Worship 2/21/21

Call to Worship

This is the season of Lent:

A season to remember the sufferings of Jesus.

A season to remember that to follow Christ is to take up our crosses and to be servants of all.

A season to ponder Jesus’ question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”

A season to ask ourselves how we, like Simon the Cyrene, might help to bear the cross.

A season to ask ourselves how we, like Pilate and Caiaphas and the crowd, continue to nail Christ to the tree.

A season to ask ourselves how we, like Peter, deny our relationship with Jesus before others.

 A season to ask ourselves what we, like the woman with the fine ointment, have to offer.

A season to consider how we, like the disciples, are afraid and turn away.

A season to watch and wait with Christ, that we may have courage in the hour of testing.

A season to stand at the foot of the cross and wonder at the mystery of God’s amazing grace.

Opening Prayer

Loving God, your Son Jesus Christ carried us to the cross, and brought us into a new community with you.  Help us to follow in his way, deny ourselves, and take up the cross he gives us, that the world may learn his way of peace.  May his life and his purposes be alive in us this day, and may we be alive in him.  And when our hearts are broken, and when the burdens of this life feel too great to bear, take us to the cross, and enable us to see the great weight that Jesus carried; for here we receive the affirmation of your love, the assurance of your promise, and the strength to persevere. For we ask it in his name.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Matthew 27:27-31 (NRSV)

27Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him.  28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head.  They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  30They spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.  31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him.  Then they led him away to crucify him.

Psalter/Psalm 22:1-11 (NRSV)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Message/The Thorn

There were many witnesses to the events which took place on that hill outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago.  An angry crowd gathered to be certain that their verdict of “guilty” be carried out in the sentence of death by crucifixion.  A small group of the condemned man’s followers milled about the crowd; still in shock over the injustice being meted out, many of them kept their identity secret to protect themselves from a similar fate.  And some had to be there—those responsible for tending to the necessary tasks which went along with an execution.

But there were other “witnesses” as well, ones we don’t usually think about, although they were even closer to the events than the crowd.  In fact, they actually participated in those events in unique ways.  They are the Silent Witnesses.  If only these things could speak!  What might they tell us about the events from their viewpoint?

Throughout this Lenten Season we will have the unusual, imaginative, and challenging, opportunity to hear these normally “silent witnesses.”  Today, we hear from The Thorn

It was heinous, what they did to that man.  I just can’t imagine how humans could treat another human being that way.  Ah, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  Well, I’m not the most popular thing around.  In fact, I know of no one who really likes having me around.  If they see us, they cut us down and throw us into the fire.  The general opinion is that I, and my kind, are worthless and have no real purpose for living.

I must confess that according to human standards, I’m not what you’d call “desirable.”  There are other plants which have the beauty I wish I had.  They are delightfully fragrant, delicate to the touch, full of vibrant color—pleasing to the senses.  I’m just considered to be a pain—which seems to be the one sense I evoke.  Unlike other plants that grow with a certain grace and proportion, I’m bare, pointed, and grow every which way.  No one ever wants to take a cutting and put us in a vase on their dinner table.  I mean, who, after all wants to risk such a venture.  Plus, we thorns have such prickly personalities.

I’m not even good fodder for animals.  In fact, the animals tend to avoid us in every possible way.  Other than growing where you probably don’t want us to grow, all I’m really good for is causing inconvenience and pain.  To say that I’m worthless is an understatement.  No one cares about me!  People take my name in vain, if they speak of me at all.  When someone wants to describe another person as being less than attractive, they are referred to as a “thorn among the roses.”  Or if someone has a nagging health issue or other persistent problem, they say that they have a “thorn in the flesh.”  Now, with that kind of image, how can I be expected to have any self-worth at all?  Wouldn’t you be depressed if you lived the kind of life I do?

Okay, I guess I forgot to tell you to bring confetti and balloons cake to my pity party.  So, let’s get back to the story at hand.  That day, I was just hanging around on the vine, cutting the gentle breeze as it blew by me, when I noticed some soldiers coming across the field in my direction.  I saw them draw their swords as they drew closer.  “Oh, no!!  This is it,” I thought.  “Today is the last day of what used to be the rest of my life!”  I was right.  They hacked and chopped and cut many of the vines down.  The branch I was on was one of those cut and carried back to the barracks.  I was surprised they hadn’t set fire to us out in the field—that’s what they usually did.  “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “I wonder what they’re up to?”

Well, the next thing I remember was that someone was taking the branches that held us and was twisting them into a circle.  We, my neighboring thorns and me, were being woven in and out.  It was a roller coaster ride, and I was getting rather dizzy.  What really struck me as peculiar was that we thorns were actually working together for a change, instead of each one pointing and going its own way.  We were still a bit disorganized, but at least we were being formed into something somewhat symmetrical.

As the soldiers were working, I heard one of them say that they were making a crown.  I looked around and saw no one making anything that looked like what I understood a crown to be, with jewels and precious gems or even the simpler laurel circlet that was placed upon the temples of Roman generals as they paraded their troops into the city in full dress battle gear, carts of booty and closely guarded captives, evidence of a victorious military campaign.  My thoughts wandered for a minute and then I plummeted back to reality.  “Wait a minute” I said to myself, “the closest thing around to a crown shape was…us!”  Are they really shaping a crown out of mean, ugly, wretched thorns?  What in the world is going on?  Why in the world would they be crafting a crown of thorns?  That’s just crazy.

After a few minutes of being stretched, woven, and shaped into a circle, the soldiers took their primitive attempt at the craft of crown making and carried us into a courtyard. Wow!  Can you imagine what it was like to be going through all of this?  Here I am—a crude, rough, despised thorn—being made into a headpiece and taken right into the middle of the most important government building in the city.  Now that’s something to make you sit up and take notice!

I stretched as far as I could to get a good look at what was going on. It was difficult because I was on the bottom of the crown, facing downward.  Isn’t that always the case?!  Always on the bottom, aimed in the wrong direction.  That’s the story of my life.  Oh well, at least I wasn’t being changed into carbon ash by being tossed in a fire.  Instead of feeling sorry for myself, maybe I should just appreciate the fact that I was given some sort of purpose in life—you might call it, my crowning achievement.

As I strained to see the activity going on around me, I noticed a large crowd gathered there in the courtyard.  My guess was that some king, or governor, or prince, or somebody important was going to be crowned with us—but, hey, wait a minute!  Doesn’t this seem a bit unusual?  It was downright bizarre.  No one would want to be crowned with something as uncomfortable as us, much less an important person.

In my stunned disbelief, I noticed that the soldiers carried us to the very center of the courtyard.  Everyone was looking at us.  I don’t think thorns had ever been given so much attention before.  All eyes were on us.  I couldn’t see anyone who looked like a prince or a king.  In fact, the only person who caught my attention was a simple man who calmly stood there.  Apparently, he had been an itinerant preacher of some sort who was on trial for blasphemy.  I had heard the men making the crown say they thought he was innocent, but that he didn’t stand a chance of getting a fair trial.  They said he needed to be “taken care of”—whatever that meant.

Anyway, we were brought over to this preacher man.  But, and this is the really weird part, the closer we got to him the stronger I felt.  We had been cut down, taken from our roots, twisted and bent.  Life should have been flowing out of me, not into me.  I didn’t understand this rush of adrenaline, or whatever chemical inside that makes plants hale and hearty.  Instead of getting weaker, I found myself growing stronger.

Two soldiers took us carefully in their hands and held us high for all to see—a more pitiful crown has yet to be invented.   Some other soldiers nearby took a fine robe and placed it on the preacher’s shoulders, all while laughing and jeering at him as if he were some sort of king of fools.  Some even spat on him—and you think us thorns are tacky and gross.  I mean to tell you that people hate thorns, but no one has ever spat on me or treated me with such scorn and vitriol.  Amidst all the disdain, I could see that we were moving again, this time moving toward the head of the man on trial.  As they began to set us on his head, I couldn’t help but think that they needed to be more careful.  If they set us down too hard, we might hurt him.

Now remember, I was on the bottom of the crown and I could see us getting ever closer to his scalp.  If there ever were a time I wished I had feet and could run away, it was then.  I caught a glimpse of his eyes as we were being lifted by his face.  In the middle of all that chaos and confusion, I felt something I had never felt before.  I don’t think anyone in history ever exhibited love like this, especially towards a thorn.  In fact, I later found out that thorns were part of the curse that was placed on humanity back at the beginning, following their origins in the lush Garden of Eden.  When their disobedience drove them to eat of fruit that had been forbidden, God told Adam and Eve: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”  No wonder I have a self-image problem. 

As I said, love was something I had never felt before—it seemed to ooze out of every pore, from deep inside his being.  But the moment was bittersweet.  The feeling of love was tempered by my sudden realization that we were being not set upon this man’s head, but brutally shoved onto it.  We were pushed deeper and deeper into his scalp.  I was aghast!  The last thing that I wanted to do was cause any pain or discomfort to this man.  How could the soldiers and the crowd gathered around us not feel his love like I did?  How could they not see that this man wasn’t a criminal or a thug or a felon?  Why, he wouldn’t have harmed a fly, much less another person.  How could human beings be so cruel to another human being, especially one who exuded an appreciation for all things around him?

As I was pushed further into his scalp, I was overcome with emotion.  I could feel myself changing, transforming.  There was a sense of life in me that surpassed even being attached to my roots in the field.  It was a different and new life flowing in and through me.  It caused me to feel warm and soft.  Imagine that!  A harsh, sharp, rigid thorn feeling warm ad soft.  It wasn’t natural—or was it?  Maybe the better way to describe the way I felt is that it was “more” than natural.  It was flowing from him to me.  Here I was inflicting pain on him, and he was causing warmth, love, and peace of mind to flow into me at the same time.  How illogical is that?!

He returned love for pain.  He gave me warmth in a blizzard of hatred.  He offered me a hope that I had never experienced before that made me feel like I was actually wanted, that I had a unique place in the greater created order.  My feelings of worthlessness were overcome by a deeper feeling of purpose and fulfillment.  What kind of man was this?  He certainly didn’t deserve the abuse he was receiving.  And I know I didn’t deserve to feel the way I did, causing him all this pain and ridicule, but it happened anyway.  I understand that you have a word for this, you call it “grace.”

Well, that’s what happened.  That this man endured such bitterness and rage from other people, astonishes me!  What could he have done to evoke such hatred?  Why couldn’t they just see him for who he really is?  Love.  Pure unadulterated love.  Love incarnate in human flesh.  The rose of Sharon was adorned by a crown of painful thorns.  How fortunate you are for having discovered this for yourselves.  How blessed you are to know that you have an eternity to experience what I had for just a few moments.  How wonderful it is to know that the symbol of the curse has been transformed into a symbol of love and freedom.  Well, that’s my story.  I hope you get the point.

Pastoral Prayer

Let us pray for the church and for the world.

Grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world.

Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace, that we may honor one another and serve the common good.

Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.

Bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours and grant that we may serve Christ in them and love one another as he loves us.

Comfort and heal all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.  Give them courage and hope in their troubles and bring them the joy of your salvation.

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, mercifully accept the prayers of your people and strengthen us to do your will through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Blessing/Benediction

May the God of mercy help us to learn how to forgive ourselves and others.

May the Son who gave himself on the cross, free us from sin and renew the image of God within us.

And may the Holy Spirit sustain us through this time of prayer, self-denial, and repentance so that we may greet the empty tomb on Easter morning with joy and praise. 

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.