Friday, March 29, 2013

A Meditation for Good Friday

A Private Conversation

“Today you shall be with me in Paradise”

It is somewhat hard to believe that Jesus and the two criminals hanging next to him were able to carry on a conversation.  I mean to think that their crosses were that close that they could hear one another in a pained whisper, or that they had enough strength to call out if the crosses were farther apart is fairly remarkable.  It must have been chaos below as seen from their angle above and yet they were able to converse in the last moments of their lives about some serious issues and we are privy to hear this conversation between three dying men.

Hear now the account of this conversation from the Luke the 23rd chapter…

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

There is no time left.  Each one of these men’s lives are imminently ending.  For two of them death could be the final word, for Jesus, of course, we know it isn’t.  One of the criminals jumps on the bandwagon with the accusers and scoffs at Jesus.  ‘If you think you are so good, then save us all!’ he said mockingly. 

His choice for eternal damnation was already made whether he knew it or not.  He could not open his ears nor his heart to hear that his life didn’t have to end the way in which it did.  He blindly followed the others down that road to perdition.  He didn’t look back.

The other criminal saw differently.  And he tried.  He tried to bring some understanding to the first criminal of who Jesus was, of what Jesus is capable of.  He asks that Jesus remembers him, that is, Jesus forgive him for whatever he has done in his life, great or small and then accept him into the kingdom of heaven, eternal life, the ultimate presence of God that knows absolutely no end.  “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”          

This intimate scene shows us that we have a choice, even until the very end, the final hour of our lives.  We have a choice, we can choose life or we can choose death.  We can opt for redemption and come into the kingdom with Jesus, or we can foolishly deny and mock Jesus and the salvation that he offers rendering ourselves to eternal damnation.  The choice is ours. 

We have many choices today.  Too many choices!  From simple and mundane things like what kind of cover do I want for my Smartphone, and what I want on the top of my pizza to behavioral choices that effect your life and those around you.  What will you do with your life, how will you treat others, how will you live out your days however many days you have in this life?  

This scene on the cross shows us that it is never to late to repent and to turn your life around.  Even though the criminal was dying he would live eternally in the kingdom of God; it was in his very last moments that he understands and that Jesus prepares a place for him in paradise.  That’s comforting.

But why wait?  Why wait until we have no more days upon this earth?  Today, right now, in this moment we can make a choice for life and all of the goodness that God can give you.  Right here.  Right now.  Every action we take or word that comes from our mouth can be life giving if we so choose.  This is what Jesus’ words are all about.

‘Today, you shall be with me in paradise.’  
The choice seems fairly clear cut to me.   Jesus remembers those who merely ask to be with him in sincere repentance, acceptance and surrender.  Will you be one of them?
Photo one taken at the start of the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday, 2008 in Jerusalem.
Photo two is of a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  It is of Jesus being carried form the cross to his tomb.

A Meditation for Maundy Thursday

An Ominous Silence
John 13: 107, 31b-38

This night is a night of great transition.  For the disciples the milieu in Jerusalem shifts from a Passover celebration to the seriousness of an impending doom where Jesus hands himself over to the authorities who put him on trial, mock him and carry out his crucifixion. 
This is a night of darkness.  Shadows elongate and reveal a dirt pathway over ancient stones that lead to the upper room where Jesus gathered at table for what was to be his last meal with his disciples.  They carefully climb the stairs one or two stumble for the oil lamps had not yet been lit.  Across in the valley the donkey’s have stopped their grazing and are still, their eyes getting closer to sleep with each lengthening blink.  In the garden at Gethsemane only the full Paschal moon filters through the branches of the olive trees.  Otherwise it was dark.

This is a night of great confusion. Jesus seems to know what lies ahead but no one else does.  The betrayal, the denial, the final supper in which he shares are yet to come, but none of the disciples seem to know or understand the magnitude of the hour.  They are confused; how could any of them be disloyal to their Lord or renounce their relationship to him?  Only God and Jesus know that his hour has come.  This moment, this time, this place was the zenith of the meaning of his life. 

This is a night of selfless love.  As they were eating their meal Jesus quietly gets up from the table and wraps a soft towel around his waist.  An anxious hush falls over the room and the disciples begin to eat a little slower.  You can hear the wrestling of their robes as they turn towards Jesus when he comes to them and kneels at their feet.  The water splashes against the sides of the basin and he dips in the wash rag and wrings it out.  All of them, Simon Peter, even Judas Iscariot are cleansed.  Jesus leaves no one out.  And when he was finished he gave them a cup of wine and some bread and asks that they remember him.

This is a night about Christ, what he has done for us, and what he has yet to accomplish.  He comes to us in a lowly manger and then ministers to us through the leper, the blind man, and the prostitute.  He mounts a humble donkey and rides closer to his death.  He hands us a towel so that we might be cleansed.  He hands us some bread and wine in order for us to be refreshed.  He gives to us his life, freely and willingly for he could have gotten away.  How will you receive him?

This night is a night of ominous silence.  For in this hush is every person’s story.  Your story, my story and the story of Jesus’ miraculous love.  It is in the silence and between the lines that resides the acts of human misery and the reality of our lives, the questioning, the doubt, the fear.  In this silence we wrestle between good intentions and indifference, our yesterdays and today’s.  Yet, this quiet begets the fullest potential of who we can be and reveals to us the power of God’s love and forgiveness.

On this night, the night in which Jesus was betrayed he gives yet again, a new commandment, to love. Simply love. Deeply love.  Honestly love just as he loves us.  Unselfishly, with generous intent, and forever.  It is the very least that we can do for our Lord.

Amen.   Let it be so.
Photograph taken from St. Peter Galicantu in Jerusalem.  The crowd is descending the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A New Thing

Isaiah 43: 16-21
How often, when you have been in unfamiliar situations, has someone asked you to consider alternatives?  To see something just a bit differently than you normally would.  To maybe drink from a different water source or to walk a path that is counter to the path you have always walked? 

It’s not easy to do so; in fact maybe it is impossible to see an alternative when we are swamped in the minutia of daily living or so bogged down with trying to keep things running the way they always have.

Our scripture, that the lectionary holds up for consideration does precisely that, from the book of the prophet Isaiah. It asks us to see anew.  And it is fitting to have a look at it during this Lenten season because the passage makes us think, it lifts our spirits in this long season of repentance, it can expand our imagination as to what could be, and has the potential to solidify our hope for a grand future[i].  It prepares us to see Christ’s death and his resurrection as a gateway into a hope filled future.

God enlists the prophet Isaiah to speak to the people of Israel in words of comfort about going home to yet another new reality, from the 43rd chapter.

“Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
 a path in the mighty waters, 
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior; 
 they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of the old.  I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”  

You see a prophet’s words, especially Isaiah’s, weren’t always gloom and doom that you might expect. Isaiah was quite the imaginative poet and his poetry are words of soothing comfort while he readies the people for something new.  They may not like it, they may not want it, but God does, so God is doing something new and Isaiah is the chosen one to relay that message.  

For so long the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon. And then, after a good long time, God says to them, “OK folks, it’s time.  Pack up your camels, get some jugs of water, you’re on your way home.  Back to Judah you go!  Get a move on!  Don’t you get it?  Do you not perceive it?”  You’re getting a fresh start.  As you know, some did return, and some didn’t, but it was decidedly the start of something new thanks to the ever creating God that we believe in.  Water in the wilderness can only means really good things; renewal, rehydration, rejuvenation, rebirth. God spoke then to accomplish God’s purposes and God speaks today. 
Camels in the Sinai by Suzanne Wagner
There is a lot of newness in the air as one friend of mine pointed out to me.  The Israel of today, back in the promised land has just formed a new coalition government within its parliamentary democratic system, just in time for President Obama to visit Israel for the very first time.  They hope to increase security and to improve the quality of life for its citizens through this new government.  Let us hope and pray for peace in the Holy Land and in Jerusalem. 

Yet more newness, habemus papam!  We have a pope. The white smoke came billowing out of the Sistine Chapel chimney against a midnight blue sky ushering in a new pontiff, a younger (somewhat) pontiff, a humbler pontiff who appears to be in touch with the people.  While it’s clear that he is a conservative like his predecessor he is also a champion for equality and is for the rights of marginalized people.  Perhaps he will bring around a renewal for the Roman Catholic Church which has been weighed down with it share of scandals, corruption, and abuse.   Pope Francis is a servant and a pilgrim like all of us, so he is someone we can all identity with even if we are not Catholic. 
So, there is a lot of newness in the air.  I guess God really is still speaking like the UCC moniker notes. In spite of human misunderstanding and over our beloved history, God continues to pull for us and create anew.  “Ever ancient, ever new” as Augustine of Hippo says.  God just keeps building upon what was in order to fashion something new, something in keeping with God’s vision for humanity, not necessarily ours.     

“I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  Rivers in the desert, ways in the wilderness, jackals and ostriches will honor God who will tame them.  A new life for the people of Israel is springing forth; a new life for you is springing forth if you open yourselves up to perceive it. 

Christianity, that is the truth of the Gospel, not necessarily doctrine, since its inception, ask us to see differently.  Jesus want us to notice the woman caught in prostitution and embrace her.  He asks us to envision the blind beggars, who are on the same path as we, as fully sighted individuals, he encourages us to include and to embrace every body. The entire premise of Christian doctrine begs us to find life amidst the ashes of destruction and exclusion. A new thing, can you see it?

God asks us to be a safe haven for all and to accomplish much in order to perceive the new things that God might be trying to do with us.  New ways of being a gathered community of believers.  God asks us to speak honestly and openly about how we can be God’s vision of hope in Orange and beyond with each other not around each other.  God asks each one of us to be the harbinger of good news in a world that sometimes doesn’t seem to be so safe.  God asks us to relinquish self-interest and control for the good of the Gospel in the larger setting.  “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Doing a new thing doesn’t mean that we give up our old ways necessarily or entirely but it does mean to amend them.  It means to examine that which does harm and let it go and that which builds up the body of Christ and develop it into something more.  When the people of Israel were finally released to go home they could take their belongings with them but I’m sure that they examined what they would take and what they would leave behind; what wasn’t worth packing up and taking along with them or what might even break the camel’s back!

This is a time of transition for OCC and we will have directed conversations that I will be hosting in the early fall.  You will receive a letter just after Easter outlining the process and a plan to head into the future.  We will examine all aspects of your congregational life and begin to formulate a vision for where you want to go as it relates to who God is calling you to be.  We will look at what type of pastor could help you realize your goals.  This is all part of the search process which actually has begun by tackling the deficit, getting your financial house in order.
Orange Congregational Church
Fall might seem like a ways out but nothing really solid and good is realized quickly.  In the meantime, talk to me about your hopes and dreams.  

God continues to call us forward to accomplish new things, to perceive loving kindness and justice and to enjoy this life.  Indeed God called you as a faith community into being and works with you to prepare the way for those who will follow.  Immerse yourself and watch, perceive all that God tosses your way.

May the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens, have peace descend upon us this morning.  May the One who has sustained Orange Congregational Church for all of these Gospel filled years continue to strengthen, preserve, and bless you.


Reverend Suzanne E. Wagner
Orange Congregational Church

[i] Idea from Weekly Seeds, Kate Huey,

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hungry? Thirsty? Then Come!

Isaiah 55: 1-9

The Israelites had adapted quite nicely to their exile in Babylon, in fact they laid down roots.  After so many generations they had forgotten about that good old promised land, that land of milk and honey that God had promised to Moses and their ancestors. 

Apparently the words of Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remember Zion.”  We hung our harps on the willows, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  (v. 1, 2a, 4), apparently those words weren’t so much in their hearts and minds anymore like they were when they first were exiled to Babylon and the longing to go home was great.

They had become accustomed to their life in Babylon.  They liked it.  It was good.  It was comfortable.  They prospered.  As one of the scholars say, “Eat royal bread, think royal thoughts.”   Even if they weren’t in their own land, life was good like a fine glass of port, why think about home now?

At least they thought they were mighty-fine until Isaiah asks them a question.  Why do you spend your money for bread that doesn’t satisfy you?  They might be comfortable in Babylon but were they really satisfied? 

Let us now hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah…

Ho, everyone who thirsts, 
come to the waters;
 and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
 without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
 Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;  listen, so that you may live. 
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
 my steadfast, sure love for David. 
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,  a leader and commander for the peoples. 
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
 and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
 because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
 for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
 call upon him while he is near; 
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
 and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your way and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The ancient marketplace in Babylon must have been a site.  The busy daily commerce of the merchants calling out to the consumers, “Fresh frankincense for sale”, “Spelt, we’ve got spelt on special today, only 5 scheckels for a homer.”, “Don’t run out of oil for your lamps”; the old weights and measures scales barely emptied one bunch of grapes and a container of pomegranates was right up there on the scale.  The aroma of the freshly baked pita loaves permeated the alley ways.  All of this activity, made for a very lavish economy for some.  
Can you see the women rushing from one keffiah headed vendor to the next in their long flowing gowns?  Or how about the old women sitting on the pavement sorting her fresh herbs and spices for sale?  Surely you might need some of her just picked hyssop.
People were buying.  People were selling.  And the poor people, the poor people where scavenging for peels and rinds in the piles of discarded, day old fruit. 

No wonder the Israelites had assimilated so beautifully into Babylonian culture after their exile from Judah.  What was there not to like?  Good food, great frankincense.  You can get pretty comfortable after a few generations.  

There was so much to buy, so much on which to spend your money.  As you’re leaving you see a large tray of brightly colored glass beads for sale, all different sizes.  Should you?  Can you splurge?  What’s the harm, a few new beads to go with that gorgeous Mecca-imported silk you’ve just finished sewing into a robe.  Or maybe that shiny anvil caught your eye, your husband could use a new anvil for his metal forging business. 

But those beads, did you really need to purchase new beads? Will those beads make any sort of difference in your life?  Will they satisfy your deepest desire for relationship, for self worth, for expression of what you really value in life?  Will those beads give you a deep and abiding sense of stability and ultimately grace?
Isaiah thinks not!  Folks the lure of materialism is an age-old problem.

Isaiah names and nails it. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2)

Isaiah’s formidable task was to tell them to abandon their ways, to stop buying this pagan, nutrient-absent, life-zapping bread.  They were too comfortable.  They were eating bread that won’t satisfy them in the long run.  Isaiah, spokesperson for God, names it and nails it. 

You know, being a prophet is not an easy profession, you don’t generally win the title of Ms. or Mr. Congeniality!  I had one professor in seminary that opened a lecture with “Be glad your daddy wasn’t a prophet!” Their news, though essential, was not easy to hear or heed.

Let’s cut to the chase.  We are not exempt from this consumer driven culture that we live in just like those Israelites in Babylonia.  Don’t think for a minute that the children of Israel are the only ones who are in need of ‘correction’.  We ALL are in need of finding our way back to God and renouncing all that which distracts us from healthy, God-focused living. Now this is not a rub on capitalism but it is a rub again consuming with the idea that it will satisfy and make your life complete.

It’s all too easy today to lose our way and to forget about what truly matters, what truly can fill us with satisfaction and love.  It’s much too easy to partake in the bread of secularism and the loaves of materialism because it’s lathered in a rich and creamy dressing which is an aphrodisiac to those who are empty; it is the opiate of our day.  Follow it and you’ll be fed for a time being.  Buy into to it and you’ll have lots of interesting and beautiful stuff but will you be satisfied?

What satisfies you?  How do you know when you are filled to capacity and needing no more? This a call to examine what it means to live a life giving, an energizing existence.  

The voice of Isaiah cries out, the ever present, all inclusive prophet speaks to all.  There is room for everyone here, it’s win win: those with means, don’t be lured by distractions and those with lesser or no means, please just come; YOU will be given what you need to endure life and to prosper when you follow the Lord.  This is ultimately a passage of invitation to a richer, grander and fuller life for each an every person.

For Christians Christ can satiate our emptiness.  Eat this bread…..and be filled with peace.  Drink this cup….your yearnings will cease.  Eat this bread…your hunger and emptiness will be assuaged.  Drink this cup….relax, be still, release your grip and just rest in the incredible presence of God. 

Come and never be hungry, trust and you will not thirst.

May this be our Lenten hope and prayer.

Photographs taken by Suzanne.  Man and Women in Bethlehem marketplace.  Tray of beads found in the Old City of Jerusalem. 2007.