This Lenten season, in hindsight, has gone by fairly quickly. I liken it to the suspense of a roller coast, you know, you get strapped in and you are headed up the steep incline … click, click, click. This is that 40 days that seems to go by so slow, yet, when you reach the top and are about to take the plunge back down toward the pavement, the mind begins to think and plead, “It can’t be here yet, that was way too fast! … Please, not yet!” Then, the last click is heard, there’s a quick silence, followed by screams as the train races toward the finish line. However, it is during the descent, where I have experienced the most joy: meaning the extreme emotions of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and Easter Worship.
Thursday evening, I had the great privilege of serving communion around tables of twelve. At First United Methodist Church of Gastonia, there is a great tradition of serving communion on a very intimate level. I was able to experience the presence of Christ, the presence of God’s love for us all, and the presence of real emotions from folks who experience God in a remarkable way. For two hours, myself and the two other pastors rotated between two tables prepared with the Lord’s Supper. During those two hours, I was able to share in this meal; I was able to share the good news of Jesus Christ; I was able to share that yes, even though we are sinners, betrayers, and deniers … God still loves us all. I know this love because of Christ’s words, through elements of bread and juice, and through the experience of God’s grace in my life.
Good Friday was a very solemn worship experience, where the community worshipped through remembering the Passion of our Lord. Through a Tenebrae Service, the Gospel of Matthew was proclaimed, and we were able to envision the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion. I am thankful to the artists in residence: Rev. Saxon Scarborough, Minister of Music, and Timothy Scruggs, organist. These two individuals truly give back to God through the gifts of music God has blessed them with. Following several of the scripture readings, there was a musical response: an anthem or hymn. Here’s how blessed I am to call these folks my colleagues. A week ago we rehearsed the service, as there was a lot of movement: reading, a response, extinguishing a candle … and with various readers it is necessary that we do our best in worship to God (not for performance, yet, to offer the best we are able to, to the one who has blessed us with gifts and talents to do so). During that time, I gave Timothy a simple printed document, asking if he could “accompany” me as I read the following scripture:
45 Now from the sixth hour (noon) there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.). 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud [agonized] voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” 47 When some of the bystanders there heard it, they began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran, and took a sponge, soaked it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink.49 But the rest said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him [from death].”50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud [agonized] voice, and gave up His spirit [voluntarily, sovereignly dismissing and releasing His spirit from His body in submission to His Father’s plan]. (Matthew 27:45-50, AMP)
Without knowing what Timothy had come up with, and thinking that he was going to just play the bells, and something to conclude, I invite you to listen to the following reading, and the events that follow:
But, as Easter People, we know this isn’t the end of the story; we know that just because all of the candles are extinguished, there is always a glimmer of hope, a speck of light that shines through the darkest of clouds. And that is where we head into the Easter Vigil.
The headline photo is from the Memory Garden at First Church. It is a very moving place, the perfect size for intimate gatherings, and especially a place to worship and to continue to tell the story of our lives, the story of God’s creation. Saturday evening at 10:30pm, the fire was lit, stringed lights glowed in the dark sky, names of saints gone on before us sparkled from their bronze frames fastened to the brick wall. The tone spoke and felt of a resurrection coming, a resurrection that has already come. A gathering of around 20 folks, or so, circled around the grapevine shaded arbor, watching the fire glow, lighting up the statue of an angel praying upward to God. In silence, the vigil began, as we turned our minds from the dark and despair that filled our hearts on Friday, to the celebration awaiting our eyes. The Paschal Candle was lighted from the fire, and we began passing the light to one another … the light that many thought was extinguished, and wasn’t coming back. However, this light led us into another intimate setting. We sang the beginnings of an Alleluia, as we entered the chapel. And during this hour gathering, we remembered and read several stories of our faith: Creation, Exodus, and New Life into Dry Bones. But we didn’t close worship this evening; rather, we kept vigil. We departed in silence to keep watch of the story that was not finished; the story I believe is still not finished, as God is continually breathing, and creating New Life within us, and among us all.
And then, only a few hours later, a day full of worship, a day of resurrection began. At 6:30am this morning, the Memory Garden was once again a place to experience the grace of our Eternal and Almighty Lord. With the clouds parting, the empty steel cross atop the steeple beginning to reflect the sun’s rays, the people began to sing,
Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
This morning, I had the opportunity to proclaim and to share God’s meal once again. I read the scripture from the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 1-18. But I want to highlight to you the following verses regarding Mary Magdalene’s response to Jesus’ resurrection and call,
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (John 20:15-18, CEB).
As I was reminded while reading this passage, I wanted to share with others how they are reminded that Jesus Christ calls us all by name. We all have God’s grace within us, it is how we begin to recognize this grace, often in hindsight – following events that lead to a climax, such as the rollercoaster analogy from earlier. It is so often easy to see that things are from God when we look back at events within our life. And all the while, it was Jesus tenderly saying, “[insert your name here].” For me, it has been Jesus tenderly calling to me, “Juston!” It isn’t a yell, it isn’t a fuss … it’s a simple calling that brings tears to your eyes, and a feeling of one of the best hugs you have ever received … in the simple, still, small voice, “Juston!” And this morning, I was given chills, experiencing the Holy Spirit, as we were all called to the table of Grace, to dine once again together, in the intimate setting of the garden.
The highs-and-lows of the rollercoaster may be over, but the ride is not finished. The story continues. The Resurrection of Christ is not the end; rather, it is the beginning we get to live over-and-over again. The story continues in and through us. So, may this Easter season, the Great 50 Days, be a continual growing time to know God’s love, compassion, care, and embrace of us all.
Thanks Be To God!