The Heartbeat

Frederica Matthewes-Green recounts this little morsel in her writings about this time of year: “It’s that time of year again, when school children are coloring pictures of Jesus hanging from a cross, and shop owners fill their windows with gaily colored cutouts of the Flogging at the Pillar. In the malls everyone’s humming along with seasonal hits on the sound system like “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” (did you hear the Chipmunks’ version?). Car dealers are promoting Great Big Empty-Tomb Size discounts on Toyotas.”

Oh yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Holy Week…

What, that’s not how we do this?

There is something quite ironic about the fact that the most important week in the entire church year is one that has perhaps the least celebration around it in the rest of the world. In fact, it is quite quiet. Holy Week steals into our realities almost as silently as the resurrection did, in the stillness of Easter morning. If we don’t pay attention, we’re going to miss it.

Yet without the events of the week ahead of us, none of us would be here. Yes, physically we might. But the Church wouldn’t be.

Christianity does not exist without the empty tomb. And the empty tomb does not happen without Golgotha. Everything comes down to what happens next.

It will be a big week for us at our particular church, with Sacraments and celebrations, egg hunts and trumpets blaring. There will be candle light and death bells, shadows falling and people shouting.

At the center of everything, though, is a heartbeat. A gentle thump. Thump. The one that breathes life into all of Creation. Thump. Thump. The one that moved as a pillar of fire and cloud in the desert. Thump Thump. The one that washed feet and broke bread and spread his arms. Thump. Thump… Thump… …

The Love of God is the center. Is the heartbeat. Come and find it again.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Our Foundation

This season we have been reading a children’s storybook version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe during Children’s Time in worship. It is one of the most important books that C.S. Lewis ever wrote and in one of the great ironies of his life – he did not originally intend it to be a Christian book. Yet, somehow, thanks perhaps the workings of a Spirit we all know and love, it is the most ingenious explanation of how to understand the meaning of Good Friday that exists.

Allow me to explain. Aslan. That majestic and powerful lion. If you have never quite understood who he was meant to represent, well, let’s see if you can guess in a few minutes. He is the true ruler of Narnia, that mystical land in which the story takes place. It is currently being run by an evil White Witch who has forced the land to live in a permanent state of winter, but never Christmas (can you imagine the horror). 

When the Pevensie children arrive, the Witch attempts to tempt and trick the younger of the two boys into betraying his three other siblings. Fortunately, he fails miserably in his attempt to hand them over and is recovered by Aslan’s forces. However, the Witch, because of her understanding of the law upon which Narnia was founded, believes that all who commit such crimes, breaking their relationships, belong to her. Their blood is her wage by right.

But Aslan steps in. He takes Edmund’s, the young boy’s, place. The Witch rejoices thinking that she has finally won everything because now the true King has died on the very table of the laws upon which Narnia was founded. Yet, when the Witch leaves, the Stone Table itself cracks. Aslan disappears, only to reappear with the dawn alive and explains: when one who is blameless freely gives their life for another, then even death itself shall overturn.

One guess who Aslan is now.

I have been showing my children the movie version of this story (2005) since they were babies on Good Friday, every year, because even if it gets dark at moments, when Aslan comes walking through those sun-drenched stones, my eyes fill with tears – just as they do on Easter morning. And I want my children to understand, more than anything, that God chose the cross, Christ chose the lay down his life, out of love. Love for them. Love for me. Love for all of us.

There is no more important week of the year than Holy Week. We would have no Church, no Christianity, no faith without the empty tomb. And we would have no empty tomb without Golgotha. This is the very foundation of who we are.

We love because he first loved us. Come and remember why, again. 

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Prodigal

Who do we choose to welcome?

That is what our Gospel lesson for this weekend asks. We will be reading one of the most famous and studied parables that Jesus ever tells: the Prodigal Son.

It is a story that many of us have heard before. A well-beloved tale partially because we all know what we think it means.

A father has two sons. The younger one asks for his inheritance early. Takes it to a distant land and spends it frivolously on dissolute living. When he finds himself starving and feeding pigs, he returns home to beg to become a servant in his father’s house. However, when his father sees him coming, he runs to the young man and embraces him. And when the son starts in on his prepared speech, the father stops him, calls in a servant and has his son taken in, cleaned, fed, and throws a party.

Then, when the older brother returns in from a long day of work on the farm, he asks one of the servants what’s happening. Upon learning the truth, he calls to his father, clearly disgruntled. His father’s response is twofold. First, he reminds him that everything he has already belongs to the older son. Then, he says that we need to always rejoice when one who has been lost comes home.

Two things to think about as we head into this weekend.

The first is the definition of prodigal. It means, in essence, “a ridiculous amount; extravagant or lavish.” It does not mean lost, contrary to what we have come to believe. So, see if you can answer this question: who was the true prodigal in this story: the younger son or the father? Why might that be important?

A second thing to consider is that renowned New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, one of my professors from Vanderbilt, would point out that the object of this parable is to learn how to choose wisely. Due to where it falls in Jesus’s teachings, he is trying to help his disciples learn what it means to follow in God’s footsteps. Meaning that though some of us may have been the younger son at some point in our lives, our place in this parable is as the older son. The one who has had everything. How will we respond as the prodigal father reaches out to this wayward child?

Just a few ponderings as we look together toward another step in our Lenten journey growing closer to Holy Week. See you soon!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Come and Rest

Last weekend was a rather entertaining anomaly in our Lenten season: the beginning of daylight savings time and a terrible snowstorm. I know better than many about the storm, because I literally ended up driving through it. Those who made their way carefully to our Sanctuary on Sunday morning for worship heard of Jesus wishing to draw all to himself as a hen draws her children beneath the cover of her wing. And how he called out those who wanted to kill him when they tried to scare him into line (good times).

This weekend, we will reach almost the mid-point in the season. Once we get past Lent III, we have two Sundays to go and then on the third, Holy Week begins. With this near half-way point, we find a wondrous, comforting passage from the prophet Isaiah that will be our focus:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat...
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.

I can almost hear the words of that old gospel song, you who are weary come home. It is a welcome and a rest for all who have need. A place to find restoration in the midst of our desert wanderings. Though we still must go to Jerusalem and face Golgotha, this week we find some respite. We find God calling to us with longing just to see us near.

So come to worship. Hear again of Christ’s deep love for us. Find what you need for the journey still ahead.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Be the Light

A year or two ago, a wise bishop from Argentina reminded his listeners that Lent is a time for us to overcome our indifference in concrete ways. Tangible ways. Real ways.

We have waited longer than normal for this particular Lenten season to begin. Yet now that we find ourselves here, we also know that our world is on the brink of something far more daunting than a simple forty days in the wilderness. 

Lent is a time of preparation, true. However that preparation is meant to be active. Intentional. In ways that seek God’s kingdom at work in this world here and now. To be the light as shadows start to fall.

It is becoming more common practice to use a sort of “reverse Advent calendar” during the season of Lent. In other words, to light candles for the Sundays and key days of the season and then extinguish or remove them as we come closer to Holy Week. To remind ourselves that as we draw near to Golgotha, the shadows will appear to win.

Because in our world the shadows often seem to win. 

Lent helps us to acknowledge this reality in our world. The hard parts. The messy bits. So much of what we are watching right now in the news.

It is so important to do this, because life is really, really difficult at times. Bad things happen. We cannot always stop them. 

But just like the events of Good Friday, what we hold onto is the ultimate, undeniable hope that we are not looking at the end of the story.

In worship on Sunday, before our Prayers of the People, I looked around our hallowed hall and reflected aloud that our Sanctuary has seen times like this before. Our church body has seen more still. Our God has walked with our people through those times and God has seen so many more times like now than we can count. What we hold onto is the grace and hope of God’s presence through all of this – the One who has stood the test of time.

And as we hold on, we become that grace and hope for others. 

We are seeing countless stories of people being light for one another right now. They are incredible. And if you wonder where God is in all of this – that is your answer. With those who are bearing true light and love into the shadows that are rising. 

You can do that, too. 

´╗┐So, here are some words from Isaiah 43 to give you courage for our Lenten journey ahead: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

God’s Big Show Sunday

From Episode VI

This weekend is what I lovingly refer to as “Star Wars Sunday”! Just kidding. Though I have been known to consistently make the joke that “Jesus transfigured before Star Wars made it cool” (see the picture for the explanation).

It is, in fact, Transfiguration Sunday. The final Sunday before the season of Lent begins. It is the day we remember that Jesus went up onto a mountain with some of his disciples and was there transformed before them into a figure in all white and they got to see not only him, but also Moses and Elijah. Pretty cool stuff.

And then, the disciples being the disciples, completely misunderstood the point of the exercise. They tried to put Jesus in a box on said mountain and keep him there looking all nice and shiny. Not what God had in mind.

You see, while we are meant to have moments of revelation that remind us of just how incredible our God truly is, they are not meant to hold us forever. Instead, they are meant to inspire us for our daily lives.

As many wise preachers have reminded us, our lives are not meant to be lived on mountaintops.

So, as we prepare our hearts and minds to move into one of the most important seasons of the church year, come to church to see God put on a real show – and find out why even the best in crazy pyrotechnics are not meant to last.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Above and Beyond

Given this weekend’s significance, it seems appropriate to share an old legend about old honest Abe.

It is said that during the war, he used to visit the hospitals in Washington, walking among the wounded and dying, trying to offer comfort where he could.

One day, a young soldier, on his very last legs, asked if he might help him to write a will and a letter to his mother. As pictures were not very common in those days, the older gentleman had obviously gone unrecognized. But he kindly replied that he had been a lawyer at some point in his career and would do his best. When he finished with both, he handed the letter over to the young man to sign and at the bottom it read, transcribed by Abraham Lincoln.

The soldier looked up and asked, “are you really the president?”

“I am.”

“May I ask one more favor of you?”

“Of course.”

“Would you stay with me until I fall asleep?”

And in the dim light of candles and oil lamps, the president held the hand of that dying soldier until he went to his eternal rest.

President Lincoln is said to have attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church during his time in office. And while I cannot know what precisely his preacher said in those days, I do know some of his source material.

This weekend’s passage is from one of Jesus’s most famous sermons during which he tells us that it is our job to go further. Not just to do what is right or good or acceptable – but to then go above and beyond. To do even more because that is what God has always and will always do for us.

So, for those of you still in town, come to worship and join us as we hear again Jesus’s own sermon on the plain.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Soup for Now

My friends, I want to begin this week by taking a moment to thank all of you who have so graciously called and texted to check on my family this past week and a half. My son’s case of Covid was blessedly mild and we are all looking forward to rejoining life as normal this weekend. We are grateful, as always, to be a part of such a loving and caring congregation.

This weekend is Super Bowl Sunday, which means something far more important in the life of the church: SOUPerbowl Sunday!

In 1990, a seminary intern in Columbia, South Carolina named Brad Smith (no relation), was saying a prayer at a Super Bowl party when he had a revelation: Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat. The first year they invited twenty-two churches in their area to collect canned goods and money around Super Bowl weekend and raised $5700, all of which stayed in their home community.

In the thirty-two years since, over $170 million dollars and food have been collected across our country, and have been distributed within the home communities in which they were raised. The SOUPerbowl of Caring has become the single largest youth-led mission weekend every year, inspiring so many people, both younglings and adults, to do remarkable good.

We have been collecting canned goods and other non-perishable items for the past two weekends, but this will be the final week – the fourth quarter, so to speak. We will also be accepting cash and check donations this weekend. And all proceeds will go to American Rescue Workers to feed the hungry in our community.

In many ways, this weekend’s food drive could not be more appropriately paired than with our passage for this weekend, which is about our calling to participate in God’s mission and work here on earth now. We are not to wait for a better tomorrow, but to work for it in our midst. Here is an opportunity to begin – and it’s as simple as buying an extra can of soup.

See you soon!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Better News?

My friends, we find ourselves in a very strange period of time. This specific February is unusual for some very particular reasons. 

First, we find ourselves in a remarkably long stretch of “ordinary time” before we head into the season of Lent. Now, normally in February we mark Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday as we begin the process of preparing ourselves for Holy Week. However, this year, we do not see even a glimpse of purple in the liturgy until March. And “ordinary time” can definitely leave us dragging when all we are wanting to do is find some sort of way to see time hopscotch forward.

Second, I think the pandemic is beginning to interact with us on a far more day-to-day basis now. With these new strains of the virus being so contagious, even the longest-standing holdouts are falling prey to the malady. What is more, all of us are desperate, desolate, discouraged, and disheartened every time we finally begin to make plans and that glimmer of expectation collapses into a John Deacon chorus.

So then, what do we do in this gloomy stretch of dust-filled, monotonous boredom? 

First, if anyone is needing a moment to actually revel in the pit of despair, I think it is fair to take it. It is okay to not be okay all of the time. Perhaps we should take this extra “down time” to give some space to those who need it to cry or scream or stomp or whatever will let out all those big emotions we grown-ups like to forget we actually have (kids haven’t learned how to suppress them yet).

Next, let’s take a look at where we actually are. Gloomy and shadow-filled – God is still there because there is no place where God cannot and will not be. Monotonous – God likes to show up during our regular, everyday lives and shake things up a bit when we’re least expecting it. Boring – could it be that it’s time for a nap and a snack like God often prescribes for the worn out prophets? And dust – well, our God is an expert at dealing with dust. In fact, our God does some of God’s best work with dust. Makes beautiful things out of dust. Human beings, for example. 

So, if we are in a place where God resides, will definitely stir things up, after we’ve taken time to have a rest and to rejuvenate, and God will raise us from the dust – what better news is there than that? 

Sometimes it’s a matter of turning your perspective around to see it, but hope is like the eternal flame. Even if it’s an ember dimly glowing, it’s still there. 

And God is still here. Still working. We will see what is happening in our midst in the coming days and into the coming months. Of that we can be certain.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Cliff Diving

This weekend we are journeying home with Jesus to Nazareth. In fact, we are going to his home family of faith. For weekly worship. Just imagine how proud they must all be to hear this son of their own synagogue who is making a name for himself.

What? They’re surprised to see him in this role? They still see him as a little boy? They try to push him off a cliff?!?

Yeah… Things don’t go overly well for our Messiah when he goes home. Nevertheless, we do get to hear the center of his call recited from the prophet Isaiah. That is always worth reading again.

More importantly, here is the part of the story that many of us like to forget: when we really start understanding the message of Christ, and more than that, when we really start following it – people can get really, really, really uncomfortable.

Maybe they won’t automatically shove us off of high places right away. However, they might start shunning us. Or shaming us into thinking we’re doing something wrong for caring about people. Or perhaps they’ll simply kick us out of house and home for living into a life we are meant to live.

You see, worrying about the vulnerable and the oppressed, the poor and the outcast, the overlooked and the undervalued – or even more importantly, seeking them out, including them, empowering them, truly loving them – that challenges the world’s value system. It pushes the status quo. It changes the dynamic and that can be quite scary for people.

Yet that is precisely what Christ was called to do. And did. And it is what we are called and meant to do, too.

See you in worship!

Blessings, Pastor Janie