Resurrection!

Easter Sunday begins early in these parts. The ministerial gets together to lead a Sonrise Service – a tradition that goes back 50 years, as of this morning.

We awake in the dark and make our various ways up to the top of Centennial Hill in Etobicoke. At the moment of the official sunrise, we begin the service – with readings, hymns and responses, we remember that our Lord lives. And the idea that that which binds us together is eminently stronger than that which separates us, is embodied in our shared worship.

It was a soggy morning on the hill, this morning (so much rain yesterday!!), but it was also so much warmer than last year. There was just the faintest touch of sunrise amidst the clouds at the horizon, but the light of Christ shone in our hearts and showed on the faces of those who gathered.

At 10:30am, at Graceview, we gathered for a joyful resurrection service. The hymns, the scriptures, the chocolate eggs hidden among the pews, the prayers and the joyful presence of faithful followers of Jesus combined for a wonderful, uplifting service (if I do say so myself!).

I cannot imagine what my life would be without my faith. I’m not going to tell you that life is always perfect and I easy – I struggle with difficult days just as much as anyone else. But the joy and certainty I have found in Jesus, the love that he showed by laying down his life for me, the reminder that because He lives, I too shall live… these things are beyond precious to me, and they give me the strength to face the bad days with the hope of better days to come.

My prayer is that you, too, would celebrate this day. That you would know that you are loved more than you could ever know, by someone who died to know you. And that the light of that love would shine, even on your darkest days.

He is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Happy Easter, and God bless you!

Silent Saturday…

As hard as Good Friday is, the Saturday of that first Holy Week was harder. The disciples were in hiding. Their rabbi was dead. Everything they had worked for in the previous years a seemed to have crumbled to dust.

If they could remember, Jesus had told them that this would happen. That he would die, and then rise again. But even though they had seen him work miracles, even though Peter had declared him Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the trauma of his suffering and death was too much. They were overwhelmed and in despair.

They didn’t know the end of the story, the way that you and I do. They didn’t know that in a few short days, he would once again be having breakfast with them on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

We call it Silent Saturday because the scriptures don’t say anything about what happened on the Saturday. All we can do is imagine, and infer from what the Scriptures tell us about the Sunday.

For me, this Saturday has been far from silent. I have spent most of it in solitude (with my dog, whose quiet companionship is always a blessing), preparing for tomorrow’s Easter services. But I have noticed how the world was full of sound. It poured rain for most of the day, and the sound of tired hissing over wet pavement was constant. Around 5pm the rain stopped and we got a little bit of sunshine. Koski and I went for a short walk, and I heard the call of birds, something that always seems louder in springtime. I have noticed how the world is hoeing green again, and people are coming out of their winter hibernation.

The earth is coming back to life. And it is almost time for us to celebrate our risen Lord.

Forgiven.

I fell asleep before I could get a blog written for Maundy Thursday. But that is ok. At Graceview we observe Maundy Thursday – the night of the Last Supper – and Good Friday in the same service.

We read through the entire narrative, beginning with the Last Supper and continuing until Jesus breathes his last. We take communion by intimation and at the end of the sermon, everyone gets up and comes to the cross. Last year we placed cards at the foot of the cross. This year, we brought crosses made from the palm branches we had waved on Palm Sunday.

We remembered that we are to weep for the disease of sin that made it necessary for Jesus to sacrifice himself to save us. Jesus is the remedy for our sin. Though his suffering tears at our hearts, we cannot regret what He did for us. We can only regret what we’ve done.

By his winds we are healed. Through his death we are given new and eternal life. Because he bore our sins in his body on the cross, we are forgiven.

Thanks be to Jesus. Thanks be to God.

Authentic…

Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
‭‭Luke‬ ‭21:37-38‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

In the last days of his life, Jesus could be found teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem.

This seems like a mundane detail. Something we might easily overlook as we read the scriptures. But it’s important.

It’s important because when one takes a trip to Israel, you can go to the site of the Temple. And there you can stand upon the Southern Steps, which were the only way in and the only way out of the Temple for the masses. Often, Rabbis would gather on the Steps with their students, to teach them about how to live the good life – in faithful obedience to God.

The fact that the Scriptures place Jesus at the Temple (more than once in his life), means that we can be certain he was on those steps. We know he was there, right there. And that makes the Temple Steps one of my favorite places in Jerusalem. A place where I have twice laid my hand alongside my parents’ hands – touching the place where Jesus was. This past year, I laid my hand on those steps with a number of my congregants from Graceview. It is a powerful place.

But this is also an important part of the Scripture because it makes the point that Jesus wasn’t hiding out during his last week. He was aware of the plotting against his life. But he lived boldly, knowing it would cost him everything.

My friend, the Rev. Jacqui Foxall posted this on Facebook today:

That was the thing about Jesus – he was authentic. He knew what God was asking of him, and though he might have wanted to – he never wavered from that purpose.

It cost him everything, but it also secured salvation for countless followers throughout the ages. Amen, and amen.

My parents and I with our hands on the Temple Steps in 2017:

My faithful group of Graceview pilgrims, laying their hands on the Temple Steps with me, this past February:

Righteous anger…

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.

He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Matthew‬ ‭21:12-13‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

This is what happened on the Monday of Holy Week. It’s a passage that often troubles Christians. Jesus seems angry and passionate. We prefer him meek, mild, gentle and calm.

All my life I’d heard this passage used to explain why we shouldn’t sell things at church. And that bothered me, because often the things being sold benefited the church itself or other charities.

I was glad when I read Bruxy Cavey’s book, The End of Religion. Bruxy explained that this wasn’t about whether or not one could sell things to raise funds for those in need. He explained that the money changers and those selling the doves had a bit of a racket going on – the Jewish people would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. As part of their worship they would make a sacrifice – a dove or another animal. They could, of course, bring their own dove from home. But those selling the doves had a deal with the Temple priests. The priests would reject the dove brought from home, saying that the dove had a blemish and therefore was not fit for sacrifice in the Temple. Then the pilgrim would have to go outside and buy a new dove – at a premium, of course. And in order to buy the dove, they would have to exchange their money at the money-changers tables…at a higher exchange rate, of course. (The priests would get a kick-back from the profits made by charging premiums.) Often the premiums charged by the money-changers and the dove-sellers meant that the pilgrim could not afford the dove and they would have to chose not to worship.

The point, Bruxy explained, was that people who faithfully sought to worship God were turned away – simply because they were not rich enough to play the game.

If you want to see God angry, stop someone from being able to worship him.

This makes sense to me – I can understand Jesus getting angry and passionate about a system that callously makes it harder (and in many cases impossible) for people to be in relationship with God. I can understand him saying that the money-changers and dove-sellers were turning the house of prayer into a den of robbers. They were robbing the people (especially the poorest of the people) of their chance to enter the house of prayer.

It would be akin to charging a rental rate on the pews in our sanctuaries on Sunday morning. And turning those away who couldn’t pay.

God has always been for the alien, the outcast and the widow – those who, just by being who they are, have a hard time belonging and making a way in this world. God has always been against power structures that victimize the poor. And even more so, when those power structures are found in places that are meant to be houses of prayer.

Jesus has always been about bringing people to God. Jesus is always clearing the path, making a way, removing the barriers between us and God.

My prayer this Holy Monday is that churches would be places where the barriers to worship are removed. Places where all people can come into God’s presence, and experience the liberating power of his passionate Son.

Palm Sunday…

“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!””
Matthew‬ ‭21:8-9‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

Today is Palm Sunday. Holy Week – the final week of Jesus’ life – begins with his entry into Jerusalem. He rides on a donkey and the crowds go wild. They lay their cloaks and palm branches on the ground so that not even the hooves of the donkey on which he rides, touch the dirt of the ground.

The cheer, and wave palm branches and celebrate his coming to the city.

Every year, as we observe an celebrate all the things that take place during these final days of his life, I find myself gripped by something. Some part of the story, or some thought from a theologian about what it all means, or some song lyric that cuts through to the heart of these events. I get a little obsessed. And that’s probably not a bad thing, because that obsession is the thing that carries me through all of the work that this week means for a minister.

This year, it’s the thought that “Hosanna” is a shout of praise, but also an expression that means, “save us.”

Save us.

I don’t know if the people who were in the crowd really understood what they were doing. But I am fascinated and moved by the thought that simply drawing close to Jesus causes people to spontaneously cry for salvation.

Maybe that is what Worship is all about. Maybe every time we worship – whether or not we can fully articulate it – we are expressing our brokenness and crying out for His healing. Maybe the natural state of the human soul is one of crying out to God, recognizing that we are in need of Salvation, and Jesus is the only One who can give it.

Hosanna!

Hosanna in the Highest!

Free day!

Today was our free day in Jerusalem- a day to do whatever we pleased.

I went into the Old City to explore and shop with friends. And we had so very much fun. The day began in the Arab Suk (market) after entering the Old City through the Jaffa gate. We helped one of our friends get some T-shirt’s, and I found one or two (ahem…six!! But they aren’t all for me!) scarves. Then we meandered to the Jewish Quarter and finally made a stop at Vic’s Armenian pottery shop.

We decided to head to The Rockefeller Museum – a hearty walk, to say the least. Only to discover once we arrived that it is no longer open on Fridays. Whoops!

So we headed off to Ben Yehuda street, to enjoy the shopping and sites there. Somewhere along the way, the beautiful sunny day turned to rain (I will never be able to convince the pilgrims that came on this tour that Israel rarely gets rain! It’s rained every day!), and we were starting to get hungry and soaked. After mailing use of the clean (but TINY) bathrooms at a Kosher McDonald’s, we decided we needed to find a place to sit down to lunch.

One of our group asked some locals at a juice stand and we were directed to a little mom-and-pop place around the corner. They were apologizing as they gave us directions because it wasn’t very fancy. They didn’t need to apologize.

We found the place, and before they could finish pulling a couple of tables together for us, there were warm pitas arriving. Then we were given menus. When we asked what was good, we were told the mousaka. Two of our group ordered that, two ordered schnitzel, and I ordered meatballs and fries. I don’t think we were waiting a minute and a half before our entrees arrived. As they arrived, the heavens opened and the rain began to pour in earnest. We agreed that this was soooo the right place to be.

The food just kept coming and it was warm, and so tasty! And when we paid the bill, it was around $10 a plate. I took pics of the restaurant so I can find my way there again in the future!

After lunch, we had magnum ice cream bars (or some of us did) and then we continued to wander for a while. Finally, we stopped in at the King David Hotel and enjoyed their beautiful lobby that includes a strip on the floor where they have the signatures of famous people (Hollywood celebs, famous musicians, well known political leaders, royalty…) who have stayed there over the years.

It was an absolutely fantastic day – especially with all the conversations, story sharing and laughter as we walked and explored.

I am reminded of these words from Romans:

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. Romans‬ ‭12:4-5‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This is the power of the church. A week ago, so many in our group didn’t know each other. Of the five people I spent most of today with, only one of them did I know before this trip. And we hadn’t done more than say “hi” at General Assembly or other church functions for a number of years. And yet, as we walked and talked and shared, we were members of one body – bearing each other’s burdens and sharing each other’s joys; laughing and being silly together.

What joy there is in being part of the world-wide family of the church.

Amen.

From the Arab Suk, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter:

Our astoundingly great lunch and a Magnum Bar selfie:

From the King David Hotel:

Pressing on…

Today we began at the Western Wall – we went to hear why the wall is so important to the Jewish religion and to add our own prayers to those of the people gathered there. Then we got a tour of the Western Wall tunnels, and got to learn how the temple was built. Next we went to the public garden at Gethsemane and into the Church of All Nations. Our guide was kind enough to book us into the private garden at Gethsemane where we gathered to hear Duncan preach and Jeff pray. Next we saw the grotto of Gethsemane. We then took the bus out of the city to enjoy GenesisLand with Camel riding and lunch in Abraham’s tent. We returned to the city to sing in the church of St. Anne (check out the videos below, though they barely do the acoustics justice!), and visited the Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the crippled man. We ended the day by walking the Via Dolorosa, seeing the Stations of the Cross and ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is built over Golgotha and the Empty Tomb.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians‬ ‭3:14‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

The final day of the tour is always a bit strange. We are exhausted – emotionally, physically, spiritually. But there is so much to see and so much to do and this may be the only time some of us are ever here…

So we press on.

I think the highlight of today, at least for me, was listening to Duncan preach in the private garden at Gethsemane. He shared this quote from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: [if she had truly understood the Deep Magic] “The witch would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

This is why we are here – because a willing victim, who had committed no sin, did indeed sacrifice himself. For you, for me, for anyone who would call on his name and ask forgiveness. And on the third day, the veil in the temple tore in two and death itself worked backwards, as Jesus was ALIVE! And because he lives, we shall live also.

I don’t know how to convey to anyone who hasn’t been here what a crazy mix of emotions happens on a day like today. From the quiet reflection of Gethsemane to the somewhat silly fun of GenesisLand to the alien discomfort of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We have been up and down and everywhere in between.

We have encountered the scriptures in a way that has brought them to life right before our eyes, and we have been strangely disappointed and left wondering by places that didn’t connect with us, or with the scriptures that happened there.

I’ve had conversations with several in our group who were disappointed by Bethlehem (‘we wanted it to be a green field with a few sheep in it! But it was this noisy city and this church that was far too ornate for Presbyterian eyes!’) and who similarly struggled with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

We spoke over dinner how sometimes the very things that we build to honour there Holy place where Jesus was, end up creating a barrier to our faith. I’m going to be chewing on that thought for a while, because I believe there is a sermon in there about how our good intentions sometimes get in the way.

I have always been glad to bring a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. This time is no different. And I hope to bring more in the future, God being my helper.

Amen.

From the Western Wall:

From the Tunnels under the Western Wall: (only pictures of Fuzzy Owain, my traveling buddy!):

From Gethsemane:

From GenesisLand:

Singing in the Church of St. Anne:

Reading at the Pools of Bethesda:

From the Via Dolorosa:

From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher:

“Right here” moments…

Today we began on the Mount of Olives with a view of the city, then we walked the Palm Sunday route. We went to the Temple steps and laid our hands upon the paces where Jesus walked. We visited the Upper Room and walked to the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (we saw the gravesite of Oskar Schindler on the way) and saw the stairs from Jesus’ day that are there. We explored the City of David and the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed the blind man. We visited the scale model of the City as it would have been in Jesus’ day and walked through the Shrine of the Book to see the Scroll of Isaiah and other Dead Sea scrolls. We ended the day with a visit to Yad Vashem – the Holocaust museum.

“Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.” Luke‬ ‭21:37-38‬ ‭NIV‬‬

One of the things we talk about on a trip like this are “right here!” moments. They are the moments when we are standing in the places where Jesus stood, where we can read the scriptures and say, “that happened right here!”

They are moments that take our breath away, that make our hearts quicken, that bring tears to our eyes. They are different for every pilgrim, you never know when an ordinary moment is going to become a “right here!” moment.

For me, the Temple Steps is the ultimate “right here!” moment. You can argue about where Jesus actually was at the other sites, but you cannot argue about the Temple Steps. If Jesus existed, and if he went to the Temple (both things that even non-Christians find easy to accept), then he ascended into the temple by walking up the Temple Steps.

Three times I have laid my hands on those steps and taken pictures – twice with my parents, and now, once with some wonderful pilgrims from Graceview Presbyterian Church (where I have the privilege of being the pastor).

Each time it has been a powerful moment. Each time I have felt my faith strengthened. Each time I have thanked God for his goodness and for the blessing of being in the place where Jesus was.

Amen.

From the amount of Olives:

From the Palm Sunday Route:

From the Temple Steps:

From the Pool of Siloam:

From the Scale Model:

From the Upper Room: