By Rob Woodrum

The God of Life and Love

The human condition is one that, all through our history, has desired to extend our existence behind this present life. In the ancient world, kings assumed that they could immortalize themselves by building great cities and monuments. The above sonnet by Percy Shelly illustrates the grand futility of such a pursuit. The sands of time have a way of grinding all our achievements down.

Try as we do, humanity can’t seem to pull off an extended existence. That reality has had a side-effect of cynicism that also traces its way through history – where the idea of any postmortem existence is dismissed. “This life is all there is, let’s eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.

We’ll be reading about a group of people, the Sadducees, who were themselves cynical of any notion of life after death. We’ll be reading Matthew 22:23-46.

The Sadducees pose a riddle to Jesus about a hypothetical conundrum which could occur in a resurrection of the dead in a case of levirate marriage. It’s a silly question – and Jesus seems to give a dismissive answer – but in reality, he uses the situation to express an important truth about God’s purpose with humanity. What is the emphasis of v32? What does that tell us about God’s intentions for those who will believe him?

After the Sadducees fail, the Pharisees send in a lawyer. Not that kind of lawyer – but one who was an expert in Jewish law. He asks a very common question debated by the rabbis throughout the history of Israel. What commandment is of supreme importance to God? In Jesus’ answer – what priority to we discover? How does his tethering of the WHOLE law to these two commandments reveal what God’s primary interest is for us as his followers?

In what ways do you find Jesus’ answer comforting? In what ways do you find it challenging? How can we more faithfully embrace and express the primacy of love?

Looking forward to exploring this together on Sunday! See you then!

The Kingdom Party

Image result for extravagant little mermaid birthday party

When my kids were all in grade school and younger, we lived across from a neighborhood that was way above our means. When our oldest daughter made friends in school, the inevitable birthday party invites went out. My wife and I were stunned at how elaborate and grand the parties were for kids from that neighborhood. Fully themed Little Mermaid extravaganzas were in vogue then, as I recall. The cost of one of those parties probably matched my yearly income.

What is the biggest, most elaborate party you’ve ever been invited to? Did you enjoy yourself or was it challenging to be there?

No matter how big the party was that you attended, I can guarantee it didn’t hold a candle to ancient royal feasts. They were known to last up the 10 days. Even into the medieval period, England and France threw a joint party that lasted for 17 days in a huge field, where everyone was given coats woven with silk and gold.

This Sunday we’ll read a story told by Jesus about a party thrown by a king who gets snubbed. It’s a curious story, not without it’s critics. We’ll be reading Matthew 22:1-14.

Who do you believe the king is in this story? Who is the son? Who do you believe the people snubbing the invitation represent? Who do you think the replacement invitees are? If you said, respectively, “God, Jesus, the Religious Leaders, the church”, you would be in the company of the majority of those who interpret this parable. I agree with them too. There are other views about who is representing whom, but they aren’t as convincing to me, given the context and theme that has been rolling along since chapter 21 began.

Jesus compares the kingdom of God to an elaborate party. How does that fit within your pictures of what God’s kingdom is like? How does it match up with images of people with wings sitting on clouds and playing harps? Which is more appealing to you?

The story is a metaphor – so what do you think the king’s reaction to the people who snub his invitation and kill his messengers represents?

What was the criteria for the second group of people being invited to the party? What made them candidates for entry?

How would you interpret the last part of the story – the guy who is under-dressed and gets tied up and thrown out? What do you suppose this metaphor is representing to us about our invitation to God’s party? How might Galatians 3:27 help you imagine what this part means?

Just some stuff to ponder – hope to see you on Sunday!

 

For Display Only

Image result for for display only

Ever start to pick up a perfectly beautiful piece of fruit to take a bite, only to realize that it’s made of plastic – a prop, for display only. I have a frustrating story to share on Sunday about things that are for display only when you’re trying to purchase something. That’s one kind of frustration. A religion that is for display purposes only is another kind of frustration. That’s going to be the theme of our study this week.

This Sunday we’ll be returning to our study in the book of Matthew, reading chapter 21:18-32.

In v18-22, we see Jesus do the only destructive miracle in the entirety of the gospels. Do you think this fruitless tree was just something that irritated Jesus and he lashed out…or do you think there was something else being communicated in this? If this were a living parable being acted out for his disciples – what do you think the message is?

The following account actually gives examples of what the message of the fig tree was. Jesus has yet another conflict with religious leaders – albeit, the chief priest is now involved. This is a first in an escalating opposition to Jesus. The question of authority is posed – “who do you think you are Jesus, emptying out the temple like that?”. There is no answer Jesus can give that won’t put him in immediate danger.  Jesus turns the tables on them by posing a question that is impossible for them to answer. What were the religious leaders afraid of when it came to answering the question? What does that tell us about the motive for their spirituality?

The parable of the two sons spells it out in a pretty straightforward way. If you were to sum up the lesson of the parable, how would you word it?

Looking forward to jumping back into our study this week! Hope to see you Sunday!

An Explanation of Holy Week

This week is called Holy Week in most church traditions. The first Thursday after Palm Sunday is observed as Maundy Thursday. People sometimes tilt their heads in perplexity when they hear the title Maundy Thursday, because they think one’s trying to say “MONDAY Thursday”…which makes no sense. But it’s not Monday, it’s Maundy (mawn’-dee). Of course, that makes no sense either. What is a “maundy”? You know what’s really fun? It goes so far back that we don’t know precisely where that term originated or its precise meaning. Many scholars believe that this word came down to us after passing through Old English and Old French transliterations of the Latin word “mandatum”, which is the first word in the sentence: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos

There. That clears it up.

Unless you don’t know Latin. The above phrase reads: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Jesus’ new commandment, or mandate – mandatum, given at the Passover Meal he ate with his disciples, and which he re-purposed for the New Covenant.

So, another way of naming this holy day could be Mandate Thursday – the day on which Jesus celebrated his final Passover and instituted the sacrament of communion and gave his great commandment – that we love one another.

This Thursday at 6:30pm we’ll walk through the Passover with Jesus and his disciples – with our eyes, ears and taste buds. We want to be there in that upper room.

The Friday before Easter is called Good Friday – the day that commemorates Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Some have questioned why we’d call it good Friday when so much bad happened. Remembering what was said last Sunday helps with this: “The disciples thought God was losing. They stood witnessing the greatest victory in history, and thought it was a loss. They saw the forgiveness of all humanity’s damning sins, and they wept and despaired because they had lost the plot, they confused a governmental victory for an eternal victory.” The historic events that took place that day were, indeed, horrifying. But the glory that resulted from his sacrifice makes this not just a GOOD Friday – but the greatest and the best Friday of all.

This Friday at 6:30pm we will have a Good Friday service of worship and a live art project with interactive elements which remind us of what Jesus has done for us in his death on the cross.

Saturday is traditionally a day of prayer and fasting in anticipation of Easter. We’re inviting everyone who’d like to, to join in to prayer and fasting (skipping a meal or two, or however God may direct you). I’ve written three prayers – morning, noon and evening – to help guide you in prayer if you need it. You can get them here: COMMUNITY PRAYERS 2017

Easter is the big day! N.T. Wright says in his book Surprised by Hope:

“[Easter] ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after Morning Prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simple the one-day happy ending tacked onto forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in the Church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system. And if it means rethinking some cherished habits, well, maybe it’s time to wake up. That always comes as a surprise.

…we should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind. This is our greatest festival. Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins. We shouldn’t allow the secular world, with its schedules and habits and para-religious events, its cute Easter bunnies, to blow us off course. This is our greatest day. We should put the flags out.”

At Eastgate, we “put the flags out”. We start with our sunrise service at 6am on the beach (at Seltzer Park). The Sunrise Service is the Protestant version of the Catholic and high church’s Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil lasted all night until sunrise – but Protestants in the 1700’s seemed to prefer just waking up early to re-enact what happened on the day that Jesus rose from the dead. I kinda’ like that better too. To me, there’s nothing like gathering in the pre-dawn light, in that cool salt air, to joyfully announce, through prayers, songs and liturgies, that death ain’t what it used to be! Jesus is alive!

Then we bust loose at 10am in the courtyard in front of our Eastgate building. We just don’t want to be contained within four walls when we celebrate something of this magnitude! We want to to shout it out in the open, JESUS IS ALIVE, he’s making ALL THINGS NEW! We incorporate joyful music, kid’s performances, artwork, story telling, beach-balls, party poppers and bubbles into our celebratory worship! If you come, bring a lawn-chair or a blanket. Then we EAT! We have a potluck lunch – our meager imitation of that great wedding feast we anticipate, when our risen Savior brings heaven and earth together, forever.

I’m gettin’ pretty stoked just thinking about all this! Hope you are too!

He is RISEN!

He is RISEN INDEED!

 

The Merciful Reign

Okay – so, we’re going to be reading Matthew 20:29-34 this Sunday – and instead of my normal post, I thought I’d upload a chapter from Rabbi Encounters that recounts the story (although, it’s actually from Mark’s account – so there’s only one person instead of two). Anyway – enjoy, and be thinking about God’s mercy revealed in this text.

Click the link to read more of Rabbi Encounters.   See you Sunday!

Power and Greatness Reimagined

Image result for drawing looks different when upside down

The drawing above is a classic “upside-down illusion”. The image on the top shows a giant bird clutching a man in it’s beak. However, turn the drawing around and it is an image of a man in a canoe observing a great fish. One of the important features of Jesus’ teachings is that he has persistently turned our pictures upside-down – not to be a contrarian jerk – but in order to show us how the world was really meant to be seen.

The passage we’ll be reading this Sunday are another one of Jesus’ image flips. We’ll be reading Matthew 20:17-28.

In v17-19, Jesus gives his third prediction of what fate awaits him in Jerusalem. This forecast is the most explicit, even including the detail of flogging and crucifixion. Based on the section that is coming up, we know that the disciples don’t get what he’s talking about. They are still assuming Jesus will be taking up a sword, assembling an army and overthrowing the powers that be. Instead of that, Jesus predicts his own death. Based on that, what do we understand the greatest expression of God’s power to be? From Sydney Carton to Harry Potter, humanity seems to intuit the power of self-sacrificial love. How does this impact the mission of the church? How should it define our main activity?

After Jesus gives this revelation, two of his disciples, Jimmy and Jack, get their mom to ask for special privileges when Jesus ascends his throne. Given what he’s just described his throne to look like, they really have no clue what they are asking for.

Jesus uses this as an opportunity to describe how authority is expressed and greatness is revealed in God’s kingdom. Again, he’s turning the picture upside-down and showing the image we were intended to see all along. What do you think it looks like when the greatest among us are the servants? How can a person exercise authority by serving? In what ways does this go against the grain of our normal understanding and aspirations for status and significance in life?

I won’t kid you – this will be a challenging study, but one that I believe is vitally important to our Christian maturation. Hope to see you Sunday!

 

 

Grace and Rewards

Image result for fox huntingN.T. Wright, in his “Everyone” commentary on Matthew, shares a story, in typical British fashion, about a fox hunt he had witnessed as a boy (this is not to endorse such a thing, just his account). He described the riders in red coats atop of fine brown horses that blew trumpets and led the way for hunting dogs and riders who were less dashing on more humble horses. As they charged around chasing the fox, the clever animal hid in the bushes and back-tracked after the riders had all passed him. Suddenly, those at the back of the procession looked back to the hill they had just come from and saw the fox behind them. They blew their own trumpet to turn the group around, and suddenly those who were on humble mounts were at the front of the pack, while those on the fine horses were bringing up the rear.

He used that as an illustration of how God, in a very fox-like way, turns the pursuits of life and faith around so that the ones we assumed had it all are suddenly the ones needing to catch up. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. That’s going to be a concept we’ll be considering in our study this weekend.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 19:27-20:16 – which includes a parable that is unique to Matthew’s gospel. It is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

In chapter 19, Pete asks the question that is basically “after sacrificing all we had to follow you, what’s in it for us?”. Jesus does promise a reward to him, but where is it centered, according to v28? Some believe Jesus is speaking literally in his promise of a hundred-fold return of lands and…mothers, etc. What is missing from that list he gives? How does that fit with those who promise a 100 times greater return on your offerings to their ministry? Given the context of v28, what do you think the first/last dynamic is intended to teach us?

In chapter 20 Jesus tells a story about a rich landowner who hires day laborers to pick grapes during the vineyard’s harvest. The story is unsettling in it’s economic implications – but what about it’s spiritual ones? What reason does the landowner give for paying everyone the same amount? What do you believe that is teaching us about our pursuit of spiritual and eternal rewards and the actual source of it?

In v12, what is the chief complaint about the identical pay-stubs everyone had? What does this tell us about the self-perception of the complainers? In v 15 when it says “Or do you begrudge my generosity?”, it literally is asking “why do you give my generosity the evil eye?” Many, if not most, translations read a variation on “are you envious because I’m generous?”. What would the complainers be envious of? They received what they agreed on as a wage. Justice was done…but something else was added – what? Some think its hard to tell from the transcript what the object of the envy is. Some think that they are envious and angry at the landowner. What would they be envying about him?

I find this whole story to be fascinating…hope you do too! See yez’ on Sunday!