Holy Week

United

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I have discovered what unites Christians. I have uncovered the long-buried secret that will band Christians together, that will make them move as a single family, that will bond them. Oh, it is no gimmick, and it is no leadership tactic. It’s not a program and it’s not a new sermon style.

It is the cross.

I have nearly two separate churches in the same building. The morning rarely seems to acknowledge the evening exists, and the evening is quite content to remain in the evening and not interact, for the most part. I feared mostly that the morning discounted the evening. One person had even said they didn’t count, mostly for monetary reasons.

But this week… this week has united us.

It began Thursday. We celebrated Maundy Thursday, the day that Jesus gave a new command – that we love one another. We also celebrate the founding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. And on that day, a regular visitor who came to Refresh was confirmed. He had studied what we teach and proclaimed it to be his faith. He joined us as a member, and that night, he joined us in Communion for the first time.

The evening ended with the “Stripping of the Altar,” a tradition I introduced to the congregation. Every movable piece of furniture is taken from the altar area, until the altar is left alone and bare, just as Jesus was abandoned and alone on that first Thursday night of the first Holy Week. Several individuals assisted me: Two councilmen, a mother-son duo (the son is in first grade), and two young men from the evening service. Two different worlds, united to serve at the foot of the cross. When I thanked each one individually after the service, the response I got was, “Anytime, pastor. Just ask.”

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Thursday night the congregation was divided nearly equally between evening and morning. And they blended together in marvelous ways – united by worshiping at the feet of the Savior who served them.

Friday night the wonder continued. Good Friday here does not allow much fellowship; we enter and leave in silence in this one very special service as we commemorate our Savior’s death. We did not have as many from the usual Sunday evening crowd at this service, but they were still well represented. Once again, the people gathered around the Word. They gathered to worship the Savior who bled for them.

And tonight. Oh, tonight!

We moved the Sunday evening service to tonight. I knew there was no way after Holy Week I’d have any steam left to lead a Sunday evening service. Instead, we held an “Easter Vigil.” We waited by the tomb after Jesus has died, considering his promises to us. It was a service in the style of a Sunday evening service – so much more laid back, with discussion throughout – but held in the sanctuary and with more ceremony than they were used to. In other words, it was nearly a hybrid service. This is the first time we’ve ever performed such a service.

We had nearly all the normal attenders for Sunday evening, and about the same amount of Sunday morning people came. Through all the “unusual” elements, they worshiped.

And what united them?

Oh, it was not me. There was no charismatic leadership here. And it was not some mysterious “new service” that brought Christians out to sate their curiosity. It was no gimmick.

They came to worship the Savior who died for them.

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And afterward? Afterward, men and women leaped into action, preparing the sanctuary for Easter morning. Take the black cloth down from the cross; put up the white! Bring on the flowers! Change the paraments!

And once more, though the Sunday evening crowd knew not what to do… all worked together. Learning names. Laughing together and considering whether this flower looked better here or over there.

United not by simple service, but by serving their Savior, who lives again for them.

We are not even to Easter yet, but God has poured such blessings onto this congregation. He has united us around Word and Sacrament. He has brought us together, not simply into a family, but into His family.

And I stand back. I didn’t do this. He did.

And what God has begun, he will bring to completion. I may not see that completion until heaven. I may have no clue what that completion looks like. But this is the Savior who bled, died, and lives for me. How could I not trust him? His mercies are new every morning.

Friday night ended with reproaches. Our service ended with God laying out our need for repentance. Part of that service includes the congregation begging God for mercy.

And last night it struck me.

I am Scar.

At the end of The Lion King, Scar has destroyed the Pride Lands. The rightful king, Simba, returns, and the two battle. Scar had murdered the previous king and thought Simba dead . When Simba learns of Scar’s betrayal, Simba attacks – and Scar ends up on his back, defenseless, as Simba holds claws to Scar’s throat.

And Scar begs, “Mercy, Simba! Mercy!”

Simba has no reason to give it. Scar has earned death. He is the villain of the piece.

And Simba lets him go. As Scar slinks away, he throws burning coals into Simba’s face and attacks again. In the end, in defense, Simba kills Scar.

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How often have I been Scar? How often have I stood at the foot of the cross, convinced of my sins, the claws of the Law at my neck, and I know God would be right to destroy me?

And I beg “Mercy.”

And God gives it. I slink away – only to return to my treacherous ways. How often have I attempted to steal God’s property? How often have I made the ministry here about me? How often have I stolen his glory and thought it was my responsibility to get people in here, to grow the church, to get them to listen? How often have I complained about the gift God has given me of serving him here? And how often have I repented of my sinful pride, of stealing God’s place?

Mercy!”

And here God reminds me: Here is the price of my sin. And he gladly paid it.

And here God reminds me: He is in charge of this congregation. Do you see, my child, as I call my own to worship?

And here God reminds me: This is all his, and I merely steward.

Mercy!”

And here I, too, am united with the congregation I serve. Here, too, I come to fall at the foot of the cross. I, too, cry out “Mercy!”

And I, too, receive the mercy I should not have. I, too, am washed of my offenses. I, too, stand and marvel at the cross.

Because that is what unites me with my people. It is not my service to them… but His service to us.

It is the cross.

And tomorrow… oh, tomorrow, the empty tomb!

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Holy Week Hell

If the devil can steal Jesus from a church, he wins. One of the easiest ways he can do that is to drive the Pastor away from Jesus, particularly during those times when the most people are naturally thinking about church – like, say, Christmas and Easter. There’s a reason that Christmas and Easter are just insane with people inside a church saying, “Oh, we have to do this! We have to do that!” whether or not God’s Word says we must do anything. If the pastor is so busy he loses Jesus, Satan wins. If the pastor is too drug down by the woes of this world, he has such a hard time pointing to Jesus.

They warned us at Seminary that anything that can possibly go wrong during Holy Week – the week that started today, Palm Sunday, and runs through Easter a week from today – anything that can go wrong this week, will. Expect it.

For an average pastor, Holy Week is already insane. An average Lutheran pastor will have to prepare worship for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and sundry services Easter morning. Considering it takes me ten to fifteen hours of time – easily – to write and memorize a sermon, three sermons in a week is a lot of work.

But then you throw in additional weights: I get to preach a Christian victory service – you may know it as a funeral – for a man I’ve served since arriving here. It is an honor to serve him in this way. It is also additional work in an already busy week.

I get to lead a chapel devotion at a local Christian school. Again, an honor – but an additional weight in a busy week.

There’s numerous things in the church I need to take care of, or at least oversee. Yes, ok, we’re set for Easter breakfast. Yep, we’ve got someone lined up for projector in the many services. Choir looks to be all ready!

All that is important work, and while the funeral will certainly be emotional, it will be a good emotional.

But now the actual weights start coming in. Things that aren’t just “busy but things we can do,” but things that burden the heart and make it hard for me to get up. (more…)

But It’s Hollow

Thursday night was Maundy Thursday. At the end of worship, we stripped the altar. This means, as the congregation watched, I took one item from the altar at a time and handed it to an usher. In a slow and dignified manner, soon nothing sat on the altar. Paraments (the cloths that hang off the altar). Bible. Bookstand. Candles. Cross. Everything left, leaving the altar bare and alone, just as Jesus was left bare and alone as he was betrayed and every single friend abandoned him.

It may sound strange, but it is incredibly emotional to see the altar, usually beautifully adorned, stripped of its glory and left alone. As the congregation dispersed, there were more than a few wet eyes. Every single woman who left the service hugged me — they needed that contact after seeing this grief. The ushers told me they were fighting tears even as they bore the instruments away.

And me? I felt… nothing. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. It was a sad event. But the power seemed empty to me.

Last night was Good Friday. We observed an austere celebration of the sacrifice of the Lamb. We focused on the seven things Jesus spoke from the cross. The choir sang the burial. We left in silence.

Once again, the congregation was somber on their exit. Downcast eyes. Sniffling noses. More hugs.

And again… the power didn’t lay on my heart like a weight.

I’ve been considering this. These were the first two days of the Triduum — the most holy three days of the year. Usually I get very involved. But “usually” I’m not a pastor. Usually I’m not concentrating on moving from place to place, thinking of what must be done next. Usually I’m not presenting God’s Word. Usually I’ve not worked on these passages for weeks ahead of time to be able to proclaim them effectively. Usually I’m not watching to make sure everything goes smoothly so the congregation isn’t unduly distracted.

And so… this is part of the price of being a pastor. I wrote the rough draft of the Easter sermon a week ago; I’m working on it today and will have it memorized well before our festival service tomorrow. And that takes away from the “surprise” of Easter for me. Tomorrow will be joyous, yes. It will be a high festival! But the “surprise” of it will be gone.

It’s a good thing the power isn’t in the emotion. It’s a good thing that my heart is not the measure of effectiveness. No, the power is in God’s Word.

I got to proclaim God’s Word Thursday night. Awesome.

I got to proclaim God’s Word Friday night. Awesome.

And tomorrow? I get to proclaim God’s Word again!

And that means that none of it is hollow, despite what my heart tells me. God’s bigger than my heart. Good thing, too.

Unless It Dies

John 12.20-33 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

27 “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

 

Unless it dies

  1. Unless Jesus dies.
  2. Unless you die.

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