Faces at the Cross: Joseph of Arimathea

First United Methodist Church
March 6, 2016

During the season of Lent, each different worship service at First United Methodist Church is focusing on one of the “Faces at the Cross”: someone associated in some way with the crucifixion story. When the Rev. Lanita Monroe asked me to fill the pulpit this Sunday, she asked me to preach on this Sunday’s subject, Joseph of Arimathea.

I want to read you three passage, from three different gospels, each from the Common English Bible. Each of these passages is about today’s Face at the Cross, Joseph of Arimathea:

Luke 23:50-56 (CEB)

50 Now there was a man named Joseph who was a member of the council. He was a good and righteous man. 51 He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. 54 It was the Preparation Day for the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was quickly approaching. 55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, 56 then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment.

John 19:38-42 (CEB)

38 After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. 39 Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all. 40 Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. 41 There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.

Mark 15:42-47 (CEB)

42 Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.

When Lanita asked me to preach on Joseph of Arimathea, I was delighted – I’ve always found him an interesting character.

I once tried to write a novel about what happened to the disciples in between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I knew I wasn’t a trained scholar of Bible history, but I told myself it was going to be more allegory than speculative history, and so if the characters used modern speech patterns or if I got some minor detail wrong, it wasn’t a big deal. But I eventually decided the story was too big for my skills as a writer. I still have the manuscript on my computer somewhere, and I look at it occasionally.

When Jesus was arrested – and willingly surrendered, telling Peter to put away his sword – the disciples seem to have made themselves scarce. Peter, of course, famously followed Jesus to the place where he was being tried, but then denied three times that he knew Jesus. We hear about John being at the crucifixion, and Jesus speaking to him. And we hear about Judas Iscariot’s remorse and death. For the most part, the 12 disciples seem to have laid low on that sad Sabbath day. They didn’t disperse, or leave Jerusalem, and when the Sabbath was over they were found together in the same place on Easter morning. But the Bible doesn’t tell us much about what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

We can assume that this was a moment in which most of the disciples had lost faith, or were at least in a state of confusion – their shock and disbelief on Easter morning indicated that they weren’t expecting Jesus to return, even though he’d spoken about it during his ministry. So many of Jesus’ teachings were in parables or metaphors, and the disciples did not seem to have the courage to take the idea of Jesus rising from the dead literally. This was a moment when Jesus’ followers might have been reconciling themselves to what seemed to be proof that he was just a great teacher and not the world-changing messiah that they’d been promised.

It’s hard for us, knowing the outcome of the story, to imagine the despair that Jesus’ followers must have felt. They believed he was the Messiah. Many of them, not understanding the true nature of his kingdom, had assumed that his destiny was to lead the people of Israel to political freedom, overthrowing the rule of the hated Roman Empire.

Now, Jesus – the miracle worker who could raise others from the dead – is dead himself. Hope is over. The game has ended, and our team lost. The disciples clung to each other, but they must have been questioning whether they’d wasted the months they spent following Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea, however, is the other way around – and that’s one of the things that’s interesting about him. Joseph was fearful while Jesus was alive and yet somehow found boldness after Jesus’ death.

Joseph was a wealthy man, and he was a member of the Sanhedrin – a council, or court, composed of 70 members, plus the high priest. The Sanhedrin was responsible for questions of Jewish law.

We know that Joseph was wealthy, but we don’t know from the Bible what his occupation was. There are legends and traditions, which developed in church history, that Joseph was involved in metalwork somehow. In the middle ages, when the church was fascinated by the holy grail, the cup used during the Last Supper, there were legends – and they were only legends, with no apparent basis in fact – that Joseph had been the first keeper of the grail.

During Jesus’ lifetime – according to John’s gospel — Joseph had kept his admiration for the controversial teacher from Nazareth quiet, out of fear of his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus, with whom Joseph worked to bury Jesus’ body, first came to Jesus under cover of darkness, and it’s implied that Joseph had been just as anxious not to let anyone know of his interest in Jesus’ teachings.

And yet, now, with Jesus’ beaten and bloody corpse nailed to a piece of wood, Joseph of Arimathea chose to take a step out of the darkness. It was at this moment in which he decided his devotion to Jesus would no longer be a secret.

By earthly measures, by conventional wisdom, the cause of Jesus of Nazareth had already been lost. Joseph of Arimathea had nothing to gain and everything to lose by allowing his feelings to be made public. It’s like someone deciding to root for the losing team after the game has ended.

The idea that Joseph would oppose his fellow members of the Sanhedrin is a remarkable one. The Sanhedrin were about preserving the peace, and the status quo, and the power of the existing religious elite. They surely convinced themselves that they were doing what was right for their own people and what was right in the eyes of God. It not only took courage for Joseph of Arimathea to stand up to them, it took spiritual perception. It took spiritual perception for him to realize the truth in Jesus’ teachings, a truth that seemed to run counter to what the Sanhedrin stood for. It can be hard to question and move past long-held convictions when they turn out to be against the will of God.

I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” an award-winning biography of the great theologican Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. One of the things that comes through in Bonhoeffer’s story is the extent to which so many elements of the official state-sponsored church in Germany – the reichskirke – were easily co-opted into support of the Nazi cause during Hitler’s rise to power. They thought that their patriotic and religious duties were one and the same, and Hitler seemed to be doing great things for Germany. So they rationalized and they made excuses and they just went along.

Most of them went along.

Bonhoeffer and a group of other pastors began to see the Nazi regime for what it was and they began to form a movement called the Confessing Church which distanced itself from the German government. Bonhoeffer, of course, eventually gave up his life for the cause. He had been sent to safety in America but deliberately returned to Germany to stand with his fellow Germans. He played a part in a conspiracy to assasinate Hitler and was eventually executed by the Nazis.

In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Jimmy Stewart, playing a character named Jefferson Smith, says that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. It’s at this moment, when the cause of Jesus seems to be a lost cause, that Joseph of Arimathea decides to go public with his admiration for Jesus and all that Jesus stood for. Mark, in the Common English Bible, says that Joseph “dared” to go to Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. And given the uproar that had surrounded Jesus and led to his crucifixion, it was an act of daring to ask for his body and give him a dignified burial.

It seems like an odd, even offensive, comparison to make, but one of the things that happened to pop into my head as I thought about Joseph of Arimathea was the story of the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Robert McGill Thomas, a Shelbyville native, became one of the all-time great obituary writers for the New York Times. I never got to meet Mr. Thomas, even though he visited Shelbyville quite frequently and even kept a house here. But after his death, I read the wonderful book “52 McGs,” which is a compilation of 51 of his best obituaries from the Times, along with his own obituary. Robert Thomas was best-known for writing obituaries of unusual and off-beat subjects, and it was from the book “52 McGs” that I first learned about the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Rev. Sanders was a member of the Christian church – Disciples of Christ, like First Christian Church across from Hardee’s – who attended Vanderbilt Divinity School. In 1963, he was head of the Fort Worth Council of Churches, not unlike Lanita being the head of Bedford County Ministerial Association. Following the Kennedy assassination, he was working on organizing a memorial service for JFK, but it was also his duty to make sure that someone was available to preach at the funeral service for – well, for Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who had been arrested as an assassin and then shot two days later by Jack Ruby. The Fort Worth Council of Churches felt that Oswald – or at least, Oswald’s family – deserved some sort of funeral service, an act of simple Christian compassion, even though at that moment Oswald was perhaps the most hated man in the world.

Two ministers agreed to officiate at Oswald’s funeral, but then when they discovered the services were outdoors, at the graveside, they pulled out at the last minute, afraid that they themselves might be killed by snipers. So Rev. Sanders, who had come to the service as an observer and had left his Bible in the car, performed the ceremony, reading the 23rd Psalm and a passage from John 14 by memory, and giving a two-sentence eulogy which mainly mentioned Oswald’s mother and how much she loved her son.

There is, of course, no comparison to be made between the man Louis Sanders eulogized – a man guilty of a horrific crime – and the one whom Joseph of Arimathea buried, who was blameless. The comparison is only in the courageous acts of mercy which were made despite overwhelming opposition from the community.

For Joseph of Arimathea, giving Jesus a tomb was compassionate and kind. We don’t know what he was thinking or feeling about the teacher from Nazareth whose body he claimed, but he at least knew that Jesus had been mistreated by his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

I don’t believe he had, at this time, a complete understanding of Jesus’ true kingdom. Almost no one did. Had he known Jesus was about to rise from the dead, the courtesy of a tomb would have been, well, somewhat meaningless. The fact that Joseph of Arimathea offered a tomb probably means that he thought Jesus was going to need a tomb.

But Joseph at least recognized something of Jesus’ holy nature, and had the courage to stand up in the face of opposition from his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

There may be many times in our life, in our faith, in our service to the church in which we don’t fully understand God’s plan. But we have to do our best to be faithful, and sometimes our faithfulness is rewarded in unexpected ways. The conspiracy in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved failed to assasinate Hitler, and yet Bonhoeffer in martyrdom became an example and an inspiration to millions, drawing attention to his valuable writings.

Abraham and Sarah trusted God to give them descendants even when they were past their child-bearing years. Mary and Joseph trusted God even when she was unmarried and mysteriously pregnant.

Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb thinking that it would be the eternal resting place of a great teacher who was killed before his time. Instead, the tomb itself would become a symbol of the greatest event of human history. The empty tomb of Jesus speaks to resurrection, and rebirth, and hope. Joseph of Arimathea had the wisdom and vision to follow God, and the courage to trust in God without knowing the complete plan. May each of us be able to say the same.

risen

risenA week or two ago, the youth of First UMC Shelbyville asked our youth director, Alden Procopio, about the movie “Risen.” Alden thought – correctly – that she ought to see the movie before recommending it, so she and Rev. Lanita Monroe went earlier in the week. They liked it so much that Lanita sent out an e-mail blast inviting all ages, not just the youth, to attend the 4:15 Sunday matinee.

So I joined the group today, walking from the church to the theater and back again. The short review, which I’ll expand on below, is that I really enjoyed it – I thought it walked a fine line between an innovative approach and reverence to the source material.

I get frustrated with some of the ham-fisted attempts to put faith on film. Not surprisingly, three of the four coming attractions before tonight’s movie were faith-based. One of them, a fictional story about a teacher suspended for using a Bible verse in her classroom, seemed like a perfect example of what I normally don’t like in this genre. The movie (judging only from the trailer, which can be inaccurate) is really black-and-white, portraying the chief opponent as a one-dimensional villain and the teacher and her supporters as a persecuted minority. Any non-Christian would find it laughable and unconvincing, but non-Christians wouldn’t go see it in the first place. The movie is aimed at Christians – but its primary purpose (again, judging from the trailer) seems to be reinforcing how great we are and how nasty and evil anyone who disagrees with us is. The question of how and when faith can be expressed in taxpayer-funded public schools is a complicated one, and not always a matter of black and white, heroes and villains. But a more-nuanced treatment probably wouldn’t sell group tickets to churches.

Sorry; excuse me for getting off on a rant there. I only bring it up to contrast it with “Risen.”

Now, to be fair, any Biblical epic is going to suffer from a little bit of the same preaching-to-the-choir effect I described above. Few non-Christians are going to be interested, so any claims of evangelistic value are going to be wildly overstated. But I think a well-done Bible movie at least has some value in terms of inspiration. It certainly served that purpose from a couple of our youth, who said during the post-movie discussion back at the church that the movie had helped them imagine the crucifixion story.

By way of confession, about 10 years ago I tried to write a novel which was not unlike “Risen” in intent – it was supposed to tell the story of what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I still have the incomplete manuscript; I gave it up because I decided I didn’t have the Bible scholarship to do it justice, and my original excuse that it was going to be “more like a parable than Bible history” was just that, an excuse.

“Risen” brings the story to life in a way which I found creative and reverent.

The story is told through the eyes of Clavius, a Roman tribune, played by Joseph Fiennes. Pilate (Peter Firth) sends a war-weary Clavius, who seems to be Pilate’s protégé, to the crucifixion site to break the legs of the three convicts and hasten their deaths. (If you remember the Bible story, you know that Jesus was already dead by that point and was pierced in the side instead.) Then, the next day, when the Judaean religious authorities complain to Pilate, Clavius is sent out to put Pilate’s personal seal on the tomb and post a couple of guards there.

Minor quibble: It’s sort of a Hollywood cliché that in movies, ancient Romans speak with upper-class British accents. But when working-class Roman soldiers are given working-class British accents (not Cockney, but something like that), it just sticks out like a sore thumb.

On the next day, the tomb is discovered to be empty – and Pilate commands Clavius to investigate, and to locate Jesus’ body in order to refute the rumor that he has somehow been resurrected.

This leads to what seems like a first-century police procedural, as Clavius and his newly-assigned deputy, Lucius (Tom Felton), track down rumors, dig up newly-buried bodies and try to intimidate everyone.

Clavius keeps telling people that he’s after the truth, and that he’ll allow them to go free if they’ll give him the truth. Eventually, of course, Clavius comes face-to-face with a truth he did not expect.

From that point forward, the movie changes in tone a little bit, bending the rules to depict Clavius as being present (albeit in the background) for several Bible scenes involving Jesus and the disciples. As long as you accept this as a work of inspirational fiction, and don’t take it too seriously, I’m fine with that. After all, as previously admitted, I tried to do the same thing. Think of it as “Ben-Hur” for the 21st Century.

The filmmakers do get several little details right. Jesus actually looks (gasp!) Middle Eastern, rather than like that blankety-blank Warner Sallman painting. The crucifixion wounds are in Jesus’ wrists, rather than his palms. If you tried to crucify someone by putting nails through their palms, the nails would tear through the flesh. Only by nailing just above the wrist – which still would have been considered the hand by the gospel writers – do you have the proper bone structure to hold someone on the cross for several days (which is how long crucifixions normally took). Clavius gives the disciple Bartholomew an accurate description of how crucifixion actually kills a victim – by suffocation. The victim must keep pushing his body up to breathe, and eventually, after days of agony, he gives up, exhausted, and is strangled by his own weight.

Rev. Lanita, in talking about the movie to the youth, lamented that they fell into the common trap of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, when the gospels don’t refer to her as such. (The idea that she was a prostitute comes from someone in church history speculating that she was the same woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, even though the Bible does not give us any specific reason to make that connection.)

It all seemed to work, at least for me. Fiennes is absolutely great as Clavius. You can feel his weariness, but then he shifts it aside and becomes an intimidating interrogator, and he makes his conversion – which, by the conventions of this type of movie, has to be somewhat sudden – believable. He still seems like the same person. With a lesser actor, this movie could have easily descended into camp.

Firth and Felton are also great on the Roman side, while Stuart Scudamore (running a close second to Cumberbatch in the silly name rankings) is quite good as Simon Peter (IMDb lists him as “Peter,” but he seems to be referred to mainly as “Simon” by the other characters). Stephen Hagan is just a tiny bit too giddy as Bartholomew, but I’ll let it slide – especially since the more-common mistake in Bible epics is to be universally-gloomy. This movie actually had a few moments of welcome and appropriate humor, such as one where one of the Romans makes a disparaging remark about the Jewish high priests just as we, the audience, see them approaching him from behind. There’s also a scene between Simon and Clavius late in the movie which incorporates some funny byplay.

I just really found the movie inspirational. I doubt many people who aren’t already believers will be converted by it, because I doubt they’ll go see it in the first place. But we probably shouldn’t expect movies to proselytize anyway. I think this is fine as a creative expression of faith, one which someone like me (and the teens from church) can simply enjoy on its own terms.

I highly recommend it.

warmth in wrap-up

All of the moms of First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville teased me about whether or not I was ready to be a chaperone at Warmth In Winter, and carried on like I was making some great sacrifice by attending.

But I expected going in that I’d have a good time – and I did. It was a blessing, in a very real sense.

It’s a moving thing to see young people in the throes of some of their first religious experiences. Bishop Bill McAlilly, who preached this morning, recalled a church camp experience at which James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was played, and I had to laugh – because one of the strongest memories of my own junior high church camp experiences has to do with Taylor’s “Shower The People.” “That’s not a church song,” I thought to my seventh grade self. “That’s a song from the radio. Are they allowed to do that?”

That camp experience is still potent in my memory, four decades later, and I always list it as a key part of my spiritual journey whenever I’m asked to lay out my spiritual timeline at some retreat or mission trip training event.

That’s where these kids were this weekend. How remarkable for them to get to go and be at a nice hotel with three thousand of their peers, and see a Christian band play with rock-concert-style staging — video screens, lighting and what have you.

The teens from Shelbyville First are a great group, and they really got out of this experience what you’d hope they would get out of it.

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We know that one peak experience doesn’t guarantee a life of faith. Nothing guarantees a life of faith; faith has to be renewed on an hourly basis. In fact, during a breakout session on Saturday I and the other adults from First UMC heard some disheartening statistics about how many children who actively participate in their church youth groups lose their connection to the church just as soon as they get to college.

Bellarive, which was the worship band for this weekend’s event, has a song lyric that goes “You will never fade away / Your love is here to stay,” and while God’s love is faithful we are not always faithful to God.

That’s a challenge and an admonition to all of us in the church, but it does nothing to diminish the value of, or the need for, events like Warmth In Winter, or the week-in, week-out youth activities in a local church. We do not know whose heart might have been turned this weekend. Decades from now, some great Christian leader – maybe a member of the clergy, maybe a layperson whose faith has been reflected in a life well-lived – may look back to that weekend in 2016 when she stood up in front of the stage in the mosh pit, bouncing up and down to the music of Bellarive and swapping warm fuzzies with strangers from other churches.

In case you’ve missed my previous posts, Warmth In Winter, which started in 1982, is an annual youth weekend held by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Despite the name, the “Tennessee” conference is made up of Middle Tennessee.) It’s been held for the past several years at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Murfreesboro, but it attracts thousands of teenagers and has outgrown even that facility. This year, for example, the Embassy Suites was sold out and there were church groups staying at several other hotels in the Medical Center Parkway area, plus some churches that just commuted. The Saturday morning programming had to be done in shifts – while the groups staying at the Embassy Suites were in breakout workshops, the groups staying off-site were in the main room for worship, and vice versa. Next year, Warmth In Winter will be held at Gaylord Opryland.

My nephew T.J. Carney was a member of one of the “design teams” that put on the event this year, and he appeared on stage a couple of times, in a skit and as a “stick figure dancer” (you had to be there). I could not be prouder. T.J.’s younger brother James also got to attend the event; they are both from Bell Buckle UMC.

So it was tremendously moving to see all the kids enjoying this experience and hope that it will have an impact on them down the road.

But I also enjoyed the programming directly. When you’re talking to teenagers, you don’t talk to them about nuances of theology, or socio-political implications, or textual criticism. Duffy Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, had a three-point slogan upon which he based all three of his sermons: “God has a plan … Man has a problem … The choice is up to you.” Simple, clean and direct. Every now and then, even we adults need a message that cuts to the essentials and touches the heart.

Duffy Robbins, by the way, was terrific all around, with a sense of humor that appealed to everyone in the room. I found this on YouTube from 2014, but he did exactly the same routine this weekend:

He had a way of taking this simple story and making it come to life. A story about teaching his teenage daughter how to drive became a lesson on the Incarnation, and the need for God to be in the seat next to us. Just perfect.

The other major part of the program was illusionist Jared Hall:

I knew going in that I’d enjoy the program. I had seen enough slide shows from previous Warmth In Winter trips to have a basic sense of what the event was about. But as I posted Friday night, I wasn’t quite sure of my own role. I wasn’t rooming with the kids – that’s prohibited by United Methodist “safe sanctuaries” policies due to the risk. Our church’s director of children and youth, the wonderful Alden Procopio, does a great job with the kids, and so it’s not like I was needed to hand out stern looks. (The kids were great all weekend, really.) This was a suite hotel, and as the only adult male in the First UMC group I had a suite all to myself. I felt almost guilty for being there and enjoying the program.

After I wrote those words Friday night, a couple of things happened Saturday that made me feel better. We had a block of free time, and went to a nearby shopping area with a lot of food options. We gave the kids the freedom to go where they liked. Alden and the Three Moms – Vickie Hull, Tanya Lane and Rachel Cunningham – went with a few of the teens to a barbecue restaurant, but I tagged along with another group that went to Panda Express. Just being there, me and the teens hanging out, made me feel a little more like I was actually a chaperone and not just a tag-along. I sat with most of the same kids that night at the Murfreesboro District pizza party:

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I also found out that I had to be there. The event’s policy required that if there were male campers, there had to be a male adult from that church (and, I assume, vice versa). If I hadn’t been there, Grayson and Kenny and Sam might not have been able to be there.

I bought myself a T-shirt on Saturday, but I joked about not buying another souvenir I really wanted. At a layspeaking class I took last November, I was amused at the John Wesley bobblehead doll brought along by the teacher. They had those bobbleheads at the Cokesbury table at Warmth In Winter this weekend, but I decided they were too expensive.

Today, on our way home, we all stopped for lunch at Toot’s South. After we’d eaten, as we were trying to consolidate the plates a bit, all of a sudden the four grownups with whom I was sitting started looking at me and handed me a white paper bag and an envelope.

The bag, as you’ve no-doubt guessed, contained this:

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The envelope was even better – a card signed by the kids and the other adults thanking me for being there.

By the way, there’s a bad pollen problem inside Toot’s this time of year.

Warmth In Winter, Friday night

Terrific first night at Warmth In Winter.
As we were gathering for evening worship, there was a theatrical percussion group (along the lines of Stomp or Blue Man Group) called RePercussion, and they were terrific. Illusionist Jared Hall really only did one trick tonight, but I think we’ll see more of him tomorrow. Bellarive, the worship band, was great, and I really enjoyed the keynote speaker, Duffy Robbins, who was funny and relatable. Of course, none of this content is aimed at washed-up 53-year-olds; it’s aimed at youth, and there were 3,000 of them in the ballroom tonight, and I think they were really connecting to all of it. Communion was led by the Rev. Skip Armistead, whom I knew briefly in the early 90s when I was serving on the Tennessee Conference singles council (he probably doesn’t remember me), and the Rev. Amanda Diamond of Morton Memorial UMC, a great friend of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry whose pulpit I’ve filled before. After the service, I saw Amanda along with Kylene McDonald at the T-shirt booth, and I’m always happy to see Kylene.
I got to see my nephew T.J., who is on the design team which is running this show, very briefly; he’d been here all day and was already tired, and that was before evening worship. T.J.’s brother James is also here; I haven’t run into him yet.
I’m happy to be here, but I guess I don’t feel that much like a chaperone yet. There’s not much for me to do other than be here, and there are a few of the teens that I’m not sure even know who exactly I am, and vice versa. I am here in this big old suite, which I have all to myself as the only adult male in our group. The boys are next door. In the old days, teens and adults would have bunked together, but that’s prohibited, and understandably so, by the new Safe Sanctuaries policies. So that’s good in terms of me getting a good night’s sleep, but I feel almost guilty for being here.

a blessing in song

I am one of three people with administrative access to our church’s Facebook page. A few weeks ago, while my pastor, the Rev. Lanita Monroe, was on a mission trip to Louisiana, I was checking that page and there was a message from a man named John Lemonis.

Crosby LaneJohn is a member of a vocal trio called Crosby Lane, named for famed hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Their specialty is new, Americana-style or country-style arrangements of classic hymns, and they also tell the stories behind those hymns as they perform them in concert. They also have some original songs, one of which – “Crucified” – is right at this moment being played by not only Christian radio stations but country stations, and is about to premiere on the cable channel GAC.

Crosby Lane had a radio interview scheduled in Scottsboro, Alabama, early in the day on January  20, and then after that they would be driving back to their home base in the Nashville area. They had decided to message some churches along their route home to see if any of them might be interested in a Wednesday night performance.

I messaged John back telling them that our pastor was in Louisiana. I gave him her e-mail address. I had no idea whether he’d end up e-mailing her (after all, one of the other Facebook contacts might come through first), or how often Lanita was checking her e-mail while on the mission trip.

After the return of the mission team, I was delighted to discover that John had, in fact, gotten in touch with Lanita, who had agreed to have the group perform tonight. I tried to help get the word out through social media and on the church news page of the Times-Gazette, so that we’d have a decent crowd.

Then, of course, weather happened. I worried that Lanita might have to call off the church’s normal Wednesday night activities, or that we might have a poor crowd. When I stopped by the church while on my daily walk today, it looked like our Wednesday activities were good to go, but the person I spoke to at the church wasn’t sure whether the band was still coming. If they came, they would be driving down from Nashville rather than up from Alabama, since their appearance in Scottsboro – the whole initial reason for their visit here – had been cancelled.

They came, and I’m so glad they did. It was a wonderful performance, melodic and inspiring. John and Michaela Lemonis and Tonja Rose blessed all of us with their music, with the stories behind the hymns, and with their joy in performing, even for a crowd of 35-40 people on a cold, wet Wednesday night. As it happened, I ended up sitting at the same table as the three of them during dinner, and they couldn’t have been nicer or more enthusiastic.

Everyone who was there for the performance loved it, and many of us bought CDs afterwards. “We want you to come back!” someone called out.

I hope they do too, on a night when we can give them a bigger crowd  — even though they may have bigger and better things ahead.

a balm in gilead

Back in the 1980s, while my father was pastor of Bell Buckle, Blankenship and Ransom United Methodist churches, he looked out into his congregation one morning and saw the Murfreesboro District superintendent, William Morris, seated in the pews.

This was an unusual thing. My father was usually assigned to small, multi-point rural charges, and he’d never had a district superintendent drop in on a worship service like that, unannounced. He immediately wondered if something was wrong.

wmorrisNothing was wrong. Bill Morris was just the type of district superintendent who felt it was important to get out into the district and see what was going on in the churches. That really impressed my father. It was around that time, or not long after, that my father decided, on a whim, to invite Rev. Morris to preach at the annual Easter sunrise service at Blankenship. Dad sort of figured that a district superintendent would already be spoken for on Easter Sunday, but he was delighted to find out that Rev. Morris was available and willing to come.

I cannot count the number of times he’s preached Easter sunrise services for my father since that time, wherever Dad happened to be serving. The service would usually be outdoors, and Rev. Morris would usually conclude his sermon by singing something, a cappella, in his deep, rich voice. The song was often “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” a wonderful old hymn. His wife Mary was usually with him.

Rev. Morris went on to be appointed as a bishop – first in Alabama, but then back here in Tennessee. Even as a bishop, he came and preached several sunrise services for Dad.

Rev. Morris, long since retired from the episcopacy, had agreed to come and preach for Dad again this Easter. But he will be singing with a heavenly choir instead. Rev. Morris passed away this morning, at age 79.

For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting Bishop Morris – and I count it a privilege — I found this interview with him on YouTube:

He was a great man, and a credit to the United Methodist Church. I ask your prayers for his family.

all jerusalem was troubled

First UMC Shelbyville

January 3, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12 (CEB)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

because from you will come one who governs,

who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

We think of this passage from Matthew as a story about three visitors from the East. The word for them in Latin was “magi,” plural of “magus.” Sometimes that’s translated as “wise men,” and sometimes – as in the Common English Bible, from which I read today – it’s not translated at all. The idea that they were kings is not mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew, in fact, is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story, and he uses the term “magi.” It was later Christian writers who called them kings, perhaps inspired by Old Testament prophecies of kings bowing before the Messiah. In fact, two of our other Lectionary passages today make reference to this. From Psalm 72:10-11 (CEB):

Let the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute;

let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts.

Let all the kings bow down before him;

let all the nations serve him.

And from Isaiah 60:2-3 (CEB):

Though darkness covers the earth

and gloom the nations,

the Lord will shine upon you;

God’s glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to your dawning radiance.

There have been various theories about exactly who the magi were. The commentator William Barclay quotes the historian Herodotus; Herodotus identified the magi as Medes. The Medes were part of the Persian empire. They tried to overthrow their Persian conquerors and failed, and the leaders of the Medes lost their ambition for military victory, according to this story, and just became priests and religious leaders. They not only served their own people but they became advisors to their conquerors, the Persians.

As you’ve heard many times, we don’t actually know how many of them there were. “We Three Kings” makes a nice song, but all we know is that there were three different gifts. Those gifts could have been given by two magi or by 10. But we like the idea of three people, each one holding a different gift, and so that’s what we put on the Christmas cards.

The magi, whomever they were, saw a star which they interpreted as a sign, an indicator of the birth of a new king and they traveled to Judea to try to find out about it. Billy Hix will have more to say about that star during his program next Sunday night; it’s a great program and I strongly encourage you to attend.

The star only leads them in a general direction, towards Judea, and so when they arrive in that country they went to its capital, Jerusalem, to check in with its current king.

That king was Herod – or, more specifically, Herod the Great. There was a story just a week or two ago at the Christianity Today website, by a seminary professor named Alexander Stewart, in which he makes reference to three different books that have been published about Herod the Great in the past two or three years.

Most of us just know about Herod from this Bible story. The king about whom Matthew writes in this story is Herod the Great. There’s another king named Herod, Herod Antipas, who is referred to elsewhere in the Gospels, during the adult ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great.

Herod was not the king because he was descended from David. In fact, he wasn’t descended from the Jews at all. Herod was born about 73 B.C.E. His ancestry was Idumaean. The Idumaeans were known in the Old Testament as the Edomites. They had been conquered by the Jews in the second century B.C.E. and forced to convert to Judaism. So Herod was brought up as a Jew but was not truly of Jewish ancestry.

Herod the Great was King of the Jews because he’d been appointed to that post by the Romans. Julius Caesar had first appointed Herod’s father as procurator of Judea, and Herod was able to curry favor with a succession of Roman emperors and stay in power for 40 years.

By many earthly measures, Herod’s reign was a successful one. There’s a reason that he’s called “Herod the Great,” in comparison to his sons.

Herod expanded the temple in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall – a retaining wall which is one of the only remnants of that temple – is a must-see stop for tourists to Jerusalem. That western wall is part of what Herod built. He also built fortresses and seaports. His reign was a peaceful one. When there was famine, or hard times, he reduced taxes or even donated some of his own treasures to buy food for the people, something that few kings of that day or time would have done.

There was a famous saying about the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that said, yes, he was a dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time. It turns out that statement is a bit of a hoax – yes, the Italian train system got a lot better during Mussolini’s lifetime, but most of that had to do with improvements made by the administration from before Mussolini came to power.

Herod was an efficient ruler; if there had been trains in Herod’s time, Herod would certainly have made them run on time. But he was also jealous, and ruthless with those whom he perceived as a threat. Herod ruled with an iron fist.

Given Herod’s paranoia, it’s not surprising that he was upset when the magi showed up with reports that a new king had been born. But what surprises me is the rest of verse 3: “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”

Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him?

Why?

What reason did the people of Jerusalem have to be troubled?

Herod was not well-loved by his people, and he knew it. When Herod was near death, he gave his officials a list of prominent citizens of Jerusalem, with the order that they were to be arrested, and whenever Herod died, those citizens were to be executed as well – so the people would not be inclined to rejoice at Herod’s passing. (Fortunately for the citizens of Jerusalem, this plan does not seem to have been carried out.)

Is that the reason the people of Jerusalem are troubled – because they’re afraid of how Herod will react to this threat? Are they afraid of being caught in the crossfire? Shouldn’t the promise of a new king be a sign of hope? Shouldn’t it give them reason to hope for redemption from the cruelty of Herod – and maybe even redemption from the Roman government which was the source of Herod’s power?

If anyone in Jerusalem was hopeful as a result of the magi’s visit, Matthew doesn’t tell us about them. He just says the people of Jerusalem were troubled, just as Herod was troubled.

We are often threatened and troubled by changes, even good ones. The prospect of a new king – a new regime – a new era – is a prospect full of questions. And we don’t like questions; we like certainty. Questions make us nervous. We want to be in control of our own fates, and changes remind us that we’re not.

The arrival of a new king would be a dramatic change, a change that could have profound effects, good or bad, for everyone in Jerusalem. Would he be a wise king or a foolish one? Herod derived his power from the Roman government, but perhaps a new king might try to challenge the Romans, to lead the people in revolt. Maybe such a revolt would be successful – but it might not be. And it could be bloody either way.

Or maybe Herod would try to end this new king’s reign before it began – perhaps that’s what the people were really concerned about. And if so, they had a right to be concerned. We know about the tragic action that Herod took in Bethlehem, killing all of the young boys under the age of two – an evil response from a ruthless and frightened man. Fortunately, Joseph had been warned to take his family to safety before Herod carried out this evil plan.

No one in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth could have possibly imagined what kind of king Jesus would turn out to be. Even the people who lived through his earthly ministry had trouble understanding what was going on and recognizing it as it happened. But the people of Jerusalem, hearing reports of a new king, could imagine enough possible outcomes to make them nervous. They were too busy imagining the worst to hope for the best.

The most troubling thing about our relationship with God isn’t going to church, or trying to do good, or confessing our sins. The most troubling thing about our relationship to God is that we have to give up control. The most troubling thing about true Christian faith is that it requires us to trust God, and often it requires us to reject the things that give us security. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned. He told Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and walk away from their livelihood as fishermen. He told a Pharisee named Saul to abandon his self-righteousness and the laws of Moses which had governed his life in order that Saul could become Paul, an evangelist to the Gentiles.

The Christmas season is a time of tradition and comfort, as we celebrate the arrival of a baby in a manger, someone who – it seems – cannot threaten us at all. But we cannot forget that this this baby is a king, a king who is destined to rule over us.

It’s interesting that while the people of Jerusalem were troubled by the arrival of their new king, the magi – who, according to most interpretations, were Gentiles and from another country – were celebrating. They, somehow, had a clearer view of the truth of what was happening. It reminds me a little of the story of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his daughter – a case where an outsider had a clearer understanding of who Jesus was, and how his kingdom worked, than Jesus’ own disciples had at the time.

The holiday which takes place on the Christian calendar this Wednesday, and which we’re celebrating a bit early this Sunday, is called “Epiphany.” That word has two common uses – one is as the name of this holiday, and the other is defined as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”

The magi, despite the fact that they were pagans, if you will, from another country, another religion, another way of life, had an epiphany. They saw a star, and they knew somehow, through some revelation of God, that the star was the indication of a new age to come. And the magi knew enough to come in reverent adoration, bearing gifts, to honor this king. Despite what we see on Christmas cards, this visit did not take place on Christmas night. It was some time later, after Joseph and Mary had moved into a house. In the 11th verse of the passage I read earlier:

“They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Herod saw Jesus as a threat. The people of Jerusalem saw Jesus as a question mark. Both were afraid of this infant king. But the magi saw this king as a new hope, a cause for devotion and celebration.

It’s easy for us to be excited during the advent season about the celebration of the baby Jesus. But what will happen when we realize that this little baby is our king? Will we welcome him to the throne, or will we be troubled? Will we be like Herod, and refuse to yield the throne to this new ruler?

What does it mean to make Jesus the king of our life? It means giving up control. We don’t like giving up control. We want to be the king. We want security. We want to rule with an iron fist.

Or sometimes we are like the people of Jerusalem – we sit around and worry, more concerned about our own safety and convenience than we are about God’s plan.

When we reserve the throne for Jesus, when we make Jesus the king of our lives, sometimes we have to step out in faith. Sometimes we have to do things that frighten us. Sometimes we have to love people who are difficult to love. Sometimes we have to change our priorities. Following the star – following the king whom the star represents — may mean traveling far from home and comfort, and it may mean changing your travel plans if God tells you to.

But it also leads to a sense of joy and wonder that Herod and the people of Jerusalem were, it seems, incapable of experiencing.

What would happen this year if each of us decided to follow God’s epiphanies rather than our own fears?

my new study bible

I used to have a Wesley Study Bible, in the New Revised Standard Version, and I liked it – it was probably the favorite of the various study Bibles I’d owned up to that point. The Wesley Study Bible has interesting little features scattered throughout pointing out how particular Bible passages relate to Wesleyan theology.

Unfortunately, I lost the Bible. I think I must have misplaced it during a layspeaking assignment somewhere a year or two ago, but I’m not sure. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t realize it was gone right away – part of that was because I’d been listening to the Daily Audio Bible for my daily Bible reading, and I had a smaller, non-study Bible I would often take to church. The DAB is a great program – it costs nothing, and you can listen on your desktop, your phone or tablet, or even on smart TV devices like Roku (look for a podcast app for your smart TV). If you hop on board Jan. 1 it will take you through the Bible in a year’s time. I may take a break from it in 2016, however, if only because I don’t think I’ve been doing it justice and I think maybe forcing myself to read the Bible each day will be a better discipline for me. There are some great Bible reading plans available for download.

By the time I went looking for the study Bible – probably to start writing a sermon for another lay speaking assignment – I couldn’t figure out what had happened to it. It wasn’t in the lost and found at my home church, and so my best guess is that I left it at one of the other churches where I spoke.

I have other study Bibles, and continued to use them, but I missed that Wesley Study Bible. Meanwhile, I had become a fan of a different Bible translation – the Common English Bible.

I’ll digress a second. I suspect most of you understand the difference between translations and paraphrases, but just in case: a translation (like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version) is a Bible version prepared by a team of translators, working from the best and most reliable old manuscripts available, who strive for a high standard of accuracy in the difficult task of translating writings from thousands of years ago into the English of today. A paraphrase (like The Message) is often the work of one person and is designed to be readable, often updating figures of speech, metaphors or expressions by replacing them with close English equivalents.

WP_20151226_19_50_46_Pro (2)Either has its uses – a paraphrase can be great for personal reading and can be dramatic when read aloud in a worship service. But if you’re trying to settle a complex or nuanced theological point, a translation is likely to be more accurate and reliable.

I like the CEB because it is a true translation – prepared by a team of scholars – and yet it has the readability of many of the paraphrase versions. The CEB is also endorsed by the United Methodist Church and is now used in some of the church literature.

I knew that an edition of the Wesley Study Bible was now available using the CEB translation. My father often just gets me clothes for Christmas, and they’re wonderful – I’m lousy at buying clothes for myself. But this year he specifically – and repeatedly – asked me for a wish list. One of the two items I mentioned was a CEB Wesley Study Bible, and sure enough it was under the tree yesterday – with my name inscribed on the cover.

I want to take good care of it, so I braved the after-Christmas crowd at Walmart this morning to buy a Bible cover. I’ve put contact information in a little window inside the Bible cover in case I try to leave this Bible somewhere, and I’ll write my name inside the Bible too (since the Bible cover hides hides my name on the front of the actual Bible).

Happily, I’ll have this Bible to use from the pulpit in another week when I preach Jan. 3 at First UMC in Shelbyville. Often, I just copy and paste the Bible passage into the manuscript of my sermon and read it from the printout. I’ve been told at lay speaking classes not to do that, though – it helps to give reverence to the Bible reading if the congregation actually sees you holding and reading from the Bible.

call waiting

Ever since my father became a United Methodist minister, people have asked me if I planned to follow in his footsteps. I’ve never felt that call. I do, in fact, love to write and preach sermons – maybe for some of the wrong reasons. I have been a United Methodist layspeaker since the 1990s, filling in for ordained ministers when they go on vacation, get sick, or what have you. The past few years, I had been averaging up to one speaking assignment a month, but this year has been slow, for no particular reason. It’s just that way. A couple of people who used to call on me regularly are now in different situations.

But being a pastor is a lot more than preaching, or even preparing sermons. A lot more. As a PK, I’ve seen that firsthand. And I don’t think I’m suited for some of the tasks that are part and parcel of that job. Now, it’s true that God sometimes qualifies the called instead of calling the qualified. God sometimes brings out strengths or abilities that the simple shepherd boy from Bethlehem or the Galilean fishermen didn’t know they possessed. But I just don’t feel called to that particular job.

There’s something of an irony, then, that I’m now part of the process for people who do feel that call. Last summer, I joined the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, or “D-COM,” for the Murfreesboro District of the United Methodist Church. There are various types of pastoral ministry within the United Methodist Church – although not everyone achieves, or intends to achieve, the final destination as an ordained elder. But there’s a process you go through to get to each of these various steps. And at various points on the journey, you go before D-COM, which makes recommendations about whether you should proceed.

When I was first called last spring and asked to serve on D-COM, I wasn’t really familiar with it and thought they had called me by mistake, meaning to call my father. But D-COM has both ordained clergy and laypeople as members. I am a layperson member.

My first D-COM meeting was last summer. I had to miss the next meeting due to work responsibilities, so tonight was my second chance to actually attend. At last summer’s meeting, we were interviewing candidates who were very early in the process – the only decision we had to make was whether or not to allow them to go to an exploratory retreat where they would discuss God’s call on their lives.

Tonight’s meeting was with candidates who were further along in the process. Naturally, I can’t discuss any of the specifics, which are confidential. We divided up into two teams, and each team conducted interviews separately.

The thing that struck me tonight was that each of the three candidates I heard from humbled me in some way. Each of them had some quality to that person’s life or ministry that made me think, “Gee, I wish I had more of that.”

And I have to admit, even though I haven’t heard that particular call I find myself a little envious of them for having a call. They didn’t necessarily all know exactly what form of ministry they were being called to, but they were in the pipeline, trying to respond to God’s call, moving forward.

I wish I had as clear a vision of where God wants me or what God wants me doing.

melts in your mouth, not on the bulletin

I cannot wait to tell my father about the children’s sermon at First UMC this morning.

You have to understand that my father is a big M&Ms fan (as are we all, but in his case particularly so). He loves the M&Ms themselves and loves various dispensers and merchandise with the M&Ms characters on them. I gave him a heads up a couple months ago when a temporary pop-up M&Ms World store opened in Cleveland, Tenn. (Did you know M&Ms were manufactured in Cleveland? I didn’t, until I happened to get the press release about the pop-up store.) Sure enough, he and Ms. Rachel made a special shopping trip to Cleveland, which is on the other side of Chattanooga.

mmsAnyway, there’s a corny old joke, which I’ve told more than once, about the joke-teller’s stupid uncle who got fired from the M&M factory for marking all the “W”s as factory seconds and throwing them out. In a sense, that’s what our director of children and youth Alden Procopio played off of in her children’s message. She gave each child a few M&Ms and showed them that, depending on how you held a piece, the marking looked like an “M,” a “W,” an “E” or the number “3.” Then, she read a little poem in which the E stood for the star in the East, the M stood for the manger in which the baby Jesus was laid, the 3 stood for the three wise men* and the W stood for the fact that they came to worship the child.

I just thought it was a fun visual aid, and you can immediately see why I want to share it with Dad for him to use at his church.

*Yes, I know there weren’t necessarily three wise men, and that the child was no longer in a manger when they came to see him.