[#pictureLent] April 1: SEE

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By Shelley Walters    
Trinity Church of Austin, Director of Community Life
Austin, Texa

First, read John 20:16-18

Seeing Beyond Our Expectations

As I prepare for Easter Sunday each year, several things come to mind. Knowing we’ll decorate the cross with flowers, I make sure to find fresh blooms to share. I expect we’ll sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with the smell of lilies filling the sanctuary. I look forward to saying “Alleluia” with renewed gusto! Even now, I can envision the group of ladies who always wear fun and fancy Easter hats, and I can almost hear them ask why I have let another Easter morning go by without purchasing my own hat. 

But I wonder what expectations were held that first Easter morning. 

Even before the sun had risen - after the Sabbath day had passed - Mary Magdalene journeyed to Jesus’ tomb. Before she left home, I wonder if she collected all the oils she owned, expecting to use every drop in anointing the body of her beloved teacher. 

She must have walked slowly to the tomb, exhausted from the previous days - the smell of spices trailing behind her. Did she have a plan for moving the heavy stone away by herself? Did she expect to find guards there - or friends? 

When she saw the stone had been rolled away, she might have nearly dropped her oil jars before she ran to get Peter and John. As they hurried to the tomb, did they foresee a confrontation with Roman guards? 

As Mary sat alone and wept with warm tears running down her face, did she expect that all Jesus had taught them was now lost? I wonder if she recalled Jesus’ words when they had shared bread and wine together. 

When she turned and saw him, yet did not see that it was Jesus, was it merely her vision clouded by tears that kept her from recognizing him? Or was it her expectations – so far from the hope of resurrection – that blinded her to understanding that the glory of the risen Christ shone before her very eyes?

Of all the possible expectations that first Easter day, surely Mary Magdalene did not wake up that morning thinking she would speak to Jesus, let alone be the first to preach the good news that Christ had risen! 

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, thank you for being beyond all that we can expect. Open my eyes that I may see anew the resurrection hope you bring. In Christ’s name, Alleluia, Amen.  

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1. What was a “seeing” moment that has shifted your own understanding? 
2. When have your expectations gotten in the way of seeing something?
3. How have you witnessed the resurrecting hope of Christ in the world? 

[#pictureLent] March 31: SPICE

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By Ralph Thompson
Grape Creek UMC
San Angelo TX

First, read John 19:39-42

“How courageous am I in my faith?” This is a question that I no longer have to ask of myself. Several years ago, I was invited to preach at a church and, following worship, the congregation treated me to dinner at THE place to eat in their small town. As we were going through the buffet, the pastor whispered to me that, it was not expected that we would offer a blessing before eating, as it would draw unwanted attention to ourselves.

As in many of our small towns, the “United Methodist People” are often the business and civic leaders and, being outwardly Christian could be antithetical to their business and social status.

Likewise, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Council and a person of importance and prominence and power. Although he earnestly believed that Jesus was the Son of God, he feared what would happen, if others associated him with Christ.

However, not only did Nicodemus openly go to Christ, he carried a “gift” of such a large size and fragrance that it could not be concealed! I close my eyes and imagine this little guy and a probable entourage of helpers delivering 75 pounds of spices to the Crucified Lord. What happened to give Nicodemus the courage to openly serve the Son of God?

Now, back to the buffet. As we sat down to eat, I bowed my head in prayer. When I raised my head, the entire congregation was staring at me!

However, one of the members called me a few days later and said, “Somebody needed to do that a long time ago!”

Individually, many members of the church actually wanted to simply say a blessing in public, but the collective congregation feared an open display of who they are in Christ.

And, yes, I continue to pray over my meal, whether alone or with others and whether in “Pappadeaux” or “McDonald’s.” The most common response that I (we) get is, “It is so refreshing to see people (especially, men) say Grace!”

Prayer: God of Grace, give us the courage to proclaim Your sacrifice in Jesus Christ, so that others might learn of Your Love. Amen

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

 1. So, how courageous are you in YOUR faith? Are you bold enough to recognize Christ as Lord beyond the walls of the church?
2. In what ways can we proclaim our faith before others that may not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
3. Has there ever been a time when you felt reluctant to reveal your faith? What was the occasion? And what did you do about it?

[#pictureLent] March 30: DENY

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By Rev. Lee Yates    
Managing Editor, InsideOut Curriculum
Covina, CA

First, read John 18:25-27

There is a thin line between lie and deny. Peter’s first denial is really a lie to allow him access to the courtyard of the High Priest, were Jesus had been taken. The next two are covering the first lie.

Peter is crowded around a fire with others who are supposed to be there, while he is simply trying to be near the action. 

Does he think he can rescue Jesus? Does he simply want to know what is happening? Whatever his motivation is – whatever his excuse is, Peter finds himself denying that he is one of Jesus’ disciples. It starts with a lie for a noble cause, then one lie covers the next till the rooster crows. 

I imagine Peter hearing the crow, like an alarm going off in his head. 
I imagine Peter arguing with the bird, and with Jesus words: “I didn’t deny him! I’m just trying to stay close!” 
I imagine Peter arguing with himself: “That’s not denial – I’m just following Jesus, right?” 
I imagine Peter wrestling with is own words, motivations, and the situational ethics before him. 

Peter is desperate to stay close to Jesus and does what is needed. He also lies and deceives. Jesus never asked him to come along. There is nothing Peter can do to change the outcome. Still, in Peter’s head, the whole thing probably made sense. 

A couple thousand years later we understand the dilemma. We still wrestle with the “spirit of the Law” vs the “letter of the Law.” We still find ourselves justifying our behaviors. Sometimes we second-guess ourselves. Other times we deny that we could be wrong. Complex internal arguments get woven to protect us from self-reflection- the roots of denial. 

Our brothers and sisters in recovery programs talk about taking a “fearless moral inventory.” I wonder how Peter would have felt about his choices if he had been honest with himself? I wonder how honest we are about our ethics? There is a thin line between lie and deny, and its even thinner when we lie to ourselves. 

Prayer: Lord, guide us as we navigate our own hearts and minds. Help us be true to our call while facing the complex world around us. Give us courage to stand firm, grace when we fall short, and wisdom to discern the space between. Amen. 

Discussion/Reflection Questions: 

1.     I wonder if Peter was completely wrong in telling a lie to stay close to Jesus? 
2.    How do we know when to bend the rules and when to draw a clear line?
3.    I wonder if you have ever been in denial about our own behavior or motivations?

[#pictureLent] March 29: DISCIPLE

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By Rev. Amanda Crice
UT Martin Wesley Foundation Director
Martin, TN

First, read John 13:33-35

Do you remember in school right before a big test how teachers would always pull out the stops for a big review session? My favorite teachers would do everything in their power to make sure the most important points stuck in my brain. In today’s passage, Jesus claims the role of teacher and gives a very memorable review session. 

On his last night with his closest friends, Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt down, and washed the feet of his disciples. We’ve heard this story a lot, maybe so much that we’ve become numb to the significance of what is going on here. Take a minute and think about the context:

Washing feet before a meal was a common practice, but it was the job of a slave. Not just any slave, but the lowest of low slaves. Only the lowest of low would be asked to wash someone’s feet after they had walked around in sandals on dirt roads that were shared by travel animals and whatever waste those animals left behind. 

I’m not trying to be crude, but an understanding of the filth is necessary to gain an understanding of the supreme level of humility, service, and love that Jesus displayed to his disciples there during that last “review session”. This display was so radical that it made the disciples very uncomfortable. They just knew Jesus was above this; surely the Son of God should leave jobs like this to the kind of people that are supposed to do that stuff.

In response to their protestations Jesus replies, “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:13-15)

Wow. Talk about a gut check. 

This is what it means to be a disciple.

In our current context we are conditioned by different examples. A sense of entitlement runs rampant as we are told by advertisements that we deserve to treat ourselves to the best of the best. We compete and compare on social media. And, we seek to find our worth and fulfillment in our accomplishments. 

Jesus is teaching another lesson, though. It isn’t rank, wealth, social status, possessions or worldly accomplishments that show our mastery of the material Jesus presents us with. These things don’t make us good disciples. Instead, Jesus leaves us with this, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

Prayer: Jesus, you have prepared us and shown us the way to be your disciples. Fill our hearts with your love that empowers us to live in your example. Amen.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Jesus’ example and call to discipleship require of you in your current context?
  2. What obstacles or social constructs seem to stand in the way of answering that call to discipleship?

[#pictureLent] March 28: TEACHER

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By Rev. W. Ryan Hall
RiverTree Family Church
Apollo Beach, Florid

First, read John 13:12-17

Doctor Sommerville was intoning in his NPR-quality voice about the Kingdom of Wessex. His eyes were dancing as he described Alfred the Great’s abrasive qualities. He paused in the middle of a story that was not especially gripping to our group of university sophomores when a hand jumped up.

Excited with the engagement, Dr. Sommerville called on the student who asked what we were all wondering, “Is this going to be on the exam?” Visibly deflated, the old professor of medieval England returned to the material on the class syllabus. The answer was clearly, “No.”

Dr. Sommerville had so much more to teach us than was ever going to be contained in his lectures. He loved his work and the gift of teaching what he had learned. He was looking to excite us with his life work. Most of us were just looking to get through the class with a passing grade.

During those college years, I attended a retreat where one of the leaders carried his guitar around playing music that awakened our hearts. I felt alive as he played. I became energized to be like him.

I saved up some money and found a consignment guitar and set about learning to play. I would play chords out of a book, but that was dry and lifeless. Then I would ask some friend who played to help me. Inevitably that one would agree to help and then sit there jamming and riffing and leaving me to marvel at such skill and lament my own lack.

Two different teaching styles--the same frustrating outcome. The common denominator is a poorly motivated student. Jesus is an excellent teacher. His lectures or sermons are engaging and inspiring. His example is moving and compelling. So often, I approach the gift of Jesus’ divine instruction with the same limp attitude I approached guitar or medieval England, “Just tell me what I need to know. Just show me how to do it.” Essentially, “Just make it easy for me.”

The teaching Jesus offers in lesson and example is vital. He truly is the way. But the way is not easy. It is not quickly picked up by absorption in some class. Jesus’ example invites us to a deep level of surrender. It requires profound commitment. But the answer still is not merely found in informed assent or increased effort. The aim of Jesus’ teaching is not simply so we might engage the lesson, but rather so we would embrace the teacher.

Prayer: Master and Teacher, show me the way. Give me an eagerness to learn, not just with my mind, but with my life. May I follow you in all things. May I never be quite satisfied with what I have already learned. May I always find peace in embracing you and the new thing you are always doing. Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1.     How do you make it difficult to learn the lessons Jesus is teaching?
2.     What lesson have you been struggling to learn?
3.     What would it look like for you to fully embrace the teacher today?