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A Hill to Die On ©

As I write it is Monday, April 10, 2017.  Yesterday, I worshipped on Palm Sunday with my wife.  The children paraded through the sanctuary waving their palm branches.  It was glorious; a joyous expression of the faith!  I was sitting on the aisle and as they went past our row, I tried to catch the eyes of kids streaming past.  When I connected eye to eye, I would wink and wave at the littler ones.  Big smiles greeted me in return.  I told friends of ours in Jolynn’s Sunday School class that I wanted one of our grandchildren to be with us on such a great day.

And yet today, I read my paper as I ate my cereal.  I prayed for the Christian churches in Egypt that were bombed.  I prayed for those regardless of their faith commitment who suffered from violence and terror.  I prayed for U.S. troops overseas that they might be safe and return home soon.  I prayed for our President and leaders of both parties.  I prayed for our churches that the Lord might find us faithful in this tumultuous Holy Week.

As I looked up in conclusion, it was the cross that caught my eye.  You see, this week we call Holy exists in the shadow of the cross.  So much of modern living has the taste and even texture of tragedy and trial.  Much of life has the grip of struggle and strife.  We too have hills to climb as did Jesus that Holy Week so long ago.

My mind came back to a story that Rev. Ben Disney had shared in a sermon at the start of Lent.  He passed it on to me, and I share it without editing.

“It went on for ten straight days. May 10-20th 1969.
It was known as Hill 937
The battle was part of the Vietnam War – for ten days North Vietnamese fought soldiers from the United States over control of the hill.
In the end 72 Americans died- 372 wounded.
Losses on the North Vietnamese side was estimated at 630 dead.
The hill had no strategic value.
Two weeks after the Americans took it – they abandoned it.
It was known as Hamburger Hill
And it became a metaphor of the insanity and futility of war when there is no clear purpose or mission.

There are some hills worth dying on
Some causes worth giving our lives to
Some principles worthy of our highest calling

But I need to know in the course of my life –
Which hills are worth dying on and which ones are not?
Because the truth is there really is a hill worth dying on

How do I know that?
How do I know which hill matters most?

Because the one we follow – Jesus –
Has gone to great lengths to die on that particular hill
And he invites me to take up my cross and do the same.”
(Rev. Ben Disney, March 19, 2017; Arborlawn United Methodist Church)

This my friends is the call and claim of this week which we call Holy.  Jesus has died on that hill for us and challenges us now to follow Him in service and love of a broken humanity.  We climb the hill not as those without hope but rather with our eyes fixed on the Cross of Christ.  How does that great old hymn put it?

“In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring, 1825)

More than a Metaphorical Aside: The Good News We Dare Proclaim! ©

“They went to the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

tombHow simply the Easter story opens in Matthew’s gospel.  A tomb-ward journey is one we have all taken all too often.  I can remember full well such a journey in my life as a pastor in Austin, Texas.

He was young; in his thirties, with a lovely wife and two fine boys. He was athletic.  Before moving to Austin they had lived in northern California where he had regularly hiked and fished in the mountain streams. When I first met him, they came to my office in a state of shock.  Feeling poorly the last few weeks, he had been to the doctor.  Routine tests had turned into a more careful examination and then the awful hammer-like blow of the diagnosis.  He had inoperable, terminal cancer and they gave him mere months to live.

I can remember so clearly our extensive time together as this vibrant vigorous man wasted away. Finally the day came and we stood, eyes rimmed with tears, around the grave in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.

As we move through the cross of Good Friday to the tomb of Easter morning, I have no doubt that most, if not all of us, can share some similar story which has touched our life. It may not be a physical loss but instead the death of a relationship.  Perhaps it has been the yawning chasm of personal defeat in moral failure, the loss of a job, or struggle with a loved one.  Maybe it has been the intrusion of evil on either a personal or global level.  Whatever our own experience, Easter begins here.  In almost stark words, the Gospel of Matthew reports of the women, they “went to see the tomb.”

A colleague of mine has pointedly written: “If Christianity has no response to the suffering of the world, it isn’t relevant.  Or, as Monika Hellwig has said, if it doesn’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it isn’t good news” (William Willimon, Sighing for Eden, p. 159).

There is more to this story than simply a metaphorical tale. There is more to be said than just spring as sprung, or the trivial “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or just some nonsense about how “it will get better.”  The Easter journey first jolts to a stop at the cross.  Death is real.  Tragedies happen.  Evil stalks the earth.  The cross brings us to the tomb.

We are comfortable, oh so comfortable, with this story of the resurrection. And yet, to absorb its impact is to understand that here the earth and sky change places.  In the simplest terms, the mightiest enemy we know, death, is defeated; not only for one person but for all; not just long ago in a distance land but in all times and for all lands.  Dead bodies don’t usually rise, but this one did!  The rule and reign of the risen Savior starts at the tomb of Easter morning!  The earth shook because victory had been achieved over the hostile powers of sin and death.  The cross of suffering has been transformed into a cross of hope.  This good news of a Savior’s rising is flung into the world’s harsh rage and the paralyzing fear induced by today’s headlines.

Come to the triumphant truth of this day. Here is the good news of which we speak so glibly.  It’s more than simply a metaphorical aside.  It is a defiant triumphant statement about life’s final destiny.  It is our ultimate answer to this worlds tragedies (whether it is a terrorist act or shattering illness).  Sin and death, defeat and destruction are conquered by the risen Christ.  Oh, to be sure, they may still happen, but their word is not the final word.  It is not the lasting mark of the pitiless dark.  The dawn breaks on His rising.

The angelic promise encounters the divine answer in the person of Jesus. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9).  He is with us in triumphant glory.  In our graveyards, along the paths of life strewn with rubble and marked with struggle.  He meets us and is with us!

Here is the good news which we dare proclaim. Christ is risen indeed!

The Cross Connection ©

Here we are partway through Lent and I find myself coming back time and time again to what I like to call the cross connection – that is the way we are connected to the Lord at the foot of the cross. After all, whatever you think of the cross, it is a strange symbol for a faith that lifts up the triumphant love of God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The cross connection reunites us with the greatness of God. Here, at the foot of the cross, the relationship between Creator and creature is restored.  It is here, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus says “come, come back into a balanced life with me.”  The cross connection works in some basic ways.

First, it secures salvation. A faithful and righteous God cannot and will not glance away from sin and evil in dreamy irresponsible indulgence.  At the cross Christ suffers for our sin.  In classic theology this is called substitutionary atonement.  The word atonement can be understood if you just break it down into its parts – at-one-ment.  It means to be at one, reconnected, with God.  A restoration of the relationship with God through God’s self-sacrificial love.  God’s greater love breaks the great rebellion by stepping forward to pay the price.

Second, it places life back in balance demanding that we radically trust God and rely on the greatness of God. Think of the connection in this way.  It orders our priorities.  Life as it was meant to be moves in a relationship with God and in relation to those we love.  Through the cross connection those are first order things and the rest of the stuff – what we wear and eat and drink and all the paraphernalia of human accomplishment or lack thereof – follows in its proper subservient place.  It works when we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, [when we do so] … all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Third, it invites us to follow this Christ in picking up our cross in love for others. The cross  connection calls us to greater service following Christ.  This is our crowing joy and obedience in living.

Posted on the wall of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing site was the following written by an unknown author:

I said, “God I hurt.”
And God said, “I know.”

I said, “God, I cry a lot.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you tears.”

I said, “God, I am so depressed.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you sunshine.”

I said, “God, life is so hard.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you loved ones.”

I said, “God, my loved one died.”
And God said, “So did mine.”

I said, “God, it is such a loss.”
And God said, “I saw mine nailed to a cross.”

I said, “God, but your loved one lives.”
And God said, “So does yours.”

I said, “God, where are they now?”
And God said, “Mine is on My right and yours is in the Light.”

I said, “God, it hurts.”
And God said, “I know.”

It is at the foot of the cross, through the cross connection, that life comes back into its proper focus. Sheila Walsh, in her marvelous recording Hope, offers us this great truth in her song, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean.”

“On the mount of crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love like mighty rivers
Poured incessant from above
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”
(Sheila Walsh, Hope, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean,” verse 2)
May the cross connection lead us deeper into Lent.

The Way of the Cross ©

This week we are walking the way of the cross.  Across the globe Christians traverse the week we call holy in a spiritual and powerfully symbolic journey from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the cross of Good Friday.  It is both tempting and easy to forget the original impact and meaning of the cross.  It was the Roman instrument of death designed to be the ultimate deterrent and mark of degradation.

I keep remembering what Dr. Stephen Seamands shared with us on a “Clergy Day Apart” retreat a couple of years ago.  Giving advice both to preachers and hearers on the way of the cross – this annual Holy Week pilgrimage – Dr. Seamands wrote:

Since most modern hearers are largely unaware of that, we must be intentional in making what has become so familiar strange again, helping them recover the scandal of the cross (1Cor. 1:23). Here’s how Fleming Rutledge does that in one of her sermons:

Not even the celebrated film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, can convey the full ghastliness of crucifixion to a modern audience. We don’t understand it because we have never seen anything like it in the flesh. The situation was very different in New Testament times…. Everyone knew what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like – the horrific sight of completely naked men in agony, the smell and sight of their bodily functions taking place in full view of all, the sounds of their groans and labored breathing going on for hours and, in some cases, for days. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that no one cared.

We tend to associate the horror of crucifixion with agonizing physical pain – what Mel Gibson so vividly portrayed in his film. That was a major dimension, and it’s no accident that our English word excruciating is derived from crux, the Latin word for “cross.” Yet despite the unbearable physical agony, people in Roman times dreaded the shame associated with crucifixion even more. Since crucifixion was reserved for the dregs of society, outcasts, slaves, and common criminals, the fact that one was crucified defined him or her as a miserable, wretched being that didn’t deserve to exist. By pinning them up like insects, crucifixion was deliberately intended to display and humiliate its victims.  (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 56-57)

While the electric chair and the syringe have replaced it as an instrument of the death penalty, the reality of the cross is still around. We live with “little crucifixions” every day: dying by violence, religious and racial discrimination, the agony of the poor. So much of the world’s suffering is rooted in human failure: crimes of passion or greed, wars resulting from lust for power and domination, crooked governments, social injustices, humanity scourged by twisted motives.

In the biblical view the taproot of it all lies in human sin, a deep-seated egocentricity, a bondage to selfishness that separates us from God, from others, and from wholeness.  However distant in time, we know instinctively the way of the cross.

A profound transaction took place on Golgotha that day. There have been various theories advanced to explain that transaction. The great preacher William Quick has written, “Simply put, God revealed in Christ’s death His love for us and reconciled us to our Maker. Paul Tillich said, ‘The cross is the central manifestation of God’s participation in the suffering of the world.’ The Apostle Paul said, ‘He gave Himself a ransom for all.’  Perhaps Jesus put it best of all, ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down His life for his friends’” (“The Cross and the Crap Game”, Signs of Our Times, William K. Quick, pp. 74-5).

However we come to this week called Holy, it is to the cross we march.  Only through the cross can we arrive at the joy of Easter morning.  I absolutely love the way the great hymnist John Bowring puts it:

            In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head subline.

            When the woes of life o’re take me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.  Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(“In The Cross of Christ I Glory, Hymn No. 295, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal; words by Jon Bowring, 1825)

three-crosses