The Not-So-Secret Life of a Stiff: A Message for Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-12; I Corinthians 15

body farm 2Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely little woodlot on a hillside where people are seen lying in the sun or reclining in the shade as squirrels and other forest creatures play in the trees.

Stare at those people long enough, however, and you’ll notice that they never move. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat are lying down because they’re all very much dead — they’re cadavers sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition. They’re the lifeless bodies of people who have very nobly and generously donated their bodies to science after their death, and forensic science owes them a huge debt of thanks.

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The Singing Savior

Matthew 26:17-30

Rouault_Christ+His-DisciplesIf you do a Google search for images of Jesus, you’ll find almost an infinite number of pictures—classic pictures of Jesus preaching, Jesus with his disciples, Jesus dying on the cross, the risen Jesus coming out of the empty tomb. You’ll see images of Jesus crying and even Jesus laughing. But one of the pictures you don’t see (at least I’ve never seen one) is a picture of Jesus singing.

In many ways that’s a glaring omission. We see here in our text that at the end of the Passover meal, Jesus and his disciples “sang a hymn and went out.” As a Jew and as a rabbi, Jesus would actually have sung as much, if not more, as he taught and healed. In fact, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that all the events of Holy Week are wrapped in song.

The songs that Jesus sang were contained in the Psalms, the hymnbook of ancient Israel. We read them today, sometimes responsively, but in Jesus’ day the Psalms were always sung in worship and in the course of daily life. The Psalms express the range of human emotion and the depth of relationship with God. Unlike in our day, when the hymnal stays at church or the words are projected on a screen, first century Jews knew the Psalms by heart and they were always sung in community. The leader would sing a line and then the community would respond. During the last week of Jesus in Jerusalem, during the Passover, these songs became even more important, expressing the hope of the people for God’s salvation—songs sung with great expectations.

For example, as Jesus and his disciples came from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover, something they had likely done every year of their lives, they would have sung some of the Songs of Ascents. Going up from the Jordan River Valley to Jerusalem is about a 15 mile walk with about 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Pilgrims on their way to Passover literally “ascended” to Jerusalem, and there were psalms designated for the journey. Psalms 120-134 are generally considered to fit this mold, and while we don’t know what the tunes were, we do hear the joy the songs convey. Here is the beginning of Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”  Or Psalm 125: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.”

Cresting the Mount of Olives one could see the city and the Temple, which caused them to sing Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor build it in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

There were songs for being in the temple—Psalm 11, for example: “the Lord is in his holy Temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind…For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall see his face.”

But there were also Psalms to be sung at Passover. The “Hallel” Psalms, Psalms 113-118, were usually reserved for the high holy days and sung as a unit during the festival. Matthew doesn’t tell us what hymn they sang, but it probably came from this collection. Psalm 113 opens with praise: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” Psalm 114 recounts the story of the Exodus. Psalm 115 rejects idols and extols the greatness of God. But then there is Psalm 116—a Psalm of thanksgiving, but one that might have given Jesus and his disciples pause as they sang it: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!”

I wonder how Jesus looked at them as he led them in song. He had been telling them for quite some time that he was about to die. He had just told them again during the Passover meal. He had taken the bread and broke it, as was the Passover custom, but then he gave it a different meaning than they were used to: “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took the cup—one of the many cups of wine used during the meal. It could have been the cup of blessing, or the cup of suffering, but Jesus reinterpreted it to them as one cup containing both. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood offered for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”

As they sang the Psalm, did they catch the power of it? “I will lift the cup of salvation…Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Did they hear it again in Psalm 118, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”

After they sang this, they went out into the darkness. The disciples would have wondered where they were going. Jesus knew exactly where he was going. The echo of the songs off the stone walls of the upper room were still ringing as Jesus went out to his death—a death offered for his people, an answer to all their songs of praise and lament.

Indeed, this isn’t the last song that Jesus sang. The next day, he would be nailed to the cross and he would sing again, even as crucifixion squeezed the breath from him. We don’t always recognize it, but the words of Jesus from the cross are a Psalm—Psalm 22. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” No Israelite standing there would have missed the song—a song of deliverance from suffering and hostility. Here was the king, offering the first line to be sung. To sing it, was to sing the whole thing. His body broken, his blood being poured out, just as he had told his disciples the night before—this night—Jesus died with a Psalm on his lips.

But as with most of the Psalms of lament, this one ends with a word of hope: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

We come to the table with this song of hope on our hearts. We take the broken body and shed blood of Christ and we lift it up as a sign and a song—a song of remembrance, a song of worship, a song to be sung generation after generation. It’s a song we must know by heart, a hymn we sing near the end of every worship service that shouts at us to go and proclaim his deliverance to a people who don’t yet know this song of praise, this song of Christ.

Yes, Jesus sang. And he calls us to sing along.

The Church of Dominus Flevit – A Reflection for the Beginning of Holy Week

Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives in tears. What makes you weep?

Luke 19:41-44

rent a mournerIf you’ve ever been to a small funeral, you know that it’s always a bit more depressing than most. Whether the person has outlived most of his or her family and friends or they were simply not well known by others, having just a few mourners show up makes the service even sadder than usual.

A new business in the UK, however, has offered to rectify that situation. “Rent a Mourner” actually provides professional mourners at 45 pounds per hour that will come to a funeral and cry for the duration of the service in order to make it appear that the deceased was more popular than anyone knew. The mourners-for-hire are briefed on the life of the deceased so that they will be able to talk to family and friends at the funeral as if they had really known him or her. It’s a growing business with booking up 50% year on year, causing the company to expand to different areas.

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Be a Branch: Connecting to Spiritual Health

Third in a series on health and the Christian life.

To read last week’s sermon on maintaining a healthy inner life, check out my colleague Joe Iovino’s blog.  

This week’s text: John 15:1-11

Thomas_Bramwell_Welch

Thomas Bramwell Welch, 1825-1903

Thomas Bramwell Welch was a 17 year-old immigrant from Glastonbury, England when he joined a church of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion in Watertown, NY. The year was 1843, the same year that the church (now simply known as “The Wesleyan Church”) was formed. In the church’s Book of Discipline, the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion strongly opposed the “manufacturing, buying, selling, or using intoxicating liquors”, and “slaveholding, buying, or selling” of slaves.” The latter stand was part of the staunch abolitionist in the North leading up to the Civil War, but the former grew out of the church’s strong views on temperance and the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness and sanctification that goes all the way back to John Wesley.

As a youth, full of zeal for his Lord and his church, Thomas Welch took both of those Wesleyan convictions seriously. In his late teens he became very active in the Underground Railroad, transporting escaped slaves from the southern states into safety in Canada, continuing that work throughout the war. He graduated from seminary became an ordained Wesleyan Methodist clergyman at the age of 19 and, after the war and the end of chattel slavery in the U.S, he began to think of ways to address the Wesleyan church’s disciplinary requirement to only serve “unfermented wine” during Holy Communion.

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Maintaining Your Temple

Part 1 of the Lenten Sermon Series “The Jesus Prescription: Health and the Christian Life”

I Corinthians 6:19-20; Luke 7:18-23

gym in decemberOne of the interesting phenomena that happens every year, as sure as January 1st will roll around on the calendar, is that the local gym will become really crowded. People make their New Year’s resolutions, join the gym—be it the YMCA or another—and start going regularly. The machines have a waiting list, the group exercise classes are crowded, all with people trying to get in shape.

But, also like clockwork, the crowed suddenly thins out (pun intended) around the first of March. People who have been huffing and puffing for a few weeks start to get sore, and they find other things to do with their time. Oh, they will go to the gym occasionally, out of guilt, and still pay the monthly fee but, for many of them, what was once a good intention soon becomes a burden.

The gym is full in January because we all know that we need to get in shape. We’re reminded every day by the media that Americans are going soft in a way that our rugged frontier ancestors would not have understood. According to a government study, 80% of Americans do not get the required amount of exercise. As technological advances increase, we have been sitting more and doing other things less. When I was a kid, for example, you used to have to get up to turn the channel on the TV. Now it’s just a click away. Used to be that you had to go to the store to buy things, which involved a lot of walking about. Now you can order it in a few clicks and watch the UPS man get his exercise. We don’t even have to walk to the mailbox to mail a letter anymore. We just sit down and use email.

couch_potato_2047052But all that sitting is killing us. A study from the Mayo Clinic compared a group of adults who spent less than two hours a day sitting in front of a screen with those who logged more than four hours a day and found that those who sat longer increased their risk of death from any cause by 50 percent and their incidence of cardiovascular disease by 125%. Sitting for long periods can affect our organs, leading to a variety of diseases; it degenerates muscles, gives us foggy brains and bad backs, and softer bones. If our bodies are designed to be temples of the Holy Spirit, as Paul says in today’s New Testament lesson, then for many of us that temple could be marked “Condemned!”

It’s interesting that all of this is happening in a nation that is supposed to be culturally Christian. Christianity, after all, is an embodied faith. The very beginning of the Bible tells us that humans were created with bodies to reflect God’s glory to the world. God himself steps into the world in a human body in Jesus Christ. Jesus is raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion. Paul calls the church the Body of Christ. Being embodied is part of our creation in the image of God, and our bodies are to be used for God’s glory.

In our series on Romans, we read Paul in chapter 12:1-2 that presenting our “bodies” to God is our “spiritual worship.” We don’t often think of caring for the body as a spiritual discipline, but it certainly is. Our bodies have been uniquely designed by God for God’s purposes which include caring for God’s creation, serving God by serving others, carrying the good news of Christ to the world—we were designed male and female for the purpose of bringing forth families and relationships, filling the earth with God’s creative mission. When the read the Scriptures, you begin to understand that what we do with our bodies really matters.

But we don’t seem to act like it matters here in a nation that is ostensibly “Christian,” at least culturally. Maybe that’s because of our Platonist western heritage—a philosophy that values the spiritual over the material. Some Christian theologies can’t wait to get rid of the body so that the spirit can go to heaven at death and, if that’s the case, then why put any effort into caring for the body or anything material? Plato saw the body as a kind of husk that needed to be sloughed off in order to achieve spiritual bliss. Subconsciously, that philosophy seems to be embedded in our culture.

It’s a philosophy, however, that should never be part of the church. We began the church year at Advent celebrating the incarnation—the fact that God because flesh in Jesus. If God has taken the step of becoming human flesh, then that means that God values the body enough to become just like us in order to redeem us.

Indeed, one only need look at the ministry of Jesus to see how the human body and its restoration is a key part of God’s mission. In our Gospel lesson today from Luke, some disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask whether or not he is actually the Messiah. Jesus’ answer is telling: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22). For Jesus, the keys signs of the arrival of God’s kingdom were the restoration of humans—body and spirit together. Jesus’ ministry reflects this concern—healings, exorcisms, feeding people and eating with them, raising the dead—all of them aimed at making people whole again. He sent his disciples on long walks of their own in order to do similar works of healing, wholeness and restoration as in Luke 10 when he sends out the seventy to go to all the places where he himself intended to go. Jesus’ mission was an embodied mission.

jesus_feetThat also means, however, that Jesus took care of his own body so that his mission could be carried out. People in Jesus’ day didn’t do a lot of sitting—work had to be done just to survive. Crops had to be gathered, animals tended, trade work completed…and all without a single machine. Jesus was a contractor (whether in wood or stone, the text is ambiguous on this point), so he would have worked with his hands daily. I read one estimate that suggested that Jesus walked more than 120,000 miles over the course of his lifetime—most of which took place even before his three-year ministry. In a land and a time when the average life expectancy was about 35 years old, Jesus was a model of health.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus said that his disciples would do “even greater things” than him under the power of the Holy Spirit. The question is whether we will take Jesus seriously and give the Spirit something to work with. That’s Paul’s point in I Corinthians 6:19-20.

In this passage Paul is talking about the fact that our bodies are “members of Christ” (v. 15), which means we should not use them in ways that do not honor him. Sexual immorality, gluttony, sloth, and a whole lot of other things that break down the body are out of bounds. Instead, we should treat our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit” because, in fact (v. 19) your body belongs to God. “You are not your own,” says Paul, “for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.”

Taking care of our bodies is thus a spiritual discipline and as important as prayer, Bible study, and holiness to the Christian life. When we care for our bodies, we enable them to be better vessels to be used by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of God. After all, God gave those bodies to us for a reason and they require regular stewardship in order to be used effectively for God’s glory. Diet, exercise, rest, and medical care aren’t just good ideas—they’re essential for disciples!

This is something I really grabbed on to several years ago. After ten years in the Army National Guard, where I had to take a physical training test every year to keep my job, going into ministry I saw a lot of my peers who had devolved into unhealthy habits. Clergy gatherings are not something you would ever see on the cover of GQ or a fitness magazine.

So, I committed myself to getting stronger and healthier, first with a person trainer and then, when we moved here, with group exercise classes at the Y. I’ve come to realize that in order to me to be effective as a disciple of Jesus, to do those “greater things” he talked about, to manage stress and maintain my overall health, I have to stay in shape. It’s a discipline with me—three days a week of intense cardio and strength training with a group and heavier strength training on the days in between. I’m certain that I can’t do what I do without that regimen. It took awhile to become a habit, but now I can’t imagine NOT doing that routine each week.

I’m convinced that Christians should be among the healthiest people on the planet because we know we have a purpose. So, as we begin Lent and think about things we want to “give up,” I want to invite you to also consider adding something new—starting an exercise program if you’re not in one already, or taking another step up if you’re exercising regularly. The more we work exercise and a good diet into our lives, the healthier and more useful we will be for God’s kingdom.

To give you a few tips on getting started, I went to the Y this week and talked with Heather Jones-Proctor, who is the group exercise coordinator at the Y and one of the best (and the toughest) instructors there. Heather has taught me and many others about exercising with not only proper intensity, but proper form as well. I asked her if she had any advice for those who may be looking at starting or ramping up a program of diet and exercise. Here’s the interview:

Being a disciple means making stewardship of our bodies a priority in our lives—even while listening to sermons!  

You know it’s interesting that when Paul says “glorify God in your body” the “your” there is plural—like saying, “y’all” or “yins.” The call is not just to glorify God with our individual bodies, but to do so together as the body of Christ. I know that I do a whole lot better at the gym or at the table when I have a group of people holding me accountable and the same is true for the church, the body of Christ. Health isn’t just my responsibility as a disciple, it’s the responsibility of the whole community to help each other to health for the sake of God’s kingdom.

And if we’re doing our job right as the body of Christ, we’ll help others get healthy, too. Our Emergency Preparedness Group is a great ministry that’s focused on health and wholeness for people recovering from disaster. We promote health when we, like Jesus, seek to bring healing to those who are broken in mind, body, and spirit. Traditionally, this is who we’ve been as Methodists—people who reflect the wholeness and health of God’s kingdom to the world. It’s the Jesus Prescription for our physical health.

So, to sum up, this Lent I want to invite you to do two things for your health: 1) add a new health habit in your life—be it diet, or exercise, or preferably both and get a partner or group to help you maintain it, and 2) commit to helping someone else get healthy as well through acts of service and compassion. Walk in Jesus’ shoes for a bit over the next several weeks and see what it does for you and the world around you.

It’s a great way to to start maintaining your temple!