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Good Friday                                                                                                                                                                               The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
April 10, 2020                                                                                                                                                                         Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

Reflections on the Seven Last Words of Christ

First Word:                                          And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

     But of course we do know, do know what we are doing, know very well what we are doing. That is our guilt. That is our shame.

     And yet, perhaps we do not know what we do. Perhaps we do not realize that with our cruel words and the prejudices we voice, with our thoughtless actions or our failure to act, with our angers and bitternesses, with our going along with our culture and our unwillingness to be shaped by and live out the Gospel, we do kill Christ, kill his love, kill hope. If people do not see in us who profess to be Christian the love of Christ, then we are crucifying him all over again.

     Father, forgive us.


Second Word:                               And Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

     And that is our hope: that someday we shall be with Christ in Paradise.

     But if our hope is based on our own goodness or religiousness or even faith, then we have no hope. For we are no different than the thief on the cross who pleaded for Jesus to remember him: our hope rests on God’s grace and mercy alone. That is the stark truth of the cross. The cross was made necessary by the way world is, the way we are.

     And our only hope and prayer is that of the thief’s: “Remember me.” 


Third Word:                                   And Jesus said, “This is your son… This is your mother.”

     At the end, Jesus spoke to his mother’s deepest need and gave her a son to be the son he was never able to be to her. Jesus said that his true family were all who believed in him and he put that family above Mary and his own family and it must have hurt her deeply. But her greatest pain was to watch him die – it was like a sword piercing her heart. And so, Jesus gave her another son to love and a son who would love her and take care of her.

     At the end, Jesus forgot his own pain and spoke to Mary’s pain. As believers who are part of his family and who are to be like family to one another, we are to do the same: we are to forget ourselves and look after the other, love one another.

     Love with the very same love seen on the cross.


Fourth Word:                                    And Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

     And we ourselves know something about that – what it is like to feel forsaken by God, for God not to be there when we need him most.

     The Bible speaks as much about God’s absence as it does God’s presence and Jesus himself experienced that absence in his worst moment. But still, he held fast to God, cried out to God. Faith describes what we do in our worst moments, what we do when God is nowhere in sight.

     To cry out to the absent God is faith, the very faith of Jesus that carried him out the other side of death to life.


Fifth Word:                                           And Jesus said, “I thirst.”

     And we too thirst – thirst for love, peace, joy, something to fill the empty place down deep inside. Spiritual thirst can be as bad as physical thirst. Both can lead to death, whether it be the death that is despair or the death of the body. So powerful is thirst that we will do most anything to quench it and much of what we see in our culture today is just that: people filling themselves with everything they can in the hope that it satisfy their longing. 

     Jesus once said that whoever believes in him will never be thirsty, because he was like a spring of life-giving water that can quench our deepest thirst. And yet, he himself thirsted.

     He is a Savior who chose to know our thirst so that he would be a Savior in whom we could believe and thirst no more.


Sixth Word:                                        And Jesus said, “It is finished.”

     But did Jesus mean that his life was at an end or that he had fulfilled his purpose? Both: for by being obedient unto death he completed his work, fulfilled God’s purpose of redeeming his creation. He did what he set out to do, what God called him to do. In John’s gospel, they are the last words Jesus spoke and they are words of triumph.

     And you and I? What will our last words be? Will they be, “If only…” or “I wish…” or “I regret not doing…”? Or will we say, “I have lived my purpose, I have obeyed God’s call, I have completed what I set out to do”? As with Jesus, so too with us: the choice is ours.

     What Jesus finished was the working of our salvation, setting us free to be what God calls us to be. If we choose to live in the power of that salvation, then our last words can be words of if not triumph, certainly words of thankfulness and praise.


Seventh Word:                               And Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

     As death approached, Jesus commended his spirit to God, entrusted himself to the God who had promised to see him through death unto life. It was his final act of faith.

     And as death approaches, that is all each of us can do: entrust ourselves to God’s grace and mercy, commend our spirits to his care. We die as we live: in faith, the faith that trusts that we will be safe in the hands of God and that God will raise us up also at the last. 

     The cross of Christ is ultimately a love story: the story of a lover giving all for the sake of the beloved. Because God gave all for the sake of our salvation, we can dare to trust his love for us and, like Jesus, love him through death unto life.

Maundy Thursday Letter from Pastor Jeff


Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

P. O. Box 961690
Riverdale, Georgia 30296
(770) 997-7117                                        (770) 997-3312

Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor
April 9, 2020

Dear Member,

     For years, the way we observed Maundy Thursday was to gather in the Fellowship Hall for a simple meal of soup and crackers. Following the meal, I would deliver a sermon and then we would commune one another as we sat around a table made up of several tables arranged to be one. The service then concluded in the sanctuary.

     The attached sermon is one I did nearly every year and I’m passing it along in the hope it will help you observe Maundy Thursday at home in some way. The characterizations draw heavily from the writings of Frederick Bucchner and I gladly acknowledge my indebtedness to him.

     Not being able to gather for Holy Week services makes this not only a very strange but also very difficult week, but I hope you will make time each day to remember the story of those days and what it says to us today.

     We continue to pray for all those everywhere who have contracted the coronavirus and for the families of those who have succumbed to it. And we pray for all those who are risking their health to assure our health and protection and well-being. And for all who are struggling financially and worried about putting food on the table. Move us to do whatever we can to help and give us the strength to keep sheltering in place for the good of all.

     May the God who is a very present help in trouble be with us in this trouble and lead us beyond it,

                                                                                    Pastor Halenza


Maundy Thursday Sermon


Maundy Thursday                                                                                                                                                                The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
|April 9, 2020 Christ                                                                                                                                                                           Our Hope Lutheran Church

Maundy Thursday is the day on which we remember Jesus and his disciples having a meal together, the meal they ate together on the night of his arrest and trial, the night before his crucifixion – the last meal they ate together, the Last Supper as we have come to call it. During the meal, Jesus took some bread and gave it a name – his body – and took some wine and gave it a name too – his blood – and he gave the bread and wine to his disciples and told them that he was giving his life so that they could have life; he told them to take his life into their lives so that he would live in them and they would know true life. This giving of the bread and wine is what we now to call Communion. Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

And that is what we are to do on Maundy Thursday: remember that night long ago, and remember him.

Remember Jesus.


But the truth is that we sometimes forget Jesus.

If you’re anything like me, then by Tuesday or Wednesday you have forgotten him in the midst of all the demands and pressures, confusion and chaos, pain and loneliness. Even as a church we sometimes forget him – in the midst of all the busyness and meetings and goings on we can forget that finally the only reason the church is here is Christ and that what we are to be is him, Christ one to the other.

So let us remember, remember Christ. 


And the place to begin, I think, is with trying to picture the room in which Jesus and his closest followers gathered. It is a plain room. The walls are bare and the night has painted them with shades of gray. Candles burn to hold the darkness back, but they only barely hold it back. There is a cooking fire in the corner and the smoke from the fire has made the dim light in the room thick and heavy. There is a wooden table and on the table there is what remains of a meal of fish and bread and wine. And around the table sit some men, while off to one side stand some women who are looking on. Some of those at the table seem tired and can barely keep their eyes open. Another one seems very nervous and keeps looking towards the door. A couple of them are smiling as if they had just remembered a joke they had heard that morning. And at the head of the table sits One whose eyes are alive. But not with laughter. He is leaning forward. He is saying something. And you get the feeling that whatever he is saying, he wants with all of his heart for the other ones to hear it. You get the feeling what whatever he is saying somehow it could make all the difference in the world to them if they could only hear it and believe it.

And now try to picture those who were gathered in that room.

But just who did gather that night?


Well, sitting over here are James and John.

They are brothers, the sons of Zebedee. 

They can barely keep their eyes open they are so tired. Jesus called them “Men of Thunder”, probably because they were big, loud, boisterous fellows. But tonight they are tired and unusually quiet.

Really, we don’t know much about them, except that they were a couple of mama’s boys. You see, they were the ones who got their mama to ask Jesus to give them the top spots in the kingdom of God, they were the ones who wanted to be promoted over all the other disciples and “be named Executive Vice-Presidents of the kingdom.” They wanted the plush offices right next to his. They “wanted keys to the executive washroom.” Of course, Jesus knew who put mama up to asking him and so he looked right past her and asked the boys, “Do you have any idea what you are asking? Do you realize you’re asking for big trouble when you ask to be made great in the kingdom? Can you drink the cup of suffering I am about to drink?” And the boys gulped hard and said they could. But you get the feeling they really didn’t mean it, that it never dawned on them what they were asking for, what they were in for. And, as you might expect, when the rest of the disciples got wind of what was going on, they really got steamed because they figured they were being aced out of the prime spots. So Jesus had to sit them all down and try once again to get it through their thick heads what this kingdom thing was all about. And what he told them was this: if you want to be great, then you have to serve others; if you want to be first, then you have to be willing to be last; and what the whole thing boiled down to was not being served, but serving and giving and even suffering for the sake of another. Now whether the other disciples finally got the point, I do not know, but it seems that James and John missed it again. You see, in a few hours, they would fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus was a few feet away sweating blood over the suffering he was facing. And what they were dreaming about, I have no idea – maybe those big offices right next to the boss’ office.

Well, anyway, picture them sitting there, tired, their heads almost too heavy to hold up. 


And now, picture Andrew.

Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter. And, of course, Simon Peter was the center of things, “the one who in the group photographs,” was always seen standing beside Jesus, the one whom Jesus called “the rock”, the one whom Jesus felt he could count on the most. And so picture Andrew “living in the shadow of his brother.”

Do you know what it’s like to live in the shadow of a brother — or a sister? Do you know what it’s like to feel that your brother or your sister is the favored one?

And so picture Andrew figuring out a way to get some attention, picture him thinking about a joke he heard that morning, thinking about telling that joke to the others the first chance he got.

And maybe thinking too that he feels like a joke sometimes, that he is a joke, a bad joke.


And who else is there?

Well, Matthew is there.

Saint Matthew as we refer to him.

But Matthew was no saint. At least not when he first hooked up with Jesus – when he first hooked up with Jesus he was an out and out crook. Matthew had been a tax collector for the Roman government and working for Rome as a tax collector was a sweet deal. Rome would set the amount it wanted from a particular district and, as long as the quota was met, the boys in Rome were happy – if the tax collector could squeeze more out of the people, well, that was his to keep. So the idea was to beat the people out of as much as you could. Needless to say, “when Matthew came oiling down the street, any self-respecting person would cross to the other side.”

His own people saw him as a traitor, Rome saw him as a stooge, and what Matthew thought of himself, we do not know, but chances are he did not like what he saw in the mirror every morning as he shaved.


And, oh yes, there is Thomas.

“Doubting Thomas” as he has been called down through the centuries.

And Thomas has been called that because following the resurrection of Jesus, when the other disciples claimed that they had seen Jesus alive, Thomas said that he would not believe it unless he could “see the nail marks for himself and touch those ruined hands.” Thomas preferred to stick to what he could see and touch. And he was never short on questions.

It was hard for Thomas to believe, so hard.

But little did Thomas know, sitting there that night, that in a few days he would see and touch those ruined hands and not have a question left to ask and only be able to stammer, “My Lord and my God”. 


And then picture Nathaniel.

He’s “wearing glasses as thick as a bottom of a Coke bottle” and he’s as blind as a bat without them. His nose is buried in a book.

But now he looks up and you can see butter on his chin. He takes his glasses off and as he’s cleaning them with his sleeve he squints in the dim light at the One who is sitting at the head of the table. Nathaniel is perplexed because everything he has read says that he can’t be the One.

Nathaniel keeps wondering, can anything good come out of Nazareth, can anything good come out of Smyrna?

He puts his glasses back on and returns to his book not realizing that even with his glasses on he’s blind as a bat because sitting there right in front of him is the One, the One he’s been looking for all his life.


And then, standing off to one side, is Mary, Mary Magdalene.

“Painted up like a cigar store Indian she stands there. A retread if there ever was one. She has more miles on her than a ‘57 Chevy. Mary’s been around. Old tart, old wreck, old brokenheart.”

But Mary knew a thing or two about love and she knew a thing or two about courage also and Mary had more love and courage than the rest of them put together. She stuck it out to the end and even beyond. In a few hours, all the others will have hightailed it into the hills leaving Jesus holding the bag.

But not Mary. Last friend, best friend, she will stick it out and stand at the foot of the cross. 

And on Sunday morning you will find her standing outside an empty tomb and whatever dark doubts you might have about what happened that morning, “one look at her face would be enough to melt them all away like the morning mist”.


And over here is Martha, busy as always.

Martha is cleaning up.

She wants to fuss at the men for being so messy, but she thinks better of it. She also wants to fuss at the One at the head of the table and tell him that he needs to take better care of himself, but she is afraid to say anything.

She wipes her hands on her apron and sits down for the first time since morning. She is worn out. Weariness washes over her like a great wave. She knows the men laugh at her fussiness and think she’s foolish. But staying busy is the only way she knows to keep back the emptiness and deadness she feels down deep inside.

And as she sits there wanting to rub her aching feet, she wishes with all of her heart that he would put life in her like he once put life into her brother Lazarus and raise her up out of all that is dead and empty inside her.


And then, of course, Simon Peter was there, Simon the Rock. 

But you have to wonder sometimes just why Jesus did call Simon “the rock.” Maybe because he could be as dense as a rock. Half the time Simon didn’t know which end was up and he was always making a fool out of himself. Simon had a big mouth and “he was always putting his foot into his big mouth and having to eat his big words.” But you have to hand it to Simon. He was always willing to stick his neck out. While the other ones played it safe, Simon was willing to put it on the line. On another evening, when the disciples were out in the middle of a lake in a boat, Jesus came to them walking on the water. While the other disciples cowered in fear, Peter stepped out on the water and actually made it a few steps. But then he took his eyes off Jesus and Peter the Rock sank like a rock. But at least he risked it, stepped out into the unknown with faith. And maybe that’s why Jesus called him “the rock”, because he could count on Peter to stick his neck out, and maybe that’s what Jesus figured the church needed most of all, what you could build a church on — somebody willing to stick his neck out, step out into the unknown with faith, and make a fool of himself for Jesus’ sake and not just be a plain fool.

And so picture Simon Peter sitting there ready to open his big mouth, ready to tell Jesus that he can count on him, that even though all the others might run away and try to save their own skins, even though all the others might deny him, he wouldn’t, no sir, not him.

And now picture Simon Peter standing in the darkness of the morning with tears “rolling down his face like rain down a rock” because in spite of his own big words he saved his own skin, he denied that he even knew Jesus.

And thus you have a picture of how hard it is not to play it safe, how hard it is to risk all, how easy it is to kid ourselves about this commitment business. And you also have a picture of why it is that we so desperately need God’s forgiveness. 


And then there is Judas, nervously eyeing the door.

Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus.

Now do not picture Judas as evil; picture him as having the best of intentions.

Judas never meant to hurt Jesus; he never meant for it to turn out like it did. He just wanted to force Jesus’ hand, to force Jesus to use his power the way he wanted. He figured that once Jesus was confronted by those clowns from the Temple, Jesus would act, let loose, use his power to take over and be a real king. Judas was so sure that if he just forced his hand, Jesus would do what he wanted him to do, be what he wanted him to be. Judas never figured that Jesus would just stand there, just stand there, and say and do nothing. Judas never figured what they would do to those hands, what Jesus would let them do to him.

And Judas also probably never figured that very soon he himself would be hanging from a tree, hung by his own good intentions.


And then, at the head of the table, sits The One whose eyes are alive.

He has a scrap of bread in his hand and he is leaning forward. He is saying something. And you get the feeling that whatever he is saying he wants with all his heart for them to hear it. You get the feeling that whatever he is saying somehow it could make all the difference in the world to them if they could only hear it and believe it.

And what he says is this: “Given for you.” 

“Given for you old crock and crook, given for you big mouth and bad joke, given for you mama’s boys, doubter and blind man, weary one and empty one, even for you betrayer.”

What he wants with all of his heart for them to hear are the words, “Given for you.”

Because they are the words that can make all the difference in the world.

Because to hear those words is to hear the words of life and hope and to believe those words is to somehow have life and hope.


And so once again we observe Maundy Thursday.

And the words we hear in the story are the words we have heard so many times before: “Given for you.”

They are simple words, and yet perhaps they are words which we still do not fully understand.

It is a terribly difficult thing to understand how one life willingly given can bring life to all. Perhaps all we can say is that there is tremendous power in those words – there is the power to transform life, to transform old crocks and crooks, big mouths and bad jokes, mama’s boys and doubters and blind men, weary ones and empty ones, even betrayers.

The power to transform even you and me. 


Who knows?

Maybe if we could finally hear those words, truly hear them, hear that we are loved, forgiven, we might even want to give ourselves to him and let him live in and through us.

Just picture that!

A Prayer for Holy Week


A Prayer for Holy Week

O Lord, as we go through these coming days,
              without being able to gather on
        Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or even Easter,
                                           help each of us
                        to switch off the TV,
                                                       shut down Facebook,
                                                                            turn off the phones,
                                            and for a time
                 quiet our hearts and minds enough,
                                push back the fears and anxieties enough,
                                       forget our worries and preoccupations enough,
                                                                         to hear
                           what the story of those days
                                                 says to the story of our days,
                                                               the scary days
                                                                       we are going through.

O Lord, help us to hear the story as the
                                             love story
                                                                it is,
            the story of a lover giving all for the sake of
                                                                       the beloved;
                  the story of a lover who knows
                                                          what we are like and yet
                                                     does not turn away,
                                               loves us into becoming the selves we should be,
                                                                   and so want to be;
                           the story of a love stronger than death,
                                                            a love that loves us
                                                                                            through death
                                                                                unto life anew,
                                                                          a love that has the power
                                      to lift us up in the midst
                                                   of all things
                                                           in hope.

O Lord, of all the stories we need to hear in these days,
                          it is the story of those days,
                                                          the story that proclaims
             that you remain faithful even if we are
                   that you remain faithful to your promise,
                                                   faithful to your people,
     and you will keep saving and delivering us
                                             day after day
                                  until at last
                            you deliver us unto life eternal. 

And so help us, O Lord, to trust the story,
                                                                                     to trust
                                             ourselves to your love,
                                                                       to trust
                        ourselves to the One who is our hope
                                                         and salvation,
            so that in these days
       we can be strong,
                                       be brave,
                                                     be faithful,
                            and lift up our hearts
       we know that you will love us through these days,
                    love away our fears
                                love us unto better days,
                                                      of gladness
                                         and new possibility.

And we continue to pray, O Lord, for those everywhere
              who have contracted the virus
                                                                           and for those
                             who put themselves at risk
                                                       for our sake,
                                                                and for those
                                      who have died and those who grieve.
    Heal them!
           Strengthen them!
                                        Comfort them!
                                                                   And for those
                     who have lost their jobs,
                                   who are struggling financially,
                                                 who aren’t sure if they can
                                                              put food on the table,
                                                                           and for
                             the children and most vulnerable.
          Be with them!
                  Move us to be there for them!
                                      Teach to love others as you love us!

You are a very present help in trouble, O Lord!

Our refuge and strength!

                                        And we give you thanks!

                                                                                   And praise you, praise you!


Letter from Pastor Jeff


Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

P. O. Box 961690

Riverdale, Georgia 30296

(770) 997-7117 (770) 997-3312

Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor

April 3, 2020

Dear Member,

Attached is a sermon I wrote a number of years ago but did not preach in its entirety. Rather, I delivered an abridged version of it because it turned out to be rather lengthy and I was afraid too many eyes would be closed by the time I got to the “Amen”. At any rate, I wrote it to help people gain a better understanding of Palm Sunday and why things happened the way they did in the days that followed. I am passing along the full version because I hope it will give you a better sense of those days and how they speak to our days. Also, to be honest, the full sermon is better read than heard – the odds of nodding off are not so great!

Tomorrow we will email you a link to a video of a reading of the Passion Narrative I did. For years now, our tradition has been to read the story in parts on Palm Sunday with members assuming various roles, but that won’t be possible this year. I hope the reading will do instead.

I hate the fact that we won’t be together on Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or even Easter, Easter hurting the most. Recorded or live-streamed sermons and services serve a good purpose for sure but, still, it’s just not the same. Worship, for me, involves gathering with others in person, seeing each other, welcoming each other, talking with each other, communing together, praying together, singing together (well, kind of singing together). It’s hard to be apart and truly worship. And the special days, like Palm Sunday

and Easter, make it only harder. Needless to say, I miss seeing you and can’t wait for the day we can at last come together again!

Concerning announcements, here’s an update:

 Even though we won’t be able to serve at Calvary Refuge Center this month, we will provide the usual food items. We have attached the sign-up sheet listing what is needed and ask that you either email ( or call (770-997-7117) the church if you can provide any of the items. But please do not put yourself at risk shopping for any item. Do so only if you’re comfortable going to the stores.


Redeemer Soup Kitchen does not currently need volunteers and so we will not serve in April. The staff is preparing box lunches which are served outside to those who need them. There may, however, be a need for a fill-in on a last minute basis and if you would be willing to serve in that way, please contact Sylvia McCullough (770-460-1001). You would not be in contact with anyone other than staff members.


 Since we won’t be able to hold an Easter service, there is no need for lilies. If you have already paid for a plant, we will reimburse you.


May the God who is a very present help in trouble continue to be your refuge and strength,

Pastor Halenza


Sermon for Palm Sunday


Sermon                                                                                                                                            The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
April 5, 2020                                                                                                                               Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
Matthew 21:1-11                                                                                                                                                                    Palm Sunday
Matthew 27:24-26, 33-54                                                                                                                             Sunday of the Passion

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 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."

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son."' The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"



When I was in high school in the early 1960s, one of our field trips for English class was to attend a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The theater was founded by Tyrone Guthrie, the Canadian director who was widely known for his controversial productions of classic dramas. He was one of the first to give the plays of William Shakespeare a modern setting. He would stage Hamlet or Macbeth or King Lear not in the 16th century but in the 20th century complete with contemporary language and costumes. King Lear was no longer a king of long ago but suddenly a CEO running a major corporation, and Romeo and Juliet were transformed into star-crossed young lovers attending high school in the sixties. It was a wonderful way of bringing the plays alive, making them more understandable and having them speak to today's world.

And I got to thinking.

What would Guthrie have done with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the events of the final week of Jesus' life?

How would he have staged it? How would he have set it in today's world?

As someone has suggested, it's like watching a famous tragedy, a famous drama.

Hearing the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his suffering and death that we heard today is like watching a famous drama. 

But it is a drama set long ago and far way in a whole other world, and so we might wonder what does it say to us today, how does it speak to us today?

So I got to thinking.

If we could set this story in today's world, perhaps that would help us understand.

Understand what happened, why things went so terribly wrong, and what it might say to us today.

So, if you were in a theater watching a contemporary version of this story, what do you suppose the opening scene would be?

Maybe there would be a backdrop with downtown buildings painted on it, buildings we would recognize as the skyline of Atlanta. And off to one side there would be a street sign and it would read "Peachtree Street."

Then Jesus would enter stage right riding in a borrowed, battered old convertible - a one car motorcade. His followers would be jogging alongside like Secret Service men as a small crowd pressed in on the car to see Jesus and try to touch him. Some in the crowd would be waving and cheering, others would be tossing flowers or even trying to make a red carpet for Jesus by tossing their coats on the street in front of the car.

Picture that.

Jesus riding into our own city.

But what about the crowds - how are we to portray them in today's world, who would they be?

And the disciples - who would they be? 


And Caiaphas the High Priest and the Pharisees?

And Pilate - what do we do with him?

And Jesus - what about Jesus?

Well, let's start with Caiaphas.

Caiaphas is often portrayed as the villain of the piece, an evil man who condemned Jesus to death, pressed Pilate to have him crucified, and worked up the crowds to call for his crucifixion. But is that fair or accurate?

Caiaphas was High Priest and he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was the spiritual leader of his people, the Jews, and as such he was responsible for the scripturally mandated sacrificial rites at the Temple and he himself represented the people before God to secure their forgiveness and God's blessing. The Temple was at the very heart of Judaism, symbolizing the presence of God with the people, and Caiaphas was responsible for protecting it and protecting his people as well. He was a man who wanted to preserve the identity and uniqueness of God's chosen people and assure the proper piety of God's chosen so that God would continue to look upon them favorably. He was a devout man who cherished both Scripture and tradition and took both as his guide. But Caiaphas served at the pleasure of Rome. For seventy years Rome had been appointing High Priests in order to guarantee that the High Priest would do whatever Rome deemed necessary to keep the notoriously rebellious Jewish people in line and maintain peace in the province. The High Priest served two masters - God and Rome - and Rome made sure that it exerted as much influence and control over the High Priest as did God, if not more. So when it came to Jesus, Caiaphas was caught between a rock and a hard place. Jesus seemed to be a troublemaker, filling the heads of people with new and even radical ideas, and that could bring Rome down on the heads of all Jews. If Caiaphas supported Jesus, it could mean hundreds of Jews on crosses; if Caiaphas didn't support Jesus, it could mean condemning to death the very Christ of God and bringing the wrath of God down on the people. So what was he to do? Caiaphas studied Scripture, prayed, considered Jesus and his teaching, and in the end concluded that it was better that one man should perish rather than many - it was worth the risk. So not a villain at all, not evil at all, but caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to protect the Temple and the people he held dear.

So who do you think Caiaphas would be in today's world? Before you answer, consider this: Caiaphas was High Priest of Judaism and Jesus was himself a devout Jew, so you can't place Caiaphas outside of Christianity in today's world. On the contrary, Caiaphas would be at the very heart of Christianity. And he would be a member of the clergy. So what do you think? A bishop maybe - a bishop in a mainline Protestant denomination or Catholic Church, or maybe a spiritual leader of one of the evangelical churches, or a televangelist or pastor or priest? (Well, a pastor of a large congregation, not a small one like ours!) Caiaphas would be a major religious leader, a devout person who was dedicated to protecting Christianity and its institutional life and who took seriously his responsibility to maintain Christian piety and practice. Scripture, for him, would be God's clear word revealing God's will and he would also cherish tradition. Yet, Caiaphas would also be someone who is perhaps compromised by his desire for success and more controlled by cultural and political forces than he cares to admit.

So, any thoughts? Any names come to mind?



And now, the Pharisees.

Here too the temptation would be to cast them as villains, but as with Caiaphas, that would be neither fair nor accurate.

The Pharisees were lay people, not priests. They were good people who were deeply concerned that the hostile Roman culture was threatening the identity and distinctiveness of Judaism, sometimes pressuring, sometimes seducing Jews to turn away from what made them Jews. Like the High Priest, they too were committed to preserving the holiness of the people, preserving what made Jews God's particular, peculiar people. Culture was the enemy and their answer was religious law. The law defined what was holy and good, what constituted righteous behavior in the eyes of God, and made Jews God's people. They believed both Scripture and rabbinic teaching spelled out clearly what was expected of Jews. Based on this, the Pharisees set very high standards for themselves and their fellow Jews and followed very strict regulations regarding behavior and association. These standards and regulations defined in great detail right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness, what and whom were acceptable and what and whom were not. Cleanliness laws, Sabbath observance and tithing were all vital to their lives. They expected their fellow Jews to live up to their standards and follow the regulations and if they did, they were acceptable to them. Those who refused or failed were not to be associated with. Any lowering of the standards would serve to only further dilute Judaism and lead to even more moral confusion. Commandment, absolute moral standards, strict adherence to Scripture, was the only way and many Jews admired the Pharisees for their religiosity, their clear values, their strong moral stands.

So how do you picture the Pharisees in today's world? Here again you must be careful: as with Caiaphas so too with the Pharisees - they would not be outside Christianity but at the center of it. As they were lay leaders of Judaism of which Jesus was a part, so today they would be lay leaders of Christianity. So who might they be today? Perhaps good, devoted members of Christian churches of all kinds who are very disturbed by what is happening to Christian belief and morality in our culture. They would find religious commandments and Scriptural teaching to be the answer to the lack of clear values and the moral confusion of so many. They would believe in living up to very high standards and that right and wrong can be clearly defined. Judging others would be important in order to guide people and keep them away from harmful and dangerous associations. Some might even take pride in their knowledge of Scripture, their understanding of God's will and their spirituality.

So how would you cast the Pharisees in today's world?


And then there are the crowds.

Who were these people who had heard Jesus teach and preach, perhaps even saw one or two of his miracles, welcomed him into Jerusalem with such great hope and yet finally turned on him?

In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky describes the masses as seeking bread, miracle and authority. And maybe many in those crowds fit that description. Perhaps there were those who expected Jesus to literally provide bread, increase their economic security, improve their lives in a very real, material way - or at least to give them bread enough to keep them content. And perhaps there were people who wanted miracle after miracle, expected miracle after miracle not only to cure themselves but also help them believe – believe that Jesus really was from God, had the power, was truly the Christ. And maybe there were people who wanted to hear authoritative answers, wanted someone to tell them what to do, someone who would remove all doubts and confusions and make them feel secure in their belief. But also among the crowds were perhaps those who saw Jesus not simply as a spiritual hope but a political hope as well – the one who would start a movement to set the people free from Rome's oppressive rule, establish Israel as a nation again, set up a kingdom on earth. And also among the crowds were those who couldn't live up to the Pharisees' standards and thus were outcast and rejected, or those who found Temple worship empty and the Pharisees' emphasis on rule and righteousness to be suffocating - people who found the religion of the day a deadly thing and were searching for something different, seeking something that gave them a sense of hope and life and being near to God. So many different people in those crowds.

So who would they be today? Well, there are certainly people today who expect Jesus to give them bread, increase their prosperity, make life better for them - who believe that faith should work, that faith should lead to tangible rewards, that faith should make life better. And there are people inside and outside churches who need miracles to believe, who need God to do something to prove that he is there and has the power. And certainly there are many today who crave authoritative answers, who want some authority figure to tell them what to think and do and thus remove all confusion and doubt. And there are also those who want God to establish his kingdom in America, who want God back in schools and courtrooms, who want their political platform to be adopted by God. And of course there are a number of people who find churches and organized religion to be empty, lifeless, and are seeking a new spirituality, seeking purpose and meaning. And there are those who feel outcast by Christianity, judged and condemned.

So can you picture the crowds in today's world? Can you put some faces on them?


And now Pilate.

Pilate was Rome's man in Palestine who was charged with keeping the Pax Romana - peace as Rome defined peace - in a land far from the glitter and glory of Rome, a land known for insurgents and revolutionaries and general troublemakers.

By all accounts, Pilate could be ruthless and brutal, a true law and order man. But then that's the way Rome kept the peace, kept the roads open and trade flowing, the economy strong and the empire flourishing: by force, violence, killing anyone who dared threaten the peace. But Pilate also upheld Roman justice and protecting the innocent, though he was not above the occasional sacrifice of the innocent for the sake of order and the public good. Pilate was a consummate politician who knew how to work the various factions and keep them in line. He kept an eye on the public opinion polls and knew which way the wind was blowing, knew what would please the people and keep Rome off his back. Pilate was probably also very good at self-preservation – protecting his position and his pension. He would have had to have been, given the job he had. 

So who would Pilate be in today's world? A politician of most any stripe would probably fit, but in particular, I think, a politician who has compromised his or her original high ideals of public service in the midst of the nasty game of political survival - someone who has come to be ruled by the polls, who understands the need to keep big contributors happy, who is willing to sacrifice justice at the altar of political expediency. Perhaps position and pension have come to mean everything to him or her. And power.

Here too perhaps you can put a face on Pilate.



And finally, the disciples.

Fishermen and laborers and a low-level government official or two, and beyond the inner circle of the twelve, single women and housewives, farmers and carpenters and trades-people and business owners, most of them poor but a few rich ones too, and some broken-down wrecks and misfits and outcasts.

They were everyday people, some of whom had left everything to follow this Jesus. Most of them didn't know their Scripture very well (evidently, they didn't pay attention in Confirmation classes either!); many of them couldn't even read and had to rely on religious teachers for interpretation and understanding. Something about this Jesus had attracted them like no one else had. There was a power to his presence and words that was almost irresistible, a sense of life about him that made them feel alive like never before. He said things they didn't fully understand and did things they couldn't really comprehend. He had a compassion about him that seemed to encompass everyone. He didn't seem to be so concerned with religious doctrine and ritual as he was concerned with people, with them. They came to believe in him, believe that he was the Messiah, their hope and salvation, yet still they had a lot of questions about what that meant exactly and at times they felt that they had gotten in way over their heads, especially when Jesus talked about suffering and dying. They didn't like that. They had their own personal agendas of course. Some hoped that Jesus would finally give them some status in the world, make them successful as the world measured success. Others saw him as a political figure and pinned their hopes for freedom from Rome on him. Others saw a chance to escape their old lives for a new life, some adventure and excitement. But all of them, in one way or another, came to fall in love with this Jesus and had to be near him and feel the life and hope he put in them.

And in today's world who would they be? Certainly believers both inside and outside the church, people who are deeply committed to Jesus, people who love him, put their faith in him, want the life only he can give, follow him and try to live out the Gospel even though they still have questions. They would be different from one another, have diverse views, have different social and political agendas, and yet find commonality in their love for Christ.

And so maybe you should put your own face on a disciple in today's world, put yourself in their company.



And now back to Peachtree Street and Jesus entering the city.

Bishops and televangelists and clergy are there, though they watch from a balcony and do not look pleased. And lay people are there, leaders of various religious groups, but they too are at a distance and look upset. But the crowds are not upset - they are waving and laughing and pressing in on Jesus. And deeply committed followers are there, staying close to Jesus, enjoying it and yet overwhelmed by it too. The mayor and governor are not there, but they have people present who will report back to them.

The atmosphere is electrifying. There is such hope in the air - the hope that everything will change, God will draw near, peace and joy will fill the very earth. But in a few days Jesus will be dead - dead at the hands of Caiaphas, the Pharisees, Pilate and the crowds; and the disciples will have uttered no word of protest, will have kept silent and abandoned Jesus.

So what happened?

Well, the first thing we need to understand is this: it was not outsiders, not "them, out there," not some enemy of God, not atheists, not evil godless people who killed the Christ of God; it was insiders, believers, good, serious, wellmeaning religious people, leaders and everyday people. In today's terms, it was "Christians" who killed the Christ of God.

It's the way it was and still is.

But why?


To understand that we need to understand Jesus.

And the way to understand Jesus is to see him as God's radically new thing.

The Christ of God is a Christ who was beyond Scripture, could not be confined within Scripture, even seemed to violate Scripture. And he was a Christ who could not be entombed in doctrine or tradition, a Christ who shattered every neat and tidy summary of him. He was a Christ who refused to be reduced to rules and commandments, who refused to live according to standards and morality of human devising, who reinterpreted Scripture in a radical way. He was a Christ who turned the world upside down, who endorsed no political agenda, who blessed no personal agenda.

He was a Christ of God who invited people into relationship with him, not into relationship with an institution or doctrine or ritual, and invited them to follow his way of serving and being in the world.

And thus to be in relationship with him was both a wonderful and terrifying thing: he gave life to his followers, and yet called them to give their lives away for his sake; he gave freedom to his followers, yet called them to yoke themselves to him; he gave hope to his followers, yet called them to abandon their meager hopes for themselves and live with an extravagant hope for the world.

To fall in love with this Christ of God was to be changed forever and live in disturbing, wonder-filled, terrifying ways.

He was God's utterly new thing, utterly new way of bringing salvation and life.



And now perhaps you begin to understand.

Understand why.

Caiaphas acted to protect the institution of the Temple and the people themselves. And he felt justified in doing so because Jesus didn't seem to value Temple worship or respect Temple tradition and even threatened to destroy the Temple itself. No true Messiah would be like that, Caiaphas believed, based on his reading of Scripture. The Pharisees also acted to protect and preserve believers and true faith and practice. Jesus, to the mind of the Pharisees, had few, if any, standards - he violated Sabbath law, violated the dietary and cleanliness laws, associated with sinners and outcasts. On the basis of both Scripture and tradition, it was clear to them that Jesus was not the Messiah and even more, a dangerous teacher who had to be stopped. And the crowds? They felt let down, disillusioned. Jesus did not give them what they wanted and in the end he didn't even have power enough to save himself, let alone anyone else. No Messiah would allow himself to be crucified like a common criminal. And Pilate? He acted to keep the peace, maintain order. He knew the charges against Jesus were trumped up, but there was something he couldn't ignore. He kept hearing words like "king" and ''kingdom" and that was enough to justify his action. There was only one emperor or king and he was Caesar, and there was only one empire or kingdom and that was Rome. Pilate would not and could not allow any rivals. Politically speaking, he did the prudent thing: he pleased the people, kept the peace, and did away with a threat to the empire. And the disciples? They acted to protect themselves, save their own skins. So they ran. No cry of protest from them, only fear and betrayal and silence.

And it's no different today: insiders, Christians themselves, continue to kill the Christ of God, and he is killed in the same ways.

Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to protect believers' images of God and their institutions and to close themselves off to the new thing God is doing. Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to justify cruelty toward others, condemning and excluding others from the family of God. Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to confine God within personal opinion and prejudice and belief, rather than open us to the God beyond the God we believe in. And Christ is killed whenever we seek to entomb him in tradition and doctrine and institution. And he is killed by legalistic morality - religion that suffocates love and compassion. And he is killed by political expediency and by allowing no threat to our own little empire and by turning him into a Jesus who supports political agendas and cultural values. And anger and disillusionment kill him. And fear and silence - the silence of believers who do not protest him being killed by believers themselves.

It was the sad, hard truth of Palm Sunday and the days that followed, and it is the sad, hard truth of today.


And will the story ever change?

Or will the same, sad, drama be played out year after year, century after century?

Well, the story can change, if we will change.

We must allow Christ and the Gospel to change us. 

We must enter truly into relationship with him and let go of our precious opinions and views and even beliefs and allow him to give us new beliefs, new views, new thoughts and wants and wills, new hearts and minds.

That is our hope and the hope for this world as well.

And it is a hope that depends not on what happens "out there" with "them", but what happens in here with us and in millions of other churches.

Christians must stop killing the Christ of God.

And start being Christs themselves.


Christians must start allowing Christ and the Gospel to take center stage again in their lives.

And write a new script.

A new story that ends in hope and great joy!






A Pastoral Prayer (after F. Buechner)

O Christ of God who comes,
                          you are the hope of the world -
                                                                                       give us hope!

                 Give us the hope that beyond the worst the world can do there is such a 
                  best that not even the world can take it from us, the hope that none 
                   whom you love are ever finally lost - not even to death.

O Christ who died,
                   who suffered loneliness and pain for our sake,
                                                                                                                forgive us!

                    And let die in us all that keeps us from you and from each other and
                     from what we have it in us at our best and bravest to become.

O Christ who rose again,
                                    Holy Spirit of Christ,
                                                                            arise and live within us!

                          That we may be your body, that we may be your feet to walk into the world's 
                           pain, your hands to heal, your heart to break, if need be, for the love of the world.

                                      O Risen Christ, make Christs of us all!

And we pray too, O Lord, that you would comfort and strengthen the sick, the hospitalized, the suffering and the hurting. Be not far from those who are dying, those who grieve. Especially do we pray for all who are ill with the coronavirus, both in our nation and around the world. And we pray for Carolyn Herche, Michelle Bryant, Ralph Turner, Barbara Hellwig, Harold Finney, Linda Keyser, Justin Markham, Martha Ratzman, Kay Douma, Judy Cable, Annette Flanigan, Ryland Jones, Joanne McGee, Sharon Allison, Barbara Gordin, Walt Sternke, Bill Dixon, George Pringle, Carl Berkobin, Sandy Tiedemann, Genelda Clinton, Eleanor Gibson, Sarah Fields, Kristi Gordin, Winifred Pernell, and Roberta Lecour. And for all those family and friends so dear to us.

And cast out our fears by your love, O Lord. Calm the storm of worries within. Create within us hearts that trust in you.

And help us to give thanks this day, O Lord - for your love which sustains us, for all your gifts to us, for the healing and hope with which you grace us. And thanks for all the healthcare workers and other workers who risk themselves to keep us healthy, keep us fed, keep us going in one way or another.

And let us always be a friend to the lonely, the frightened, the hungry, the helpless, the homeless.

And peace, 0 Lord, peace on this earth! Teach us the things that make for peace, teach us again your way. Guide our nation, guide our world, along the path that leads to life and hope for all your creation.

And now in the silence, O Lord, we pray our most personal prayers and listen for the word you speak to us...


O Lord, help us now to go forth with praise and joy! Grace our days with laughter. Give us the faith that trusts that all shall be well.


Letter from Pastor Jeff 4/1/2020


Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

P. O. Box 961690
Riverdale, Georgia 30296
(770) 997-7117                                    (770) 997-3312

Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor

April 1, 2020

Dear Member,

     Attached is the prayer we would have prayed tonight had we been able to hold a Lenten service at church. As I have reminded you these past few weeks, I wrote the prayers in mid-February when I did my preparation for Lent and thus they were not written with the coronavirus in mind. I do hope, however, that the attached prayer does speak in some way to what we are going through.

     I have also attached some thoughts on what a member once said to me when she was hospitalized. Even though it was thirty years ago, it has stayed with me and it often comes to mind just as it did a few days ago. Perhaps it will get you to thinking as it does me.

     Please remember that we will have a conference call tonight from 7:00 – 7:30 PM. The phone number is 877-853-5257 and the ID code is 404 176 812. If you wish to participate via Zoom please refer to Pastor Flanigan’s email sent out yesterday and click on the link. We encourage you to join in on this chance to talk with other members.

                                                           May God continue to strengthen you and shield you,

                                                             Pastor Halenza




     The other day something came to mind as I was listening to news about what people are doing in response to the coronavirus crisis. What came to mind was what a member of the congregation said to me many years ago when I visited her in the hospital. She was recovering from a serious illness and what she said to me was this: “I just don’t know what people do without a church!

     What she meant was not church in the sense of institution or dogma or ritual, but church in the sense of being church to others: supporting them, caring for them, being there for them, praying for them, helping them through whatever they are facing. The member was in her late seventies, had never been married, lived alone, and had no family except for a brother in Baltimore. Without the church, she would have had no one to turn to, no one to be there for her as we had been. And so she said: “I just don’t know what people do without a church!”

     And what do people do?  Well, we’re finding out because the majority of people in our country are unchurched, have no connection to a church. And the irony is that what many of the unchurched are doing is being church to others, church in the best sense: they are actually noticing and meeting their neighbors for the first time, checking up on them, being a good neighbor; they are showing support for health care workers and all who are at risk as they work to keep us well and safe, fed and supplied with what we need; they are finding ways of caring for the isolated and alone and lifting their spirits; they are being there for strangers; they are trying to help one another make it through. People are discovering that that they need each other, what a difference kindness makes, and all that people can do when they come together for the sake of what is good and right.

     The sadness is that it takes a crisis to remind us of this and bring out our best selves. When people are healthy and the stock market is on a roll and everything is going their way, many will believe that they really don’t need anyone else and are actually proud of it. It’s a lie, of course, but it takes a crisis to see the truth. The truth is that we need each other, that nations need each other, that only together can we make it through the crises that come. In other words, our hope lies in being church in the sense of being human one to the other, being the real human beings we were created to be and Christ calls us to be.

     But before we who are still connected to a church start patting ourselves on the back, we need to take a good look at what’s happening and ask if the unchurched are being more church than the churched. Are we truly living our belief and being Christ to others both in the congregation and beyond? I think we as a church truly are being Christ to others, are a church in the best sense – praying for one another, supporting one another, checking up on one another, being there for one another, serving others in whatever way we can. 

     But still we need to ask ourselves the question again and again because at times we fail others, fail them miserably. According to Jesus, the odd thing is that sometimes people who don’t know him are more him to others than people who do know him. So maybe the unchurched can teach us a thing or two just as we can teach them a thing or two and together we can be Christ to others in ways that Christ would recognize, no matter what we believe or they believe, and together be hope, the very hope that is Christ.

     “I just don’t know what people do without a church!” she said. And years ago it got me to thinking about how important it is to be church to others. Perhaps it will get us all to thinking and help us continue to be church in the best sense, and be the best church we can be!