowne Plaza, and went down the street to the Courtyard by Marriot.  Could a place like that even make a decent martini? 

Predictably, we were the only people in the place.  We sat down on a couple of comfy chairs near the bar and a young man named Ryan took our order.  He brought a bowl of chips over and presented us with our martinis in long-stemmed glasses.  I guess they were good.  I don’t really like vodka much and I can’t stand vermouth.  But this was the anniversary of the day Jama’s Dad died, on April 15th, Tax Day, and we wanted to toast him. 

The Red Sox were in the 8th inning against Toronto, and were behind 6 to 7.  That’s what drew us to leave the comfy chairs and sit at the bar where Ryan was washing glasses.   As we sipped our drink and watched the Sox lose for the 9th time in two weeks, we struck up a conversation with Ryan about his twin daughters and about parenthood and about the little things parents worry about.  And Ryan told us that he was 35 and had almost died from a heart attack last year, even though he is athletic and was in great shape.   I had mentioned I was a pastor.  He had mentioned that he was Catholic.  At one point Ryan pulled out the book he was currently reading by Thomas Merton, the great Catholic mystic.  Jama and I recommended some of the writings of C.S. Lewis and we talked about how something like a heart attack can really lead you to the Lord.  Ryan affirmed that his heart attack had certainly got him thinking.  He said he wanted to know Christ better, but wasn’t sure where to start. 

When we parted company, we told Ryan he’d see us again.  And he will.  Though not for martinis.  You see, we now know where to find someone who is seeking God, because Jama’s Dad died on Tax Day and we couldn’t find the right kind of glasses in the first bar and the Red Sox were losing to Toronto and Ryan was on the late shift that night because Ryan had twin four year old daughters and needed some extra cash and Ryan had brought Thomas Merton to work because the bar at the Courtyard is quiet and the customers are few.

 Cloaks.  Branches.  Stones.  Voices.  Two disciples.  A long-stemmed martini glass.  A Red Sox game.  A heart attack.  A man ready to hear “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey!”

God uses little things.