Good Friday Meditation

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Good Friday exist between the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday and the “Hallelujahs” of Easter morning.

“No one has greater love than this,” he said on the last night of his life, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Having explained this to his friends, he leaves the room to go prove it. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished

The cross of Calvary is the place where God, having become flesh in Jesus, took upon himself the brokenness of our fallen world. God did not create a fallen world. We made this mess. Instead of abandoning us to our own transgressions, God chose to reach over an infinite chasm of justice and love and wrap us in mercy. The cross is God’s victory over darkness. From it, we see a love that can only come from God. On the cross we see dying love, and we recognize it as the undying love of God.

Seen from the light of Easter, the Crucifixion is the turning point in history. It is the moment when all the evil and pain of all the world is heaped into one place and there dealt with once and for all. “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

As we struggle with the isolation and despair that we are all experiencing, I am reminded of the beginning of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord!” The writer has found himself in a deep place. A place that he didn’t expect. A place that is fearful, dark, and that echoes with every scream. A place not of his choosing but a place he has found nonetheless. It is in this dark place that he cries out, “Lord, hear my voice.”

The cross teaches us that God is with us in those deep places. God has come among us in the dark places.

The Psalmist words are our words. They are the words of a parent who has lost a child, a couple who has lost a house to a fire, a daughter who is losing her father to sickness, an employee who has been laid off, a parent waiting for the prodigal son to come home, the wife who feels betrayed, the husband who calls for divorce, the child who has been abandoned, the homeless family, the hungry. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” God hears our voice in the depths because God is with us in the depths.

Let me say this……..God is not the kind of God that thinks you and me so awful and horrible that we should get what is coming to us, death and destruction. Instead, God thinks you and me are so beautiful, so precious that our redemption is worth dying for.

At the end his book, What Jesus Meant, Gary Wills comes to Good Friday. He writes, “Dark and mysterious as the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a single thing can help us think of them.” He then shares a personal account of a conversation that he had with his son. His young son woke up one night crying. He had a bad dream, a nightmare. When Wills asked what was troubling him, the little boy said that an adult had told a group of children that they would end up in hell if they sinned. “Am I going to hell?” the little boy asked his father. Wills writes, “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly announced what any father, any parent would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.”

On this Good Friday, Jesus says, “There is no place – no hell, no suffering, no threat, no virus and not even death that if you are going, I am going with you.” Only God can love like that.

Going On a Bear Hunt

When my kids were younger the choice bedtime book was “We’re Going On a Bear Hunt”. The classic book describes a family going through the elements of nature in search of a bear.

On weekend hiking trips we would turn the story into a fun game of searching for an imaginary bear. We have been chased by bears. But mostly our occasions were spent hunting bears.

As a family hunting our imaginary bear, I tell myself this is crazy. Normal people don’t chase bears, they run away from them.

Sometimes we discover that the biggest risks bring the greatest opportunities. I have realized that taking no risks is the greatest risk of all.

As you set out to make resolutions this New Year, ask yourself, “What bears in your life need to be chased?” What opportunities need to be taken?

Let’s go into the New Year boldly declaring, “I’m going on a bear hunt, I’m going to catch a big one!”

What bears are you chasing this year?

Do Unto Others

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7: 1 – 14)

do unto othersI was invited to a United Methodist Church when I was fourteen years old. I made a commitment to put Jesus at the center of my life when I was fifteen years old. I heard the voice of God calling me into ordained ministry when I was seventeen years old. The United Methodist Church has been the lighthouse that has pointed me in the direction of God’s kingdom my entire adult life.

It would be foolish to think that things are not going to look differently in a few years. The truth is regardless of what happens to the people called Methodist, the entire Christian movement is going to take on a different look for our children and grandchildren.

When it comes to the way we do church the question that keeps me up at night is “Who will never be reached if we only do this?” If we only do church the way that it is currently being done, who will we be missing? I know people who will never step foot in the doors of this building. I know families who will never come to know Jesus by walking through the big, wooden, beautiful, and yet for some, intimidating doors.

What concerns me is that as we continue to debate issues of human sexuality, we are losing a whole generation of people. We are missing out on our opportunity to share the love of Jesus with many people because they are turned off by our squabbling and by our missional insistence that this is the only way church can be done.

I don’t want you to hear that I am saying this is not important. How we understand scriptural authority and  interpretation and life experience is vitally important. Since 1972, when the church set parameters in the Book of Discipline for ministry to, with, and by homosexual people, The United Methodist Church has struggled with this matter.

The 2016 General Conference – legislative body of The United Methodist Church – took a major step toward trying to resolve the struggle when it approved a Commission on a Way Forward to be appointed by and make recommendations to the Council of Bishops. The Commission was charged with finding a way forward for our church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. The hope is that decisions made in 2019 will allow the 2020 General Conference to focus on our mission and shared ministry. With the theme “God is Able,” the delegation will meet February 23rd through the 26th to discern God’s will and direction for the future of The United Methodist Church. If you want to learn more, go to http://www.ngumc.com/gc2019. [i]

The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament is concerned with the identity of his Christian community. The author represents a group of Jewish Christians who are no longer welcome in communion with the Jewish people. It is post-70 AD and deep division is developing between the Christian and Jewish community. This deep division is also playing out internally. There is a critical spirit and judging of one another that is threatening to divide the community. Only in this gospel is the word “church” used. And much like today, they are a community of believers trying to figure out exactly what is it that the word “church” means.

Fred Craddock tells the story of the first church he served near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was during his tenure that the community exploded with laborers brought in to work at the newly developed nuclear plants. The young pastor wanted to attract the workers to his church. But there was a problem. The church didn’t want them.

After service one Sunday, Rev. Craddock called a meeting of the church’s leadership and presented his plans. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one church member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” It was decided that they would take a vote on the following Sunday.

At the outset of the meeting one week later, one of the church members said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” It was quickly seconded and passed.

Years later, Fred Craddock returned to the area to show his wife the church that he once served. The parking lot was full; cars, trucks, and motorcycles surrounded the old structure which now sported a sign that read “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” Unable to resist, the Craddocks walked inside and saw the old pews lining a wall, and the organ pushed into a corner. The space was filled with different sized tables which were filled with people filling themselves on pork and chicken.

Dr. Craddock leaned over to his wife and whispered, “It’s a good thing this isn’t still a church… otherwise, these people couldn’t be in here.”

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7: 1 – 3).

 Matthew warns before we start throwing stones make sure you are aware of your own failures and need of God’s forgiveness. He wants there to be some hesitancy when it comes to identifying and naming faults in other people. If Matthew was around today, he might tell us that if we keep at it there might a sign hanging on our front door that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.”

The rule we know as the Golden Rule is given in this context. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s best. We are all in need of God’s forgiveness. We should not deny in others what is required of our self.

It reminds me of the story in the bible where a group of righteous men interrupt Jesus in his teaching to bring before him a woman they caught in the act of adultery. They asked Jesus if her punishment should be stoning because that is what is written in the law of Moses. Jesus ignores them at first and starts doodling on the ground as though he doesn’t hear them. But when they won’t let it rest, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Then he decided to doodle some more.

One by one they leave. Jesus is left alone with the woman. He says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This brings us back to the Gospel of Matthew: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7: 12). The Golden Rule reminds us in a world where we will do whatever it takes to be right, don’t forget to also be compassionate.

A form of the Golden Rule is found in all major religions. There is a famous story told in Jewish circles about the rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus. A non-Jew came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest us commentary. Go and study it.”

What makes the rule golden is the context of Christian love. The Golden Rule only works when an investment in relationships is made. It requires of us to consider how someone else would want to be treated. It demands of us to look into our own hearts and see what inflicts pain and then refuse to inflict pain on anyone else.  In the gospel of Luke, the Golden Rule concludes the paragraph that begins, “Love your enemies.”

The Golden Rule is given in the context of love, mercy, forgiveness and how to live in the context of a Christian community. It requires the imagination of putting oneself in the place of another person and seeing his or her needs. It requires an act of courageous love.

A few years ago in Duke University Chapel, Bishop Will Willimon shared a story of a man named High Thompson. Thompson had recently been the recipient of an honorary degree at Duke. In 1968 Thompson was a young helicopter pilot flying patrol over the countryside of Vietnam. On March 16th of that year, Thompson and his crew were flying over the village of My Lai. Down below they observed a nightmare taking place. An American unit, in the midst of war’s madness, had lost control of discipline, reason, and humanity. They were slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village, most of them women, children, and elderly men. As would later be determined, more than 500 individuals had already been executed.

Seeing what was taking place, Thompson landed the helicopter between the troops and the remaining villagers. At a risk to himself, High Thompson got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge. He then airlifted the few surviving villagers and radioed a report of the scene back to headquarters. As a result, likely sparing the lives of thousands of villagers.

On the day that Thompson received his honorary degree he was asked how did he find the courage and strength to do what he did. He said, “I would like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong. We were country people raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia. One thing we had was the Golden Rule. My parents taught me early, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is why I did what I did on that day.”

Jesus knows that as soon as we are born that our inclination is to look after only ourselves. We don’t always have the interest of our neighbors in mind. We don’t care for those who need to be cared for. We don’t treat others the way we would like to be treated or even the way we would treat Jesus if he was standing in front of us.

Jesus also knows that when a group of Christians get together to make decisions on the future of the church and the mission of the church that we don’t always act in ways that reflect the light of Christ. So, before we make any decisions, I believe Jesus would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I don’t know about you but I am not quite ready to hang up a sign that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” What about you? Amen.

[i] Read more at www.ngumc.org/gc2019

(Preached on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville, GA)