To the Cross:
The Last Hours of Jesus and Why They Matter
Join us for our Lenten Thursdays on March 14, 21, 28 , April 4, and 11 as we share a time of food, fellowship, learning, and worship. This year we’ll be traveling through the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ final hours with his disciples, his arrest, his trial, and his crucifixion. We’ll explore the details of the story that is central to our faith, knowing that the resurrection of Easter holds deeper meaning when we truly understand what came before the empty tomb.
6:00 Supper with Soup and Bread
6:30 An Intergenerational Activity
7:00 Worship with a dramatic reading from the Gospel of Luke
Bring your questions. Bring your prayers. Bring a friend.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Matthew 6:1
W.H. Auden is one of my favorite poets. I learned recently that he had a secret life.[i] Since his death in 1973, stories have emerged of his private generosity, generosity that was unknown even to those who knew him best.
A friend of Auden’s once needed a medical operation he could not afford. Auden invited this friend to dinner but never mentioned the operation. As his friend was leaving, Auden gave him a notebook containing the manuscript of one of Auden’s books. The friend was able to sell the manuscript to the University of Texas and pay for the operation.
After World War II Auden arranged to pay for the school and college expenses of two war orphans. He continued that practice year after year, until his death at age 66.
My favorite story might be the one about an older woman who was a member of the church to which Auden belonged. He learned that she was having night terrors, and so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Auden did not want these stories to be known. For whatever reason, he went out of his way to keep them hidden.
I have no idea what Auden would say about today’s gospel, but I suspect he would like it. The gospel cautions us against a purely performative expression of our faith: One translation says: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Or – as another translation puts it: “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.” (CEV)
Don’t give generously to earn praise from others. Don’t pray on the street corners to draw a crowd or fast with melodramatic sighing about how hungry you are. In other words, don’t make it about you.
I’ve long thought this was a strange gospel to hear on a day when we smudge a big ashen cross on our foreheads and go back out into the world. That cross is hard to miss. It invites some attention – and some questions. At the very least it makes people wonder if we’re terrible at face-washing.
But this gospel is not just about today, Ash Wednesday. It’s about how we approach daily life as a follower of Jesus, how we balance the call to share our faith with the challenge to be humble in how we do it.
Jesus isn’t saying don’t share your faith. Quite the opposite. He names three specific ways that we canshare our faith. He simply encourages us to be clear about why and how we do these things.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust our own motives, but don’t let that keep you from trying or renewing a spiritual practice during the Lenten season that we enter tonight. Whatever you decide to try, perhaps the best way to reflect on that practice is to ask: “Is this practice pointing toward me, or is it pointing toward God?”
Let’s consider the three categories that Jesus mentions – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Almsgiving. You might choose to put a little bit of money in an envelope each day during Lent and then after Easter contribute it to a cause that does what God calls us to do – care for those who are suffering in some way (people who are hungry, prisoners, folks struggling with addiction, refugees, victims of sexual violence, hospice patients). The possibilities are many, but we all have some need that is close to our hearts. Telling other people about that donation to make yourself look good obviously isn’t the point. But telling other people that your donation comes from your understanding of faith is a way to bear witness to God’s generosity – and to invite others to share in that generosity too.
God has given us life – both life now and life eternal. And, as we remember tonight, this present life has an expiration date. So why wouldn’t we share what we have? There’s no point in clinging to our possessions while the moths and the thieves circle around us.
Prayer. We probably have less trouble with Jesus’ caution regarding prayer. Most of us aren’t rushing to the street corner to wave our arms and shout prayers at the people passing by. But when a friend or family member or co-worker shares something that has them worried, what if we said, “In my faith tradition we often pray for each other and the heavy loads that we’re carrying. If it would be OK with you, I’d be glad to pray about what you’re going through.” Now that might actually seem scarier than praying on the street corner, but I bet we’d be surprised at the ways it would deepen our relationships – with God and with each other.
Fasting. This one doesn’t have to be about food, although it can be. It can also be about anything that distracts us from following Jesus. Video games. Social media. Netflix. Our fantasy football team. How might we fast from some of those distractions? It doesn’t have to mean giving it up entirely and forever. We could during the forty days of Lent choose to step away one day a week or for a designated window of time each day. And then what would we do with the time that opens up when we fast from these activities?
Once again, Jesus warns us about creating a public spectacle. The goal is not to make everyone within a ten-mile radius aware of our sacrifice. The idea is to open up some new space to reconnect with ourselves, with the people in our lives, and with God.
All of the cautions Jesus offers are about humility – not false humility, not holding back the gifts and abilities God has given us – but the humility of knowing we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. And has already done that.
On Ash Wednesday we receive the sign of the cross to remind us of our need for God. It reminds us of the sin for which we need forgiveness. It reminds us of our mortality, echoed in the words that are both true and jarring: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is also a reminder of our hope. The cross is the place of our salvation. Whatever we do, in public or in secret, we do because our God has faced down death for us. Faced down death and won.
The cross of ashes will eventually wash away. But the love of God never washes away. God’s mercy is eternal. God’s love is everlasting. It follows us as closely as our next breath – from our first breath to our last. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014 issue. Electronic version: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/03/20/secret-auden/
“On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.” Luke 9:37
I sometimes ask people what their favorite Bible story is. People often talk about the Christmas story. It’s a familiar one even to folks who don’t read or hear the Bible much, and who doesn’t love a good birth story? Other people will tell me about a healing story and how it gave them hope. One of the variations of the Easter story will sometimes get a mention too. I’d love to know what your favorite Bible stories are and why.
No one – and I mean no one – has ever told me that the Transfiguration was a favorite.
I suppose we like the version of Jesus who spends time with his friends, who eats, who prays, who takes care of people – the Jesus who does relatively normal things in a way that inspires us.
But every so often Jesus turns gets dramatic on us. He pulls out all the stops and serves up a moment that out-Hollywoods Hollywood.
Usually when I read this story, I like to imagine myself on that mountain with Jesus. It all seems so glamorous up there, like something that should have won an Academy Award for technical achievement.
There are costumes – the dazzling white clothes of Jesus mysteriously illuminated.
There are guest stars – Moses and Elijah – two pillars of the Jewish faith who chat with Jesus and leave Peter, James, and John a little starstruck.
There are the visual effects – the cloud that overshadows and terrifies the disciples.
And of course there are the sound effects, the most dramatic of which is God’s voice declaring, “This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to him!” It echoes back to the baptism of Jesus when that same voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I like to imagine myself on that mountain in the midst of such strange goings-on. I know I would have been just as misguided as Peter, wanting to savor the moment, build some places to live, and stay. What a great story it was already, and how much better it would be to stay with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for more than a few fleeting moments!
Meanwhile, back down the mountain, things aren’t so shiny.[i] There’s a desperate father whose son – his only child – is sick. The child has seizures, and no one – not his terrified father, not the rest of Jesus’ disciples, not the members of the community – can figure out what to do. The father’s despair is palpable: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son…I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus heals the boy, although he seems a little grumpy about it. Perhaps he was hoping that the other disciples might have proven a little more competent in his absence.
When I consider these two different encounters with Jesus – one removed and glorious on the mountaintop and the other messy and difficult down in the valley – I realize that it’s the second story that seems much more familiar.
Most of the time I don’t encounter God on a mountaintop. I’m usually more like the disciples left down below, surrounded by so much need in the world and feeling inadequate in the face of it all. Sometimes I’m on the receiving end of an accusatory finger: “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” “Pastor, you’re supposed to have the answers. Why is this happening?”
Could the people down below see the mysterious cloud up on the mountain? Could they hear the voice of God? Or were they just left to wonder when Jesus was coming back – if he was coming back?
Life often feels like being at the bottom of the mountain, where demons are raging out of control and brokenness and illness surround us, and we feel powerless to do much about it. But God is there too. The signs can be more subtle; it’s easy to miss the presence of God down here on the level ground.
In my own life Jesus shows up far more often in the messiness. Earlier this week I was at a retreat with pastors from New Jersey and Pennsylvania whose congregations, like ours, are participating in the Leadership for Faithful Innovation project with Luther Seminary. There was a moment when we were asked to get in groups of three to share some work we’d been doing individually. The idea was that we would give each other feedback and help push each other’s thinking. I sat down with two colleagues, and before we proceeded, one of them asked if we could pause for a moment. She had just gotten some difficult news from home, and she was feeling unsettled. She asked if we would pray with her. So of course we did. We stopped right there in the midst of the conversations buzzing around us, reached for each other’s hands across the table, and we prayed for the situation she had shared with us.
There were no flashing lights, no booming voices from a cloud. But God was there.
God is with us in so many ordinary moments. In the pancakes and stories shared this morning with our youth. In laughter over silly jokes. In the mischief of a snowball fight. In conversations on the elevator or the train. In the everyday needs and sorrows of our friends and neighbors. In the prayers we offer for them and in the ways we show up to help.
God is here in the ordinary stuff of worship. We hear words from scripture and ponder them together. We sing and share in beautiful music. We pray for the world and for the church and for each other. We share in the holy meal – the bread and wine – so ordinary, in fact, that it’s a flattened, tasteless wafer and really cheap wine. The ingredients of this meal are more Shop-Rite than Whole Foods. And yet Jesus is here. Jesus is always here with us in the meal, in the prayers, in the music, in the words, in the silences.
And Jesus is with us as we go out from this place, urging us to see the world as he sees it – a place where great love is possible in spite of all evidence to the contrary. A place where he can transform despair into hope. A place where we can be changed and can participate in changing things for the better.
This week we begin the season of Lent with our observance of Ash Wednesday. Lent is a wonderful time to practice noticing where God is showing up in our lives and in the world around us. The ringing and singing and mountaintop moments of Easter beckon in the distance, but for now let’s savor simplicity and attentiveness. Let’s look around. Let’s look inward. Let’s look for the Lord in our midst.
Maybe we’ll be surprised that we don’t need the mountain as much as we thought. We already have what we need. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]As I have so often in recent weeks, I thank Debie Thomas for helping me see the juxtaposition of these two stories in a new way: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2100