Descending Into Easter

“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’  The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (Matthew 21:10-11, NRSV)

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Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, and it marks the journey of Jesus from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem. As Jesus made his way into the city, crowds gathered alongside the road as if watching a parade. In a coronation-like procession, people began waving palm branches and shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

This procession is often referred to as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His glory was short-lived. As we will experience throughout the coming week in our array of worship services, the journey from Palm Sunday to Easter is a journey filled with suspense and suffering. Those who gathered on the road to hail Jesus’ ascent to the throne over Israel (and the world!) on Palm Sunday would witness his descent as a convicted criminal who was sentenced to die on Good Friday. We are all tempted to celebrate the triumphal entry and then return for the victory of Easter without having to endure the suspense and the suffering.

The whole story of our salvation is summed up in Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, our Savior came announcing the good news of God’s love for all people that would establish justice and peace. Like many of those who responded to Jesus’ offer of love and grace, we find ourselves in need of healing—of being made whole. Like Judas and the other disciples, in spite of the gift of God’s love, we betray him at worst, or desert him at best, and seek to provide for our security. Our choices send Jesus to the cross where he dies with love on his lips for each of us. On Easter, as much as we try to live lives that are less than what God would have us to live, God doesn’t give up on us, and he raises Jesus to new life—thus making it possible for you and me to enjoy a new life, too.

I invite you to experience the whole journey during Holy Week. Join us for as many of the worship experiences as possible. I promise you the fullness of the Holy Week journey will deepen your understanding and appreciation of the power of the resurrection we celebrate on Easter. But don’t experience the journey alone. Think of someone you know who could use some good news in their life, too. And invite them to join you.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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A Little Help

“As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.” (Matthew 27:32, NRSV)

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In the Passion narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, we read about a bystander who was near the procession that was leading Jesus to Golgotha for his crucifixion. We don’t know why he was there or even if he understood what was happening. Did he know Jesus and the reason for his execution? Was his presence near the procession planned or merely a coincidence? All we know about him is his name, and from whence he came—Simon of Cyrene.

Cyrene was somewhere around modern Tripoli, Libya. Simon could have been North African, or he could have been a Jew who relocated to Cyrene. If he were a Jew, it’s possible he had made the journey to Jerusalem for Passover. It’s also possible Simon could have been a trader, and the only reason he was in town was for business. There is no way for us to know why he was there and how much he knew about the situation. But his presence played a significant role in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

As was allowed by law, a Roman soldier ordered Simon to assist with carrying the cross that apparently Jesus was too weakened to carry. Having been severely beaten several times before the journey to the cross began, Jesus was already probably near death. I can imagine this service performed by Simon was a great relief to Jesus. Did Simon do it begrudgingly and only because he was compelled to do it, or was his heart filled with compassion for this suffering man? Again, there is no way for us to know.

One of the beautiful things about our church is the compassion that characterizes us. So many people give freely and generously so that the everyday suffering of those around us does not go unnoticed or without some gracious response. Several times this week I have paused to give thanks to God for those in our church who organized, gave support, and packed Little Brown Bags so that children in Birmingham would have something to eat over Spring Break. I gave thanks to God for those in our church who are on the mission trip to Panama and who found a way to build on the work of the Medical Mission Team that was in Panama a couple of weeks ago. I gave thanks to God for the miracle of Encore touching the lives of people and families who are struggling with the effects of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders.

We can’t always do as much as we would like to do; however, there’s always a willingness to do what we can. I thank God for being able to be a part of such a compassionate church. Like Simon of Cyrene, for whatever reason we do what we do, it’s making a difference.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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On the Road to Discovery

“As they came near the village to which they were going, [Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them.”
(Luke 24:28-29, NRSV)

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In the culture of Jesus’ day, hospitality was a big issue. In Luke’s gospel, we find the story of two disciples who are leaving Jerusalem on their way to a village called Emmaus. It is the same day as the resurrection of Jesus, and they are processing the events of the previous 72 hours trying to make sense of everything. It is during this dialogue that Jesus himself joins them on their journey. They do not recognize him but receive him as they would any stranger—as a welcome companion to join them on their journey.

Making conversation, Jesus asks them about what they were talking. The two men are amazed that Jesus has no clue about the turmoil in Jerusalem, so they begin to tell him all about it. Jesus listens intently. When they conclude their story with citing their disappointment that these events seem to have stymied their hopes of a Messiah, Jesus begins to line out in scripture how everything that happened was the fulfillment of prophecy.

The two disciples are amazed at what they hear, but they have yet to recognize this stranger as the one in whom they had so much hope—Jesus! By this time, they have reached Emmaus, and Jesus feigns to keep traveling. The two disciples compel him to stay with them and share a meal. So he does.

In a break with convention, as they begin to share the meal, Jesus assumes the role of host. He is supposed to be the guest. Jesus uses the meal as one last opportunity to teach these men he has traveled with one more lesson. In re-enacting the last supper, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the two disciples. At that moment, the disciples see and recognize the resurrected Jesus through this sacramental offering. And then Jesus immediately disappears.

St. Augustine said that for those of us who were not witnesses to the resurrected body of Jesus, all we have is the sacrament of Holy Communion as a means of experiencing the reality of his resurrection. It’s not just in the sacrament that we can see Jesus. We can see Jesus in the eyes of those with whom we share any meal, whether they be a family, a friend, or even a stranger. For in breaking bread with one another, Jesus is always in our midst, extending his love and grace through each of us. Bon appétit!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Jesus Is the Son of God

“When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54, NRSV)

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The Lenten journey is one that requires both the examination of scripture and the examination of self. We examine the scripture as a means of gaining a greater understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The results of the increased knowledge we gain about the work of God through his Son, Jesus Christ, then begins to make claims on us. If Jesus is the Son of God, then what does that mean for how we are to live our lives? This question leads to our need for self-examination as we measure the impact and the influence of the resurrection story on how we live—especially in relationship with others.

The centurion who was on guard during the crucifixion of Jesus was moved by what he saw. We have no idea how many other crucifixions he observed before this one. We have no idea how long he had served in his position or how much violence he witnessed in his life. The only clue we have about this man is that he, along with others, experienced fear as the earth shook in response to the death of Jesus. This fear caused him to make a statement of faith—“Surely he was the Son of God!”

What was it that convinced the centurion and the other guards that Jesus was the Son of God? Throughout Matthew’s narrative, those non-believers gathered at the cross scorned Jesus and mocked him. They extended a sponge of bitter-tasting liquid to his lips in a mean-spirited gesture. They ridiculed him by joking that he had called for the prophet Elijah to come and save him. Then he died. As he died, an earthquake tore apart the rocks nearby. It appears that in their fear, the mockers became believers. Is that what convinced them?

I think the centurion and his associates came to believe in Jesus as the Son of God through the love of Jesus that was on display on the cross. Although the earthquake was a sign that something significant had happened in his death, it was his love that spilled out more than his blood. Jesus’ love covered those hard-hearted people with a blanket of grace they had never experienced before.

As you stand at the foot of the cross of Jesus, who do you see? What characteristics does the One upon whom you gaze embody? And what are you moved to declare in response to what you see? These are the questions for each of us that will shape our futures.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Journey Continues

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 4:6-7, NRSV)

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Having faith in God is easy when things are smooth sailing. It’s when we face the unpredictable challenges that faith becomes more difficult. Trusting in God through these challenges will enable greater resilience to the ever-changing circumstances of life. Recognizing the ways God is at work in the midst of change will increase our faith in God.

Over the past several weeks, we announced some changes in our senior staff that will leave some big shoes to fill. Since those announcements, we have been working with the Staff-Parish Team of the church to make plans for both the short-term and the long-term needs of Canterbury. Here is a summary of the decisions thus far:

1. Rev. Tori Hastings will be the Director of Age-Level Ministries (formerly Whole Life Spirituality) and will supervise the staff leading Children’s Ministries, Student Ministries, Family Ministries, Adult Ministries, and Older Adult Ministries.

2. One of the vacancies we have is the Director of Children’s Ministries. We are already involved in the search for the perfect person to lead this vital ministry at Canterbury. In the interim period, Amy Dobbins, a member who serves on the Children’s Ministries Leadership Team, will oversee Children’s Ministries until the hiring of a new director.

3. In dialogue with Rob Hubbard, who serves over Student Ministries, we are increasing our staff resources in this area. In addition to Rob’s role as Coordinator of Student Ministries, Brian Ward will become the Director of Student and Family Ministries. Brian’s new role reflects the importance of ministering to the whole family.

4. Brian Ward’s new assignment leaves a gap in our Adult Ministries. A restructured position called Director of Adult and Small Group Ministries will fill this gap. A search team is being formed to find a candidate who will serve as the primary staff person resourcing Adult Sunday School and Adult Small Groups. Until this person is in place, Tori and Brian will still be available to assist with any needs in Adult Ministries.

5. After several months of evaluating The Way worship service on Sunday evenings, we determined that it was time to discontinue this service. Although The Way was a meaningful experience for some people, we are exploring other ways to meet the worshiping needs of our congregation at an alternative time.

We have heard you tell us Canterbury needs more focus on our discipleship ministries for all ages and these changes are a response to your requests. Change always presents challenges, but change also creates opportunities for growth. Let’s seek God’s peace that guards our hearts and minds as we implement this plan for growth at Canterbury.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Friends & Family

“Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.”
(Proverbs 18:24, NRSV)

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As a child, life in our neighborhood revolved around all the kids being out in the afternoon after school and playing until supper.  During the summer, as soon as we heard the first kids out playing, the whole neighborhood would drain from their houses and hit the yards.  Baseball, Tag, Capture the Flag, Red Rover, Football, Basketball, Sardines, and any other game we could think of, would occupy hours on end.  Even in the winter, we found ways to fill up our free time with outdoor games and fun.

After we exhausted ourselves, if it weren’t time to go inside for the evening, we would end up sitting on a rock wall or a front porch to wait for the call or the whistle that would send us home.  Often, we would joke with each other and tease each other.  Eventually, the conversation would die down, and we would just sit there in silence.

Occasionally, out of that silence, someone might ask a serious question.  There was always something behind the inquiry although the person asking tried to hide the real reason for asking.  Sometimes the question was a veiled revelation about fear, heartbreak, transgression, or some other hurt in the questioner’s family.  The unspoken rules were that we only dealt with the questions at a superficial level.  Our responses would never get specific because that would reveal that we already knew too much about the questioner’s situation—which we often did.  We were too young to know how to handle a lot of what we heard, so we probably weren’t much help to each other.  But we were there for each other as best as we could be.  That is what friends do.

I am thankful for my family, which was relatively healthy.  Unfortunately, not every family functions well.  Family life can be complicated.  Even the best of families can struggle at times.  Finding a safe place to talk about life in our families is helpful as we try to navigate the complexities of living life in proximity to one another.  A “true friend who sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” can be a blessing, especially if our family lets us down.

The church is the result of God’s intention that everyone should have a place of safety to deal with all that matters to them.  The church can be a family for those who need a family, or we can be a friend to those who need a friend.  Sometimes we’re both.  Let us be there for you, too.  We would love to share this journey of faith together.  I hope you’ll give us that opportunity.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Most Difficult Job

“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” (Proverbs 22:6, NRSV)

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I am thankful for my parents. They weren’t perfect. Even when they were trying to provide me with direction, they did so with humility. It was not as if they had all the answers, but it seemed to be more of a desire to share their own experience. They offered their perspective as a way of inviting me to consider how it might apply to whatever situation I found myself in.

A few years before my dad died, I was traveling across the northern part of the state on a weekly basis. My work with the conference had me in church meetings most weeknights, and so I would find myself driving home each evening between 8 and 9 pm, often with at least an hour or two behind the wheel. Every Thursday evening at 9 pm, I would call my dad and we would talk as long as I had a cell signal or until I got home. We talked about family and about my work, his woodworking projects, and occasionally our relationship with God. I loved those conversations. They are what I miss most about my father.

My mother was a worrier. She didn’t let her worry stop her from living her life, but there was always a sense of fear that she carried with her. She was a protector, and she was always on the lookout for any threat. Once she identified a threat, she would begin to formulate a plan to neutralize it. She could be a true mama bear!

Our parents teach us how to parent. It’s one of the hardest jobs in the world because every child is different and responds to any style of parenting in their own unique way. What works in parenting one child doesn’t work in parenting another. Parenting is an eclectic art form at best and an inexact science at worst. None of us gets it right or does it perfectly. But, if we have children, we must try. Even our adult children still need the influence of a parent. Just ask those of us whose parents are both deceased.

Today, we’re exploring parenting in the context of The Family Series. We’re not putting ourselves forward as experts at parenting; rather, we are humbly inviting you to consider the care you provide for the children in your life—whether they are your biological children, your grandchildren, your sibling’s children, or your neighbor’s children. Parenting is really a responsibility of the whole community of faith. We say as much every time we baptize a child. We will so order our lives…

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Family Series

Last week, our morning worship services began a four-week study of families. In two of the services, the comment was made that many of the families described in the Bible were what we would today call dysfunctional. This raises a question: what was normal family life in the biblical period? Rev. Dale Cohen invited Dr. Paul McCracken, our Traditional Worship Coordinator who has extensive knowledge on Middle Eastern culture and the Bible, to share some insights on families in the biblical period.

First of all, it was very different from family life today. Families lived in multi-generational and extended family homes. When a son married, he moved into another room of his father’s house or – if the family was particularly wealthy – into a house adjacent to his father’s. Each individual family unit slept together (children in the same room as their parents) but sleep was the only activity where a husband, wife, and their (unmarried) children were together. All other work was broken down by gender: the men (grandfather, fathers, and their sons) worked together outside while the women (grandmother, wives, and daughters) worked together in the home.

This was a very patriarchal society. The word of the oldest male in the household was law. A man’s responsibilities and obedience to his father did not change once he reached a certain age. They only changed when the father died and then, if the man had a living older brother, those responsibilities, allegiance, and obedience transferred to the older brother. A woman’s responsibilities and obedience transferred from her father to her husband and his father once she got married.

Women were either pregnant or nursing. In order to have two children survive to adulthood, a woman might need as many as six pregnancies. Although we have no reliable data from the Old Testament period, studies have shown that during the first century, one out of every four pregnancies ended with the death of the mother. Both girls and boys would get married and begin to have children as soon as their bodies allowed for it.

Family life was so home-centered that there is no Hebrew word that translates directly to the English word “family”. When one sees the word “family” in the Old Testament, the word behind it is almost always the Hebrew word bayit, which literally translates to “house”.

Living in this way meant that people were deeply immersed in their family. There was little sense of individuality; a person’s self-image came from their role in the family. When we are asked, “Who are you?” our answer often includes things such as our occupation. In that culture, the answer always includes phrases such as “son of”, “daughter of”, or “wife of”.

In our modern world, families include relationships in addition to those linked by blood or marriage. Many of these relationships were discussed in detail last Sunday morning. As we continue this series, let us remember Jesus’ words:

“(A)ll of you are brothers and sisters. (Y)ou have one Father, who is in heaven.”

The Family Series

“[Parents}, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4, NIV)

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We’re doing a sermon series in February on families.  As always, we will be sensitive to the variety of families we have in our congregation.  We recognize that we have many single people at various stages of singleness.  We recognize that not every family has children or grandchildren.  We recognize that we have individuals who are struggling with the dysfunction of their families.  We promise there will be plenty of wisdom and insight from God’s Word in this series for everyone regardless of their family situation.  After all, we’re all a part of the “family of God!”

One of the neglected practices in family life is determining the core values that will shape your household.  Many people unconsciously adopt the values that were unwittingly passed on from their family of origin.  Sometimes, the resulting dysfunction is proof of the biblical saying that the sins of one generation are passed on to the generations that follow!  What if we consciously determined the values that were the most important to us and made a commitment to live out those values on a daily basis?

In Ephesians, Paul instructs parents not to exasperate their children.  Other translations say not to “provoke your children to anger.”  I prefer The New International Version’s use of the word “exasperate.”  The exasperation comes from an inconsistency in the values that are lifted up as the core.  In one instance, we may praise our children for their competitiveness.  In another instance, we may chastise them for being too aggressive in their pursuit of something.  Without an undergirding value to help our children understand the difference between those two instances, our children become frustrated or exasperated.  Maybe the family values behind both incidences are being the best they can be and not hurting others.  Teaching the values determines the appropriate behavior.

Have you considered the values that drive your family?  Would you be willing to make a list of the important values out of which you operate and then translate those values into how you want your family to interact with others?  If you are willing, then after you’ve completed your list, invite your family or friends to reflect with you on those values.  Inquire as to how faithful they perceive you are in fulfilling those values.  Come to some agreement that you can draft as the core values of your family and then commit to living by them daily.  In this way, you will strengthen all your relationships and experience life in new and powerful ways.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Courage to Wait On the Promise

“[God] took [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’  Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6, NIV)

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Promises are a beautiful thing. Usually, a promise is extended from one person to another in a relationship where trust already exists, where trust is developing, or where there is hope of a trusting relationship. The fulfillment of the promise causes the relationship to flourish, and trust grows. Unfortunately, promises are not always kept. We refer to these as broken promises. In failing to fulfill the promise, the one making the promise loses the trust of the other. The relationship suffers.

The Bible is a book full of promises. Interestingly, the majority of the promises we read in the Bible are the promises of God to his people. Time and time again, God, seeking to develop our trust in him, offers a promise to us. Here is a promise that is familiar to many of us:

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

Abram, who would later be renamed Abraham, received the promise from God that, although he was advanced in years (another way of saying he was beyond the age of being able to father a child), he would be the father of many offspring. These offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and form a great nation known as the people of God. If God came through on this promise, it would be a miracle of epic proportions. Abram faced a critical choice: Either he could trust God in spite of the evidence given his advanced years, or he could remain in despair and potentially miss out on God’s blessing. Abraham chose the former, and God did what he promised—resulting in the twelve tribes of Israel.

I said Abram chose to believe which is ultimately right; however, there was a slight detour to his faithfulness. In Genesis 16, you see Sarai, Abraham’s wife, usurp waiting on God and offering up her servant, Hagar, to Abram as another wife and as a surrogate to bear a child. Ishmael is born of this union, but it only leads to jealousy. Waiting on God is always the preferred option to forcing our solutions. It’s not until Genesis 21 that Abram and Sarai see the fulfillment of God’s promise. It takes faith to wait. It takes courage to continue believing when the evidence suggests God is not coming through with what he promised. How often does our impatience delay the fulfillment of what God intends? What promise are you awaiting God to fulfill? Wait on the promise!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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