Words matter. And the last words we remember from loved ones matter in particular. In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, I’ve pondered about the importance that we often attach to the last words of our beloved ones, of the saints who have gone before. Sometimes the words are a cry for help, sometimes they are words of a deeply committed hope and faith, sometimes they are words of blessing upon the family or loved ones who are at the side of the dying person, sometimes they’re just random. In many cases, of course, we aren’t sure what the person’s final words were. But in all of the varied cases, one thing remains the same: for the survivors, the future is uncertain and sometimes downright scary. The new reality that will unfold in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is one that is largely unpredictable. How will I…how will we move on without him or her or them? The beast of death and of the uncertain future is so scary.

And it works for more than death too. To speak to other current events (ahem, Election Day)…what will I/we do if my/our ideal candidate is not elected? We’re so prone to be trapped in fear about what we hear might happen if the worst thing occurs and the beast on the other side of the political aisle gets elected? Or perhaps there is more than one beast on the ballot? The future is so uncertain. How do we move on when the beast will surely rise from the earth and claim us, one way or another (or both)?

Daniel has a vision, a dream of sorts, which though it has a nice resolution at the end is filled at first with monsters who evoke fear and terror and death on the rest of the world who would dare stand in their way. Daniel admits that he is deeply troubled by these four beasts and asks for an interpretation by one of the angelic attendants in the dream. And did you notice the angel’s response? It’s almost nonchalant. The angel in a matter-of-fact way just says those four beasts represent four kingdoms. The angel doesn’t put as much significance on that part of the vision as Daniel (or we) would wish, but moves rather swiftly to point out that the eternal kingdom belongs to the “holy ones” of the Ancient of Days, or as other translations put it, the “saints” of the Most High God! If you continue reading the rest of Daniel 7, you’ll notice that Daniel is not satisfied with the lack of specificity about the nature of the vision and what all is represented therein…particularly those beasts. You see, living with ambiguity and the temptation to fear is not a new predicament for God’s people.

The angel, and thereby God, is inviting Daniel, and thereby us, to take a longer view than to be merely caught up in the temporal realities and kingdoms and powers that will one day pass…and yes, Tuesday (Election Day), too, shall pass. We are invited to take a view that, rather, is one that has stood the test of time and remains throughout kingdoms and empires, across crusades and dark ages, through times of persecution and exile, and even survived the times of enjoying popularity which was probably the most threatening temptation to the preservation and deliverance of genuine faith. The communion of the saints. It’s a part of the Creed we confess…a creed that has been around longer than any of the political candidates up for election, a creed that is older than the United States, older than the British empire, than the Holy Roman Empire, older than the dark ages, older than when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, even older than when the Church established which books would be within the canon of the New Testament. “I believe in…the communion of saints… (or the communion of the holy ones)…” and this forever and ever “…life everlasting.”

The last words of our Creed, the last words of the angel to Daniel in our passage. Congruent with the last words of our movement’s founder, John Wesley, who on his death bed proclaimed several times: “The best of all is, God is with us.” That statement – “God IS with us” is not a statement bound by a particular time period but is an eternal statement that stands the test of time…God was, God is, God will be – or as God revealed God’s self to Moses, “I am.” That is the one to whom the saints ultimately give their allegiance – not to the beasts that emerge from the earth, not to the kingdoms that come and go, not to the political parties or any temporal reality – but to the One who sits on the Throne, who has conquered the realm that ruled over all the kingdoms of the earth. For you know what the beasts all have in common? They all died: the reign of death. And this One, the one who appeared “like a human being” or “a Son of Man” established at the funeral of one of his best friends that, “those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

stole-from-papaw-ties

Last words. My wife, Carrie, made this stole (see above) for me. The symbols of eternity and the Trinity that are intertwined are made from the materials of some of my Papaw’s neckties. When I think of the communion of saints, he is one of the first ones who come to mind. The reality is that I don’t know what my Papaw’s last words were. I don’t know what he uttered as he died, if anything, for he was alone building a fence around some hay bales for his cattle. But even though his last words are unknown, he actually left a message loud and clear for his loved ones in positioning himself the way he did when he died. Granny found him lying in the field, his glasses in his shirt pocket, his right hand holding a hammer, his left hand holding a fence post. He died sending a message that said: “Until the eternal kingdom comes in fullness when God wipes away all tears and death and crying and pain will be no more…until that day, I will not stop working.” No temporal reality, no setback, no fear, no temptation would hold him back from his task. Papaw’s favorite hymn was one called ‘Yield not to Temptation,’ #191 in the All-American Hymnal that resides in the pews at Oscar UMC. Almost every time there was a hymn sing and my dad (the song leader) opened the floor for requests for congregational hymns, Papaw would holler out, “Number 191!” The final verse is so fitting for Daniel 7. Yield not to temptation…yield not to fear of the beasts…death will not have the final say…

To them that o’ercometh, God giveth a crown,
Through faith we will conquer, though often cast down;
He who is our Savior, our strength will renew;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.

Offer Them Christ

Primary text: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

(A Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – World Communion Sunday, 2015 – Jackson First UMC; Jackson, TN)

Have you ever just failed something miserably? Perhaps you went into some project with the highest of expectations of how successful and fruit-bearing it would be. Then perhaps at the very start, or perhaps a few months into the process chaos ensued and you were losing your grip and the desired outcome became far out of reach. You ever felt like a failure? Well, you’re not alone.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was in his early 30s, he set out from England to the colony of Georgia with a grand vision of converting the Native Americans and establishing a grand movement that would spread from Savannah throughout the land. On the trip, however, he realized his own need for depending on God’s grace through a series of unfortunate events. He fell in love with a lady named Sophia Hopkey in Georgia, but he didn’t make a move quickly enough and she got tired of waiting on him so she married someone another man, William Williamson. (Seriously, William’s parents? You couldn’t get any more creative than “William Williamson”?) Well, Wesley got jealous and for reasons to minute to go into detail in this setting, Wesley used his pastoral authority and refused to offer them Holy Communion on the next occasion of their attendance at worship. The husband sued him, some reports say that he challenged Wesley to a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. The trial ended in mistrial but by then the trust in Wesley’s leadership had declined and it became clear he needed to leave. To put it in our terms: it was time for the S/PPRC to inform the bishop they desired a move. If Wesley had a twitter account, he would’ve tweeted out: “Gotta get Georgia off my mind. #MissionFailed” (See what I did there? h/t Ray Charles.) So he went back home to England and never came back. That was in the mid 1730’s.

Fast forward about fifty years. Wesley had matured a lot over those years. The Methodist movement had really taken off, both in England and in the colonies that were now becoming the United States. The Revolutionary War was coming to an end and many ordained clergy were returning to England and this was going to leave many, many Methodists in America with no access to the sacraments. Wesley knew that he couldn’t go back to America. He was over 80 years old and loyal to the crown. But he was a pastor and saw the American Methodists as sheep without a shepherd. So he ordained Thomas Coke with the purpose to go to America and ordain and commission Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher in America, to be the superintendent, or presiding elder, and begin a new denomination. Wesley was in his 80’s and as he was saying goodbye to Thomas Coke on the boat heading to America, Wesley said the famous words, which were his last to Thomas Coke: “Offer them Christ!”

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, "Offer them Christ!" (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, “Offer them Christ!” (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

Offer them Christ! Fast forward about 230 years: the movement had become an institution and established roots across the globe and throughout America, including where we are in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of our current bishop, Bill McAlilly and the Nashville Area Strategic Mapping Team, a mission statement for our conference was revealed last year after a year-long process of discernment, prayer and conversation on many levels. The mission statement that was the fruit of those efforts was adopted at Annual Conference in 2014 reads thusly: “The mission of the Memphis Annual Conference is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that OFFER JESUS CHRIST TO A HURTING WORLD, one neighborhood at a time.” That is, our mission is to be the church, then, that follows Wesley’s call: “Offer them Christ!” How are we living up to that?

What does all this have to do with Hebrews? Well, let’s rewind and go back to the first century and ask what is going on in the opening parts of Hebrews. This is one of the beautiful poetic passages in the New Testament that speaks to the supremacy of Christ. Here the author of Hebrews speaks of how Christ is superior to all that has gone before and is superior even to the angels. Then there is this clear allusion to the psalms as the author quotes Psalm 8, which reflects on the magnificence of creation and ponders on how amazing it is that God esteems humanity so highly even given the vast expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison to it all. But then the writer of Hebrews turns the psalm on its head when applying it to Christ. While the psalm wonders soaring heights, Hebrews voices amazement over surprising depths. Ponder the depths of the exalted Son, who is supreme over all, nonetheless stooped to a status ‘lower than the angels,’ to be joined to the lowliness of the human condition. As Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory, notes, “Hebrews does not wish to argue that Jesus…came just to the edge of human life and dipped his little toe into the pool of suffering. Rather, he wants to claim that, for a brief moment in time, the eternal and exalted Son purposefully and redemptively plummeted to the depths of human suffering and weakness.”

The author of Hebrews is well-acquainted with the brokenness of the world. He or she would have read the headlines that doom our newspapers, that run across the ticker on the bottom on the screen, that fill the trending topics of bad news on twitter, and said – Here is a world that is hurting and broken: a hole in the ozone and a fragile created order – offer it the Christ who according to Scripture is the One through Whom the creation came into being; the torn fabric of a society that is stripped of grace and bent on death as innocent people get senselessly slaughtered from a college campus in Oregon to the streets of Jackson – offer them Christ who offers a peace to a world at war; a people spreading destruction in the non-redemptive act of putting someone to death as though “an eye for an eye” demonstrates the justice of a forgiving God – offer them the Christ who is rich in mercy and came to give life; bodies are plagued by cancer that advances and is so aggressive as to bring bones to break – offer them Christ who heals; the broken places of the human heart and fractured relationships – offer them Christ who reconciled us to God and one another! This world and our lives are broken. Chaos reigns, it seems. But, Hebrews reminds us that if we would see Jesus…that he entered the chaos and lived among the brokenness and took it all on, all the way to death, then maybe we too would see that resurrection is on the other side of this, that we might cling to the hope that Christ brings us, his brothers and sisters, to glory.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face – [a face that was scarred and crowned with a wreath of thorns piercing his head];

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. – [but the path to glory goes through Calvary. What depths of love!]

The world is broken. This town, this neighborhood is broken. Our lives are broken. Christ entered our brokenness. Offer the Christ who heals to the world who hurts, for Christ brings us, the children of God, to glory.

Offer them Christ! But do not miss this: before you can offer them Christ, you must receive Christ. Receive Christ in your life. Receive Christ in the bread & wine; in his body & blood. Receive Christ in the holy meal, the holy mystery. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

An English clergyman in the 16th & 17th centuries by the name of John Donne wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the English language. One of them rings especially true to the heart of today’s message. He wrote this (perhaps you’ve heard portions of it in other venues):

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a book and the band Metallica wrote a song with the title being what the ending of that poem says – “for whom the bell tolls.” When Donne wrote about the tolling of the bells he was referring to funeral bells. In saying that “it tolls for thee,” Donne was expressing a couple of things: that when funeral bells were heard it was a reminder that we are all nearer to our own death each day; and he was saying what some of us believe to be true about the human family– that all people are socially and spiritually interconnected. That is, when someone dies, a part of all of us dies. If you have lost a loved one, you certainly have certainly felt this reality. It might be seemingly apparent that when a bell tolls it is for the one who is deceased, but make no mistake that it tolls for all of us.

The stone rolled away... (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

The stone rolled away… (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

So what about the question that our text raises: “For Whom the Stone Rolls”? It might seem apparent just from thinking about it, that the stone rolling away is how Jesus could escape the tomb. It’s the opening of the tomb so he could get out, we tend to think, right? In fact if you read the account in Mark, Luke, and John, there would be no reason to necessarily think otherwise. But Matthew tells us something that the others don’t – Matthew tells us that the Marys witnessed the stone being rolled away themselves. Matthew tells us, then, that the stone rolls not for Jesus, because he was already out, but for Mary Magdalene, for the other Mary, and then, by extension, for you and for me. The stone rolls, church, for us that we can see that death does not have the final word, that death has lost its sting, that death cannot contain Life; that we may see that Jesus is alive once again and forevermore!

The bells that tolled, according to John Donne, were a sign to those who heard that we are all mortal and meet the same end known as death; that when one dies a part of all of us dies. The stone that rolled, according to St. Matthew, was a sign to those who witness it that the end known as death is not, in fact, the end; but that when this One is made alive again, a part of all of us becomes alive again, and that all who believe and trust this Resurrected Lord will know of the same resurrection that Jesus himself experienced nearly 2,000 years ago! Church that is good news! That is Easter! The stone rolls for you and me! So know that it is fine to ask for whom the stone rolls; it rolls for thee! And when we hear the sound of the stone rolling, it sings a beautiful harmony in our ears that the chief end that draws nearer to us is not death, but resurrection!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

…So begins what is perhaps the most moving, disturbing, and haunting of statements ever uttered. Per Matthew’s telling: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”

Each year on Good Friday we commemorate the event which brings out the very worst and the very best of humanity. The very worst is obvious in the vitriol, the hatred, the mockery, the torture of One who told his right hand man to put away his sword yet who was tried and assailed as a terrorist. It’s too easy to distance ourselves from the crowd and it is our tendency to do so. That is part of why I think it is so easy to miss what is behind Jesus’ troublesome cry. And until we can see ourselves somewhere in the midst of this scene: either as the disciples who betrayed or scattered; or as the crowd or the soldiers who mock Jesus; or even as the One condemned by the crowds, we will miss something quite significant about what Jesus screamed.

I don’t think, as others do, that Jesus was making a theological statement about him being sin and God not being able to look at sin. That concept is frequently read into Jesus’ cry of dereliction (or forsaken-ness). The idea (from Paul in Galatians 3) that Jesus became a curse for us is seen as the backdrop for Jesus’ words rather than looking to another passage…the very one Jesus was quoting, which was a lament psalm (#22) in which the speaker is wondering where is God and why hasn’t God come to the rescue. The psalmist experiences the things Jesus experiences: being scorned, mocked, despised, ridiculed, stripped of clothes which are divided amongst the assailants. And I am among them.

…………….

As I read the psalm and I witness the worst of humanity in what is done to Jesus, my heart changes and aches, and I observe the Psalmist knows something about the character of God, that God has come to the rescue of those who cried out to and put their trust in the Lord. Surely, Jesus knows that character, too! And in that knowledge, Jesus cries what people cry when an injustice is being done: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

So now I see the Psalm (and Jesus’ utterance of its beginning at the cross) as a cry of the righteous innocent calling upon the faithfulness and justice of God and asking why God hasn’t come to the rescue in this case. The garments of the innocent are shredded and divided among God’s enemies all the time. Faithful people are and have been oppressed countless times in history. Many people die alone, being rejected and despised, or worse, ignored by others. Maybe Jesus, in making such a loud cry in his greatest moment of desperation, is resonating and empathizing with the suffering of ones such as these through all of time and saying, “Where are you, God?” So they (or we) are not alone in feeling abandoned by everyone, including God. That’s good.

But wait…he breathes his last. Did God really not rescue him? But I know he was innocent! Surely he was God’s Son! Where were you, God? Where are you, God?

In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Last year saw perhaps the most poetic placement of Palm Sunday: it fell on April Fools’ Day. Remember? I remember it because it was the one opportunity I was given to preach on a Sunday morning at Nicholasville UMC in Kentucky. But even more so, I remember because of the irony of celebrating the fool in all of us on a day when the people in Jerusalem fell for the right person but had the wrong expectations of him. Or, as my friend Phil Tallon said it, “Today we celebrate Jesus saying April Fools to Israel’s militaristic messianic conceptions.”

Those are the thoughts that dwelt on my mind this morning as I stepped outside to burn the palm fronds used in last year’s Palm Sunday festivities at Liberty & Post Oak that were graciously handed down to me from my predecessor, Joey Reed.

Last year's palms = this year's ashes

Last year’s palms = this year’s ashes

Until last year, I wasn’t aware of the longstanding tradition of burning the previous year’s palm leaves to be imposed during the Ash Wednesday service of the following year. But when I discovered it, and found out I was being sent to Liberty & Post Oak, asking for these was one of the first things I did in my correspondence with Joey prior to moving here. Nicholasville had a practice where they had burnt sheets of paper from the previous year in a ceremony where the congregation was invited to write down their struggles, pains, sins, and so on, and nail them to the cross on Good Friday. There are a few good ways that can convey significant meaning for the community that practices these ceremonies and services.

I wanted this one, at least for this year, because of Palm Sunday’s alignment with April Fools’ Day last year. Each year on that day we cry aloud, “Hosanna in the highest!” But as the rest of that week unfolds, we discover anew that Jesus saves us in the highest only because he descended to the lowest…and that went even deeper than riding a donkey, which the crowds thought was humbling enough for a conquering deliverer. But like us, Jesus too went to the dust and tasted death with us. “…and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” as St. Paul would later write.

Many of my friends are aware that I am a fan of the musical band Mumford & Sons. They released an album in 2012 called ‘Babel,’ which won the Album of the Year on the Grammy Awards. Upon my first couple of times listening through the album, I was drawn toward the song ‘Lovers’ Eyes,’ unsure of what story or concepts were behind his writing of the lyrics. But after listening and reading through the lyrics a few times, he is telling a powerful story reflecting on the past and even expresses a repentant spirit when he writes, “Should you shake my ash to the wind, Lord forget all of my sins; well, let me die where I lie.” Those lyrics have played over and over in my mind as I’ve prepared for this Ash Wednesday, dwelling upon the themes of forgiveness, repentance, self-denial, and death, which will continue to play all throughout this Lenten season.

Lord, forget and forgive all of my sins, including those of false presumptions thinking I knew better than you how you should save the world (and me). I will “Remember that [I am] dust and to dust [I] shall return.”