Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday Message- Jesus Vs. the Zombies


         I have spent much of the last two weeks getting ready for my first Holy Week as pastor.  The journey from Palm Sunday, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, and finally to Easter is the high point of the Christian year.  When we engage fully in it, we participate in Christ’s entire journey through life, death and resurrection.
Sometimes, in the rush from Palm Sunday to Easter, I think we can pay short shrift to the importance of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the agonizing prayers Jesus offers up in Gethsemane, and his torture and death on the cross on Good Friday.  As such, David, Bert, Sue, Andy and I put in an extraordinary amount of time crafting services that would take you through the fullness of the Holy Week journey.  In culminated in the transformation you saw at the beginning of the service.
Sometime, maybe about Thursday or so, it occurred to me that I better figure out what I’m going to preach about on Sunday.  I had been so busy getting ready for Holy Week that I just simply hadn’t had time to really contemplate my Easter message until last this week.  And boy, then the pressure starts.  Since its my first Easter Sunday as a fully fledged pastor, I began to ponder just the right way to share with you the message of Christ’s resurrection.  After all, many of you have heard dozens of Easter messages, is there really anything meaningful that I can offer?
I was walking through a parking lot on Good Friday when it finally hit me.  God had put a message on my heart, and I began to get excited about the prospects of delivering it.  Why hadn’t this ever occurred to me before? It’s just a perfect and relevant metaphor for how we can, and cannot, understand Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb.  What was it that suddenly struck me, that one word that God provided to inspire this message?
Yes, the undead.  The title of today’s Easter sermon is Jesus vs. the Zombies.

There is no doubt that Zombies are all the rage in popular culture.  When AMC’s The Walking Dead debuted this last fall, over six million people tuned in to learn how a small group of survivors would fare in a world overrun with the undead.   In 2009, Jane Austin’s famous book was re-released as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-  mashing up the full text to the revered book with a zombie epidemic set in 19th century England.  As reported by the Plain Dealer, this zombie epidemic even infected Case Western this past year as over 150 students participated over a 10-day period in a Humans Vs. Zombies game, replete with nerf guns, and official website, and a school sanctioned rule book.  Sorry Twilight fans, Vampires are out; Zombies are in.
So why on earth would I bring up Zombies today, on Easter morning of all things?
Well, it occurred to me there are some parallels between the undead and the Bible’s account of Jesus’ resurrection that are worth exploring.  
To become a Zombie, you must die, often a gruesome death.  Jesus died on the cross.  Check.
To become one of the undead, you must rise bodily from the grave.  Jesus’s tomb was indeed empty.  Check.
Through the touch of a Zombie, a human’s life is then fated to end, and they will be reanimated into a new and changed life.  When Jesus comes into our lives, we are called to die to our former life.  Though Jesus’ touch, our lives will indeed be transformed.  Check.
Zombies are mindless, destructive, murdering creatures that.....ok, so here the analogy begins to break down.  But that’s ok, I think you get my point.  For all its silliness or gore, there appears to be something tremendously attractive to our culture about the idea that death does not have the final say over our lives.  After all, isn’t that the technical understanding of the term un-dead?  Un- implies a reversal.  So therefore, to become un-dead is to reverse death and to overcome it.  
But in his resurrection, Christ shows us a way that is far superior than just celebrating not being dead.  Rather then being ghoulish, the resurrected Christ is fully alive.  He bursts forth out of the grave and wipes the tears of his followers.  Rather then being afraid, Mary and Mary Magadaline throw themselves at his feet and worship.  This is a man, our God, who radiates with life.  He tells the women, do not simple be content with the fact I have escaped death’s clutches.  I have a mission for you, and for all of my disciples.  Go to Galilee and you will see me.  Go to Galilee and join me in the work of bringing all of the world into the fullness of life.
And so, the disciples come, and Jesus gives them what we now call the great commission-  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  You see, Jesus wasn’t content in having them celebrate that he who was dead is now undead.  No, this reversal of death’s power had a purpose-  it was to transform and save the entire world.
We as his followers can celebrate that we will also join with Christ’s victory over death.  But the question remains, are we going to simply be content with being un-dead, or are we going to be fully alive in our faith?
A faith that is simply un-dead stays put in its environment.  It might stagger to church weekly, but it doesn’t grow and learn.  An un-dead faith shuts off the mind, is content in its rigid way of looking at the world, and cannot wonder at the mysteries of our faith and the bigness of God’s grace in the world.  An un-dead faith cares little for the plight of the down trodden, the poor and starving in this world, no, it cares only for its own ability to continue on and escape the suffering of others.  As Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, an un-dead faith still engages and draws energy from the powers of death in this world- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.
No, as followers of Jesus Christ, as children of the resurrection, we are called to respond to the empty tomb by being fully alive in our faith.  Let’s not revel in our own ability to escape death, let’s actively go forth and try to fight against and wipe out the powers of death in this world.  Let us put to death our own prejudices, bitterness, desire to be mighty and right, and instead by transformed into resurrected people who love one another with body mind and soul.  Let us not merely sit in these pews, but go forth to combat hunger, and disease, war and violence.  Let us in all places and times push back the forces of death so that we can join with God in the creation of new and renewed life in this world.  Let us be so transformed by the resurrected Christ that our faith can be contagious, causing others to turn away from violence and self-centeredness and toward a Savior who is full of compassion and new life.
There are some in this world who worry that the church, maybe even our church, has become like a zombie.  That while we have our buildings, but we’ve lost our soul.  That our bodies are still present, but we seem to stagger about with little purpose or energy.  That the form of religion is present, but our vital faith is no more.  That we are more concerned with dogma rather than disease, politics over and above people.
Brothers and Sisters, on this Easter Sunday at Independence United Methodist Church, we are faced with a challenge.  Are we simply trying to survive, or are we looking to be transformed?  We will be happy that we are not dead, or will our Easter faith compel us to go forth and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Are we content to sit here in comfort, or are we ready to charge forth into Independence, or Seven Hills, or Parma, or maybe even Cleveland.  Are we willing to make Easter not just a story or a set of doctrines, but a way of living, a way that encompasses who we are and what we do every day of the week, every week of the year.
In sum, my friends, in this Easter season, are we seeking a faith that is merely undead, or yearning for one that is fully alive?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Choir Director Job Search

We are beginning a search for a new choir director at Independence UMC.  Below please find a copy of the job description.  If you are interested in the position, or would like a copy of the job description, please send us an email at

Choir Director Job Description

Mission of the Position: The choir director is responsible for providing the leadership in the area of choral music. He/she is to use this position to develop an adult choir who is able to perform a wide variety of musical styles, both traditional and contemporary.
Supervision: The choir director is under the supervision of the Pastor and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee.
  1. Be able to explain to the choir the meaning behind the music selected and where it fits in the Christian experience.
  2. Strong preference will be given to those who hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Music and/or have experience leading adult choirs.
  3. Knowledge of a wide variety of musical styles and the ability to teach these varying styles to the choir.   Preference will be given to those with experience leading contemporary worship services.
  4. Willingness to work cooperatively with the Pastor and Organist.
  5. Possess effective interpersonal communication skills.
  6. Possess good organizational skills.
  7. Possess a positive attitude.
Duties and Responsibilities:
  1. Develop a choir who is capable of singing both traditional and contemporary Christian music.
  2. Develop a choir who is able to sing weekly at the traditional worship services and any other scheduled services including but not limited to Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (falling on a Sunday). 
  3. When requested, consult with and advise those arranging for special events (i.e. weddings, funerals, etc.)
  4. Direct the choir during weekly Sunday worship services and lead weekly scheduled rehearsals.
  5. Provide leadership and facilitate unity among the musical groups.
  6. Work collaboratively with the Pastor and the Organist in the selection of choral music that reflects a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional music to contemporary praise and worship songs.  This may require periodic staff meetings.
  7. Provide information to the church office on choral selection for each week.
  8. Purchase choral music staying within the annual budget.
  9. Work with the pastor to ensure that the music selected matches the primary themes and ideas of the service it is presented in.
  10. Plan at least two outreach events each year that takes the choir beyond the walls of the congregation (or is effective in bringing visitors in).
  11. Create an environment that encourages musical and spiritual growth.
Please send resumes to the Attention of the Choir Director Search Committee at or 6615 Brecksville Rd.  Independence, OH 44131

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Coming of a King

Scripture Texts:

Palm Sunday Sermon

There had never been such a buzz about town.  For so long, the city had suffered under bone weary oppression.  Though the people had gotten their hopes up about various leaders over time, inevitably they saw their hopes come crashing to the ground.  Leaders would come and go, but the devastation always remained.  One day, however, the city got wind that a new kind of King was coming to town.  And rather than being some savior from a distant land, it was one of their own who was promising to finally end their seasons of sorrow.  When the King arrived, the city spontaneously burst forth in joy.  The King has come to claim his crown!  Celebrate the coming of the King.  Our cities long nightmare has finally come to an end!  No longer will we be crushed by all of the foreign invaders.  We will finally have a kingdom of our own.  But, the parade of welcome didn’t lead to a victory parade.  Yes, there were good times, but it wasn’t quite what the people had hoped for.  But, the people’s faith remained.  Surely this king and his followers would eventually emerge victorious. Finally, when the definitive battle was at hand, the people waited for the king to leash out with his definitive blow.  And yet, in the critical moment, the king faltered.  Rather than mount a vigorous offensive, he seemed to give up with barely a fight.  Rather than being the answer to the people’s dreams, he just seemed like one more false messiah. Bitter mobs emerged who would burn their former King in effigy. For all those who had gotten their hopes up, they were now crushed beyond belief.  Those cries of Hosanna soon turned into bitter cries of rage.  Whereas once the people cried with jubilation, now they jeered in rage.    Never had a city been so disappointed.  
And thus, did the king take his talents to South Beach.
Oh, wait, didn’t you know I was talking about Lebron?  Did you think I was talking about some other King?
No, on this day when we cry out “Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” a different king came to mine.  In reading the story about Jesus’ triumphant entry, and in knowing the sudden shift from Palm Sunday to the torture and execution of Jesus on Good Friday, I wondered how a crowd could turn so quickly and so bitterly against the one that they had once loved.  And so it was that Lebron James came to mind.  I remember right where I was when I found out the Cavs won the lottery.  I was on camping down in West Virginia, but my friend and I hopped in his truck and drove around until we could pick up the WTAM signal.  When David Stern announced that the Cavs had won the lottery, we celebrated.  Ok, I celebrated, my friend just kind of looked at me strangely.  But finally, I thought, finally the stars have aligned for my city and we might finally see a championship.  
And yet, fast forward 7 years, and there I am again siting with baited breath.  But this time, its in a recliner in my living room.  After sitting through all that bs, Lebron finally announces that “he’s taking his talents to South Beach.”  I immediately turned off the television.  I can recall feeling a palpable sense of rage.  Now, I didn’t go out into the streets and riot, that sooo last century, I turned to facebook and soothed my angry soul by watching all of my facebook friends spew vitriol about this supposed king who was supposed to be different.

For those of us who are Cleveland sports fans, I think we were treated to a glimpse of the kind of emotional see-saw that we read about in scripture.  Jesus enters the city as the next great promise, only to see many in the crowds turn on him, betray him, deny him, and finally, crucify him.  But whereas it seemed to take 7 years for us to turn on Lebron, scripture seems to indicate it was only a matter of days for Jesus.  How could this be?  How can we go from screaming Hosanna to the Son of David to Crucify Him in just 6 short days?  What changed so fast?
We can make a few reasoned guesses.  First, perhaps we imagine too great a crowd when we picture Palm Sunday.  Though Jesus was certainly greeted by enthusiastic supporters, our best scholars says that he came in the back gate, out of the mountains, rather than in the main entrance into Jerusalem.  Its highly unlikely that the bulk of the city was there to great him, but probably some of the poorest of the poor who had heard rumors about a great leader who truly cared for their plight.  If we imagine the crowd to be a bit smaller than the whole city, perhaps we can understand how this small, deeply poor and powerless group, may not have been the crowd that was whipped up by the Pharisees to support their midnight trial and condemnation by Pontious Pilot.  Its entirely possible that many of Jesus’ supporters were simply shut out of the process, and once the sentence was passed, too afraid to publicly support him as he was led to the cross.
But, I don’t think that that can tell the entirety of the story.  I think many of the people also became gravely disappointed.  When Jesus entered the city, they were indeed expecting a great leader- perhaps even a Messiah.  They were seeking someone who would finally break the yoke of Roman oppression, would finally disturb the corrupt economic and spiritual practices of the temple elite, would finally establish a new, independent Jewish kingdom by retaking the throne of David and by empowering the poor and oppressed.
In fact, within the generational memory of that crowd, they had seen just that very thing occur.  You see, in 167 BCE, Israel was ruled by the corrupt and oppressive Seleucid empire.  While Jerusalem had long been controlled by foreigners, a new ruler- Antiochus IV had come to power in 175 BCE.  He unleashed a reign of terror, took on divine names, crushed a Jewish rebellion led by the high priest, outlawed the practice of Judaism, and desecrated the sacred temple by installing statues to Zeus and other Greek Gods.  And so, a family by the name of Maccabeus led a revolt, overthrew the Selucids, cleansed the temple, and established a new Jewish kingdom.  
They routed the Greeks and forced them out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.  They cleansed the Temple, an occasion our Jewish friends still celebrate as Hanukkah.  When Simon Maccabee returned to Jerusalem, he was hailed as the great deliverer; and the people took palm branches and waved them in front of him as a sign of victory.  “You have freed us from the Greeks,” they cried.  “Hail to you”- 24 Hours that Changed the World
After signing a peace treaty with Rome in 161 BCE, the Jews had a kingdom of their own for over 100 years.  It was only in 37 BCE, when Herod the great was installed as King of Israel, that their dream of freedom and liberation came to an end.Yes, the very same Herod who was alive when Jesus was born.  And it was his son who ruled when Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. 

Can you see now maybe what the crowd expected.  It was only 60-70 years ago that Jerusalem had been the capital of an independent, Jewish state.  Its entirely possible that there was someone in the crowd who was old enough to remember it.  And it is certain that there were people there who grew up on their parents knee hearing stories about when Jerusalem was free.  And now, just like Simon Maccabeus not so long ago, a man rides into town talking about establishing a new kingdom on earth.
Hosanna.  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna!
Jesus would overthrow the Romans and set the people free.
And yet, Jesus enters in and talks about loving the enemy.  He talks about rendering to Cesar what is Cesar’s.  Sure, he challenged the corruption at the temple, he even challenges the ultimate authority of the Romans, but he never puts together in army. In fact, when one of his followers begins to fight, Jesus reprimands him and cares for the wounds of the soldier there to arrest him.
I mean, what a disappointment.  Its just like Lebron-  we put all our hopes and dreams into someone, and they fail to follow through.
That is, when we put our hopes and dreams into the wrong thing. 
The people in the streets weren’t wrong to celebrate Christ’s coming into Jerusalem.  We too need to celebrate it.  Put we have to understand what, and who, we are welcoming.
If we are expecting a savior who will rule by might, we’re going to be disappointed.  

If we are expecting a savior who will tear down our enemies, we’re going to be disheartened.

If we are expecting a savior who blesses every power grab and the accumulation of wealth amongst the few, we’re going to be discouraged.
But, my brothers and sisters,
If you want a savior who has come for the meek and lowly, its time to celebrate.

If you want a savior who will turn this world upside down, its time to party.

If you want a savior who will sacrifice himself out of love for you, its time to throw a parade!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Living into the Connection

In the United Methodist Church, we talk quite a bit about our connection-  we testify about being part of a wider faith network that does considerable work in the world.  This is undoubtable true-  we can claim partial credit for relief work in Japan, for a growing church in the Congo, and for peace and justice efforts in the halls of Congress.  While the connection is strong in terms of financial and material support, it often breaks down at the personal level.  While we may know a few Methodists who go to other churches, we rarely form deep and lasting relationships with members of other churches or with other congregations.  Thus, when a church like Brooklyn Memorial or Broadway United Methodist closes, it can seem like a distant event that has nothing to do with us.  In reality, however, it weakens our entire connection and hampers our ability to effectively engage in ministry.  
Over the last couple months, I have been dreaming with a few other pastors and churches on the westside about how we can rekindle these relationships.  Each of our Methodist’s churches have unique gifts and abilities that could help to strengthen our individual congregations if we could just collaborate.  For instance, if we want to engage in transformative ministry on the near westside of Cleveland, we could draw from the skills and abilities of Pearl Rd. UMC in helping to guide our efforts.  If we want to build up our youth program, we could draw from Simpson UMC’s exciting efforts at building a vital program despite being a small member church. 
On Monday, May 2nd, we will have a unique opportunity to explore engaging in collaborative ministries.  At 7:00, Methodists from across the district will be gathering from 7:00-8:30 at Nehemiah mission to get to know each other and explore the unique gifts our churches can contribute to building up the work of Jesus on the Westside of Cleveland.  It is my sincere desire that many of you will join me in exploring just how we can engage in more vital ministry together with our Methodist brothers and sisters.  As part of this process, I ask all who are interested to stay for a brief meeting after church on May 1st as we identify our own gifts and dreams.  Together, we can live out Christ’s calling to transform our church and our world!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Journey to Jerusalem

Luke 9:51- When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Lent is a journey with a destination.  We enter into 40 days of confession and repentance not to punish ourselves, but to prepare ourselves for the journey.  When Jesus began his ministry, he knew that he was stirring up considerable controversy.  After all, you can’t challenge the political, economic, and religious leaders of the day without making a few enemies.  But, so long as Jesus stayed on the margins of society, it was likely that his trouble making would be ignored.  However, Jesus knew that it was one thing to preach in the fields, eventually, you have to take the message to the seat of power.
So, Jesus turned to Jerusalem and began the walk that would inevitable lead to his death.  Can you imagine the courage it took to begin that journey?  He had already found devoted followers.  He had already healed people and helped to transform lives.  Wouldn’t it have been easy for him to just keep doing what he was doing?  To never take a risk by embarking on a new phase of ministry?  What would we do if faced with that decision?  Would we be content to stay comfortable and work where no one will bother us, or would we have the courage to follow God’s will and take the greatest risk of all?
We are quickly approaching the destination of our own Lenten journey.  We are invited to join with Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, as he has a last meal with friends, as he is tried and crucified, and as he is resurrected on Easter morning.  Sometimes, however, I think we tend to want to skip straight from the joy of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter Sunday.  In doing so, however, I think we miss a significant part of Jesus’ (and our own) journey.  Being a committed disciple does involve sacrifice at times, and it might even mean that parts of our life have to die so that we can be reborn as transformed people.  To facilitate experiencing the fullness of Jesus’ journey, we will be holding services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.  I hope you can join us in the entirety of this Holy Week journey so that like Jesus, we may be reborn and empowered to change ourselves and our world.
May you have strength for the journey.