On a chilly, rainy Tuesday afternoon last week, I officiated at the funeral service for Mrs. Sina Green. Had she lived another six months she would have been 100 years old. Mrs. Green was born when Woodrow Wilson was in the second year of his first term as President of the United States. The Boston Braves – later to become the Milwaukee Braves, now the Atlanta Braves – won the National League pennant in 1914. That year marked the beginning of World War I.
Though rain was pouring last Tuesday, Floyd’s Pacolet Chapel was at near capacity. Usually when a person lives to a ripe old age, attendance is limited.
Some years ago a ninety-five-year-old matron asked to meet with me to plan her funeral. She said, “There’ll be a lot of surprised people when I get to heaven.”
“Why will they be surprised?” I asked.
She explained. “My family and friends have been in heaven so long that by the time I arrive, they will have all assumed that I went to the other place.”
I doubt that anyone would think such a thing about Mrs. Green.
Many in the crowd that gathered in the chapel for her service were relatives and close friends. As they came into the chapel from the inclement weather, I asked, “What do you remember most about this lady?”
Without hesitation, many answered, “Her old-fashioned pound cake.” Read more…
Sermon: The Life of Jesus: His Death on the Cross
Text: Matthew 27:31-50
Our Scripture reading today comes from Matthew 27:31-50:
31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
This is the Word of God for the people of God today.
Something about Holy Week requires sleep deprivation. The Moravians enforce this. In Old Salem they stay awake all night long on Saturday night, marching through the streets with big brass bands, looking forward to gathering at God’s Half Acre Cemetery at Home Moravian Church and celebrating Easter as the sun rises.
A story in the Bible tells about the disciples who were too tired to stay awake with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Imagine. Grief will absolutely wear you out physically and mentally. It is Luke, the physician, who recognizes that the disciples fell asleep in the Garden because of their sorrow and exhaustion. I suppose that if Peter, James, Andrew, John, Thomas and all the others had known what Friday would hold, they would have decided to pull an all-nighter, much like college students do when they have a big exam.
Last night at three o’clock in the morning, our telephone rang. When I answered the phone our son Scott asked, “Dad, can you come to our house?”
I went. His mother-in-law, Carolyn Jolly, who is in Hospice House, is very close to death. He sent me a text this morning at 9:00 that said, “It won’t be long.” Scott needed me to come stay with our grandchildren, feed them breakfast, dress them, and take them to school. I did that, then went back home to take a nap.
I sat down in my easy chair and started listening to The St. John Passion, which I enjoy listening to on Good Fridays. It is a beautiful requiem, written by John Sebastian Bach who was responsible for the music at St. Thomas Church and also at St. Nicholas Church. He composed The St. John Passion, a moving piece, for a vesper service on Good Friday. Though it was written in 1724, it will get you where you need to be for Good Friday.
We sit here today and gaze at this cross before us. Think of the cross of Jesus. The great religions of the world all have an object of beauty as their central emblem. The eastern religions have a lotus flower. The Jewish faith has the Star of David. For Islam, it is a crescent moon, something shared with South Carolina of all things. The central emblem of the Christian church is a cross. It could resemble the brass cross above our baptistery or the wooden one we have used many years now in the Sanctuary during this season. The central symbol of our Christian faith is an instrument of execution. Jesus could have died by any method – lethal injection, a firing squad, or the gas chamber. He could have died like so many other Jews died in the gas chambers of Dachau and Auschwitz. He could have died in an electric chair.
My guess is that some of you are wearing crosses today. Can you imagine wearing a miniature electric chair around your neck? Thinking of the cross as an instrument of execution demystifies it, making us see it in all of its stark reality. Read more…
This column was published By the Spartanburg Herald-Journal last Friday under a different title. Today it is published on the blog for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
On Friday, January 17, 2014, friends and family gathered to celebrate the life of Bruce Cash in a funeral service designed exactly the way Bruce wanted it to be. Those who attended had a meaningful experience, remembering Bruce as a kind and faithful man whose life touched many others.
Bruce was my brother-in-law, married to my little sister Kitty. She is the youngest of eight; I am the oldest. When she was born, I was in junior high school.
Having a little sister is good for an older brother. I saw myself as her guardian, her protector, not as a parental surrogate. That role was strongly activated when Kitty began dating. I thought my responsibility was to keep the creepy guys away, which I did. We welcomed Bruce Cash into the Neely family, and I have thanked the Lord for him many times. Bruce was the perfect husband for my little sister and perfect father to their six children. Read more…
Last week Clare and I were going over our calendars.
I mentioned the Holy Week services scheduled for the church I serve. For Christians these days commemorate the events of the pivotal week in the life of Jesus. On Palm Sunday the children enter the Sanctuary waving palm fronds as the congregation sings a joyful hymn. On Maundy Thursday evening we share communion, remembering the last Passover meal Jesus observed with his disciples. On Good Friday at noon we gather for a devotional time in our Sanctuary. Easter Sunday is the most important day of the Christian year as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
Ever conscious of appropriate attire and accessories, Clare said, “I need to sort out my cross necklaces.”
She has several. One she received from her parents, when as a child, she joined the Methodist Church. She has a Jerusalem cross that I purchased for her when we traveled in the Holy Land. She also has a small reddish-brown cross on a simple ribbon given to her by family friends when she was a child. It is a fairy cross. Read more…
This morning I announced my plans to retire as Senior Pastor of Morningside Baptist Church. This is a decision that I have made over the past year and a half with much prayer and thought. June 10, 2014 will mark my eighteenth year as Senior Pastor of this loving church.
Morningside is in a strong, stable position. We have had modest membership growth over the past several months. We again finished last year with a surplus financially. We have a very fine staff in place. Our Full day preschool program is at near maximum enrollment. Many things are going well.
I know that now is the right time for the church and for me to make this transition.
My last Sunday at Morningside will be June 29, 2014 Read more…
Sermon: The Life of Jesus: The Tears of Jesus
Text: Luke 10:35-42
The logo for the Greek theater has twin masks – one of a smiling face denoting comedy and the other of a sad face denoting tragedy. For those of us who are Christians, a third option is no mask at all. What you see is what you get.
When we come to the life of Jesus, we see Jesus experiencing the full range of human emotions, a fact that we sometimes forget. We think of Christ as impassive, devoid of all emotion, placid, never angry or sad. That view fits the heresy known as Gnosticism, which states that Jesus was not really human, that he did not feel the emotions that you and I feel. That heresy is actually supported by the children’s Christmas song that states, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Do you think that line of the song is true? Have you ever known a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger or not, that did not cry? Every child I know cries. I am sure Jesus cried, too. As we enter Holy Week the Gospel accounts are intent on showing us clearly from the beginning to the end that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Read more…
Sermon: The Life of Jesus: The Turning Point
Text: Matthew 16:13-28
This week we continue our sermon series The Life of Jesus by considering a pivotal point recorded for us in Matthew 16:13-28. Hear now the Word of God.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
At the end of the 19th century Mark Twain was a little known journalist for a San Francisco newspaper. The local people knew him only as a young storyteller who had published one story at that time, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Twain convinced his publisher to let him take a trip across Europe and into the Holy Land. He agreed to send his publisher frequent letters, describing the places he visited.
Mark Twain accompanied a group of Episcopalians as he traveled through the Holy Land. They booked passage to France, went down through Italy, and into the Holy Land. Try to imagine this scene now. He and this group of tourists rode mules into the Holy Land, entering from Syria, coming down Mount Hermon, down from the Golan Heights, to a city called Banias. That is just right for a guy from Hannibal, Missouri, wouldn’t you say? Read more…