“GOOD” FRIDAY?

I like movies that deal with a relatively innocent individual who ends up being attacked unjustly by some other individual, group or shadowy organization.  Such stories are predictable:  a peaceful life is disrupted, the protagonist turns out to be a retired expert at martial arts, guerilla warfare, improvised weapons manufacturing who has access to unlimited funds, fast cars and airplanes (along with the occasional tank and ballistic missile) and who knows people who freely and quickly fill him (generally it is a “he” in these movies) in on all sorts of top secret details that he needs to know.

Armed with his skills, money, resources and intel,  he sets out to destroy the villains, rescue the lady and get his life back.  We expect that he will be beaten several times, trapped in an inescapable trap, shot and be involved in at least one car chase. At some point, he will appear to be defeated, maybe even killed. But at some point, he will make a comeback–and he will win.  The bad guys will be destroyed in appropriately violent ways and the hero and his new found (or returned) love will settle back down in their peaceful life, at least until the sequel.

I like the movies and the stories because they are predictable, they have car chases, they have improbable feats of “skill”, and because the good guy wins no matter what the odds are.  No matter how evil the antagonist; no matter how powerful the opposition group; no matter how high in the government the shadowy organization reaches, the hero wins.  And it may be that this appreciation of that particular media genre comes from my faith.

I don’t think it comes because I see myself as the faith equivalent of the movie hero–far from it.  If I were in the movie, I would likely be the innocent, uninvolved driver whose car is the first one run off the road in the car chase–and I wouldn’t even be the one that gets to take flight and land in a tree or someone’s dining room.  No, I think the reason my faith gets tied up in this sort of movies is that my faith is based on the biggest version of this story.

Jesus’ story has it all, except for the car chase.  A quiet hero minding his own business who attracts the attention of a powerful organization who sets out to destroy him; some serious injustice and conspiracy; a betrayal; a beating–and in the end, an execution.  But where this story parts company with the movies is that this is a real execution, not something thrown together with special effects, top secret medications and covert assistants in the conspiracy.  Jesus dies and the bad guys sit around congratulating themselves on their power and ability to deal with issues.

All this in less than a week–by Friday, the conspirators are ready for a break and settle down to enjoy the holiday.  Jesus is dead; the story is over–roll the credits.  This is not a good movie–or a good day.

Of course, we know the end of the story.  Jesus is the ultimate hero who defeats even death.  The whole story gets turned around because everything that the bad guys did was part of the plan from the beginning.  Jesus dies–but for the story to end the way it is supposed to end, he has to die.  The conspiracy really only does what Jesus knows they are going to do–he uses their free choices to bring about his end.

And that is why a day filled with hatred, injustice, evil conspiracies, betrayals, denials, torture and anything else that our all too human bent towards evil can come up with becomes “Good Friday”.  It isn’t good because of what happens that day–it becomes good because of the way God transforms the evil of the day into the ultimate good.  Good Friday is only good because of Easter Sunday, the day when the ultimate hero stages the ultimate comeback for the ultimate good.

Good Friday shows us how God takes on the absolute worst that we human beings have to offer and overcome it with the absolute best that he can offer–the power of his unlimited love and grace.  Even though there isn’t a car chase, it is still without question the best hero story of all time.

May the peace of God be with you.

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EASTER SERMONS

            I have been preaching for a lot of years, which means I have been preaching about Easter for a lot of years.  Some years, it gets really hard to find something to say–or maybe it is more precise to say it gets really hard to find some way to say something in a fresh and attention grabbing way. As a preacher, I don’t get to listen to too many sermons but  have been bored enough by some of the ones that I have heard to work hard at not boring those who listen to my sermons.

This year, when I began sermon planning for the Easter season, I followed my usual practise of typing the date of each Sunday and then staring at the computer screen, hoping for inspiration.   I reviewed what I did last year but that didn’t help whole lot–I began working at one of the pastorates on Easter Sunday and the other the Sunday after Easter.  That should have made the whole process easier but it didn’t–I was forced to confront my own boredom when it comes to Easter preaching.  I needed to see the story from a different perspective.  I needed something that would interest me so that I could have some enthusiasm to communicate to the congregations–and since I am working for two different pastorates with two different set of needs, I really needed two new interesting approaches.

Fortunately, God is merciful and graceful even to aging, bored (and maybe boring) preachers and helped me with some inspiration.  For one set of sermons, I have been giving serious thought to the choices that led Jesus to the cross.  As I was staring at the blank screen, I began to see how Jesus makes choices at critical points along the way to the cross.  At several points, his choice can either stop or continue the process.

I began to think and mediate on the reality of the freedom Jesus had–he wasn’t a robot, pre-programmed to head for the cross, ignoring everything else.  Jesus had the freedom to not go to the cross.  As God, it is his creation and his plan. He is in charge and therefore has the right and the freedom to change the plan.  Even more, since he is God and makes the rules, whatever he decides is right by definition.

While the cross and resurrection are absolutely essential from my perspective as a beneficiary, from Jesus perspective, they were always an option.  Not going to the cross was also an option–a good option from Jesus’ perspective, even if it is a terrible option from my perspective.  When  I look at the choices Jesus made that led him to the cross, I see his love and grace in a whole new light.

He volunteered–and kept volunteering.  Right up to his death he kept making choices that would put him on the cross–and he kept making them because of his love towards us.  Now, I have been preaching about the unending love of God for us forever (at least it feels like that) but this year, making myself look at how Jesus kept making clear decisions to go to the cross, I have seen anew the depths of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

As I contemplate the choices, I see the depth of fear and pain in the prayer in Gethsemane–this is not some robot following a program; this is not some remote-controlled being dancing to some controller; this is not a drone acting out of instinct and programming.  This is the story of Jesus, who has to work hard to get to the cross.  He has to make the right decisions at the right time, all the while being able to see the consequences of each decision and each alternative decision and therefore, likely feeling the pain of the nails long before they were actually driven into his wrists.

There are days when I can’t make a non-self focused decision to save myself–but Easter tells us that Jesus’ whole life was a series of non-self focused decisions to save everyone else at the cost of his own safety and life.  That is a real love story, one that I will have an eternity to contemplate.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOCOLATE BUNNIES OR EXECUTIONS?

            As secularized religious holidays go, Easter really doesn’t measure up to the standard set by Christmas.  Christmas gets our whole western culture looking at religious themes.  If we aren’t seeing manger scenes everywhere, we are hearing about court battles to prevent or allow them.  We even get treated to religiously themes songs in various media outlets.

But Easter, well, Easter is a different kind of holiday.  Then whole season deals with stuff that most of our culture–well, most of most cultures–find unpleasant.  Easter puts the focus on things like political and religious corruption.  It deals with false arrest and torture.  It tells the story of a good man being legally, physically and emotionally brutalized for political reasons.  And then to make matters  worse, the man dies.  We could probably deal with the story as a culture if Jesus suddenly turns on his captors and using some swift and skillful Ninja moves, puts his captors in their place.

But Jesus isn’t some movie hero.  He feels the weight of authority and that authority wins–Jesus dies after a painful and sadistic process designed to not only kill the victim but also demoralize anyone nearby.  Crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling everyone that they had better watch their step or else–and the “or else” was regularly exercised along the public highways.

Compared to a baby being born in a stable with angels and cuddly lambs, this story really doesn’t cut it for our society.  That is probably why our culture has tended to ignore the basic Easter story in  favour of bunnies, chicks and a ton of candy.  Those sell better.  Eating a chocolate Easter bunny is a whole lot more fun that contemplating a cruel and vicious execution and the death of a popular but defeated hero.

Maybe we need to change the story to make it more acceptable to our culture.  We could, for example, talk about Jesus as a great teacher, a humanitarian whose words and deeds serve to inspire us even though he is dead.  If we emphasise that side, we don’t have to deal with the sordid and messy details like death and all that.  Jesus could join the ranks of people such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.  We could use Easter to celebrate the words of Jesus and pledge to make the world a better place by trying to follow some of his teachings–and still enjoy all the candy.

The words of Jesus are important.  The things he did are important.  But in the end, without the cross and the tomb which becomes empty, his story is somewhat pointless and meaningless.  And that is because underneath the whole story is a much deeper, much more unpleasant truth that our culture simply doesn’t want to see or deal with.

This deep and unpleasant truth concerns us as human beings.  Easter is built on the fact that we are not what we think we are and we are not what we were meant to be.  Easter reminds us that we are all flawed and imperfect beings who got ourselves into a mess that we can’t get ourselves out of and need serious help.

Easter tells us that we are as much a part of the corrupt, self-serving political-religious machine that executed Jesus as Pilate and the chief priest and the fickle crowed who praised on Palm Sunday and jeered on Good Friday.  We are those people and they are us–we are all tainted and damaged–we are all both the perpetrators and victims of sin, both ours and everyone else’s’.  This inconvenient truth poses problems for most people.  We generally recognize the reality of sin but want sin to be something we see on TV from some distant place were really evil people do terrible things.  We don’t want sin  to be something we do and we definitely don’t want it to be something serious enough that Jesus needs to go through all that cruelty and pain and injustice because of us.

But that is the story.  That is the reality.  And if most people prefer a chocolate bunny to this real story, that is understandable–not right but understandable.  We all tend to run away from what we don’t like–a good diversion beats reality hands down in our culture.

As for me–well, I like a chocolate bunny now and then–but don’t really need it.  I hate the idea of a crucifixion and unjust death–but boy do I need the resurrection and the forgiveness and acceptance that the risen, living Christ provides.

May the peace of God be with you.