03/28/2021

Easter Preparation

Sunday, March 28, 2021
Featuring: Rev. Lori Fleming
Week #2 of a 3-Week Easter Series

Click HERE to download this transcript.

Rev. Richard Maraj: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center. Welcome to our Sunday virtual worship celebration! I’m Richard Maraj, and so glad that you are joining us.

Easter’s coming up next week! And on Saturday, April the 3rd, we have a kids’ Drive-Through Easter Celebration treat from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the north parking lot. Just load up the kids and the Easter Bunny will be there, and there’ll be all kinds of wonderful Easter treats. So that’s Saturday, April the 3rd, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the north parking lot.

And, of course, the next day: Sunday, April the 4th, is Easter! And we’ll be having three outdoor services on the lawn: our traditional Easter Sunrise Service at 6 a.m. Then we’ll be out there at 7:30 and then 9 a.m., as well. It’ll be an uplifting, inspiring Sunday out in the beautiful gardens, looking so gorgeous on our lawn. And so, please, join us for that!

Right now, we’re going to take time for some prayer and meditation. And to prepare us for that experience, we will now listen to the choir sing “Surely the Presence.”

Unity of Phoenix Choir sings “Surely the Presence”
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can see God’s mighty power and God’s grace
I can feel the brush of angels’ wings
I see glory on each face
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place

 

MEDITATION
Rev. Richard Maraj:
So I invite you now to close your eyes and take a deep breath, and just open your heart and relax. Relax into your chair. Relax into this moment. Relax into the awareness that the kingdom of God is within us.

Take another deep breath as we just turn around from all the outer concerns – all the responsibilities – and just let our attention to that place deep within us: to that place of peace. To that place of stillness and quietness. To that place where all the storms are calmed; where are the crooked places are made straight; and we know that we are one with God. For the kingdom of God is truly within us, and it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

So everyone just take a deep breath, and breathe in the kingdom of God’s love and light. The kingdom of peace and joy and understanding and infinite intelligence and unlimited abundance that is within us and all around us just waiting for us to open our hearts to it. To trust, to believe and to allow the goodness and the wisdom and the healing and the power of God to move in and through our lives, in and through our minds, in and through our hearts.

In the Psalms it is written, “Be still and know that I am God.” So for the next few moments, let’s just sit in the silence. Let us be still and allow the Living Spirit of God to heal whatever needs to be healed, to release what needs to be released, and to show us exactly what we are meant to do. Peace; be still!

SILENCE

And now that we’ve allowed our hearts and minds to rest in God, and to be ministered to in exactly the way that we need, let’s turn our thoughts and prayers to our loved ones. If you have a family member or a friend, a neighbor or a co-worker in need of healing or comfort or strength or guidance, I invite you to bring them into your heart right now. See these beautiful souls just encircled in the healing, loving light of God. And we bring into this prayer time all of the prayer requests that have come into our ministry this week. And to all these beloved souls, we just affirm the Living Spirit of God is within them, and filling them right now with God’s peace and wisdom; with the right comfort and guidance; and that all things are really set in motion to fulfill the greatest outcome, the greatest results and the greatest answers in the lives of all these individuals. And everyone that is involved in the circumstances.

So we release these prayers, knowing that God’s will be done, for God’s will is greater than anything we could hold for ourselves. So we give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. We give thanks in advanced for the answered prayers in our lives, and the lives of our loved ones. And all that we pray for. And we just affirm all of God’s goodness, and create space to allow even greater blessings and goodness to flow in and through our lives, in and through our country, and in and through our world. And it is so. Amen.

 

MESSAGE
Rev. Lori Fleming: Hello, everyone! I’m Rev. Lori Fleming; I’m the pastoral care minister here at Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center.

Today is Palm Sunday: the day that the Gospels tell of Jesus’ triumphant march into Jerusalem. Maybe as a child you remember going to church on Palm Sunday, and you were given a palm frond – or maybe even a palm frond that was woven into the shape of a cross – that you could take home and put on your calendar or your mirror.

I always loved Palm Sunday, because I knew that the next Sunday would be Easter, and I would get an Easter basket with a chocolate bunny! But I also knew that I had a brand new Easter dress to wear. I had brand new Mary Jane shoes, and those little socks with the lace on them, and an Easter bonnet. I always looked forward to that.

This morning I want to set the stage for the events that will take us into the Easter experience of rising up next week. To actually bring you into the Easter story. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan – in their book, The Last Week – wrote: “Jerusalem was not just any city. By the first century, it had been the center of the sacred geometry for the Jewish people for more than a millennium. And ever since, it’s been the center to the sacred imagination of both Jews and Christians and, of course, Muslims. Its associations are both positive and negative. It’s the city of God, and the faithless city. It’s the city of hope, and the city of oppression. The city of joy, and the city of pain. The temple, built by David’s son, Solomon, about 900 BCE, is the sacred center of the Jewish world. It’s the navel of the world, connecting humanity with God. Today Muslims, Christians and Jews all call it sacred.”

In the time in which Jesus lived, the temple was actually God’s dwelling place. God lived in the Ark of the Covenant in the holy of holies: in the very center of the temple, where God was present. The priest mediated God’s presence and God’s forgiveness through sacrifices. The priests were the “go-between” between God and the people. In ancient history, anyone who wanted to get right with God would go out in the field somewhere and set up an altar, and make their own sacrifice. And they could have a one-on-one with relationship with God.  But in the time when Jesus lived, the priest mediated between God and the people.

The temple was a center of devotion for all of the Jews across the world. It was a place where people would go for a pilgrimage. It was a way of organizing the social fabric of life. All the holidays were celebrated there. The sacrifices were done there. People went to pay their tithes, and they went to pay their taxes to Rome.

It was also the center of oppression by the priests and the wealthy people in Rome. The temple had three main features: political oppression; economic exploitation; and religious legitimacy. Some of those things are still here in this world today.

Political oppression: the temple was ruled by just a handful of priests. And they were ruled by the powerful, wealthy families, who were ruled by the monarchy. Ordinary people had no voice in shaping society, unless you were a Roman citizen. And, if you weren’t a Roman citizen, you had no say.

In economic exploitation, the high percentage of society’s wealth was based on agriculture production. They were a farming community; they weren’t industrialized like we are today. They grew everything that they ate. And that system was set up with a structure by law on who could own what, and what kind of taxes they had to pay. And if you couldn’t pay your taxes, you became indentured, and you went to work for someone until you paid off your taxes. Now, the word “indentured” is a nice way of saying slavery. But the difference is that, once you paid off your debt, you were free.

The religious legitimacy was justified through the priest’s religious language. But the kings had divine rights. The emperors all said that they were sons of God, and they would say who their godly father was. The social order was mandated: represented the will of gods through the kings. And religious people had the legitimate right to put wealthy and powerful people into the social order as they pleased.

The priests in the temple had the right to tax people whenever and whatever they wanted. They could do sacrifices to purify people, or they could say, “No.” And then you would be in sin; you wouldn’t be right with God. They would help people ask for forgiveness through the sacrifices. And they would bend the letter of the law as they would see fit.

Now, the priests could be deposed by the king. Before Roman rule – back in the ages where there were 12 tribes, and one of them was run by Levi – they became Levites. And the Levites were the priestly caste. And the father would train his son to be a priest, and it would pass down through generations for a thousand years.  In 63 BCE, Jerusalem and all of Judea came under the rule of Rome. The emperor gave the king the local right to put priests in the temple; they weren’t the holy men that they had been before. Rome trusted families as long as they ruled their people “appropriately,” kept order, and no one caused trouble. And they had to collect the annual tribute to Rome.

So because of the power struggles that were going on in the time when Jesus lived, Rome appointed a man named Herod as king, who was a recent convert to Judaism. They thought that would help him get along with the people. He reigned until 4 BCE, and was known as “Herod the Great.” He was able and he was ruthless. When members of the aristocracy did not please him, they were executed, and then they were replaced by someone who now owed their position to Herod. He didn’t trust people; he kept people under surveillance. He executed the aristocracy to gain their land and their wealth.

You can imagine what the people who had lived there for thousands of years felt about being under this kind of rule. I know how I would feel; I wouldn’t be very happy about it, and I’d probably want to rebel … but I couldn’t, because I knew what would happen to me if I did.

Herod appointed and deposed seven priests during his 33 years as king. The crime of sedition was an organized rebellion or civil disorder against the authority of the state. It could be an insurrection or a rebellion, and that was one of the high crimes of the time. And if you were standing on a street corner prophesying, you probably would be taken and carried away … which is why Jesus didn’t do a lot of preaching in the cities. He did it out in the countryside.

Under Herod’s reign, Jerusalem became a magnificent city. He rebuilt the temples, spacious courts and elegant colonnades covered with marble and gold. You can imagine what that cost, and who paid for it! He constructed a platform around the temple that was 40 acres that had the temple in the middle and the courtyard was where people would gather. The rabbis would come to teach. When Jesus was a young boy, you might remember the story of him being there with a rabbi, and asking questions that were way beyond his years.

This temple complex was the most magnificent in all of Rome. Imagine that being in the little sleepy town of Jerusalem. Outside in the courtyard was where the marketplace was. People brought their goods to sell. It was a place to meet; as I said, the rabbis taught there. There were money changers there, just like today; if you go to Mexico or Europe, you have to change your American dollars for pesos or euros. And those money changers were charging too much for their money. There were people there who were selling birds for the sacrifices, and they were charging too much.

How was this temple paid for? It was paid for by Herod extorting money from the wealthy families. If you didn’t give the money, you knew what would happen to you. When he died in 4 BCE, there were riots all over the land. They had to be quelled by Rome; the Romans came and they burned and destroyed the city of Sephora, and they sold all the survivors into slavery. Not indenture: slavery. When Jerusalem was finally retaken by the Romans, 2,000 people were crucified. If you were a Roman citizen, you could not be crucified.

Now these are the stressed in the area when Jesus lived for those short 33 years or so. And the Easter Story begins the week before Passover, when Jesus and his entourage – including his 12 disciples – go into Jerusalem. They’re coming to celebrate the Passover. The celebration of Passover is a festival that celebrates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 900 years before, when they made it into the wilderness for 40 years, and then finally went into the Promised Land of Canaan.

The word Jerusalem is a compound word: it means “house” or “place of peace.” It was standard operating procedures during all of the major holidays for the Roman governors to come into Judea – into Jerusalem – to be there. Not because they helped celebrate the holidays; it wasn’t reverence that took them there. They went to the city in case there was trouble. Who better to mete out swift justice than the Roman governor? Pontius Pilate was a governor at that time. Pontius means “belonging to the sea” or a mariner; he came from Caesarea Maritima. He also was armed with a javelin, or an emblem of liberty, because he was a soldier.

Pilate is a Roman governor, and his troops went to reinforce the Roman garrison which overlooked the Temple Mount there in Jerusalem, because of the holiday of Passover. They’d come from Caesarea Maritima, which was 60 miles to the west. That’s where they were based. And it was much more pleasant than Jerusalem; it was on the seaside, so you can imagine that the weather was nice, and they probably wanted to stay there. But they had to go in order to keep order. Jerusalem was not as nice a city; it was inland. It was provincial. And sometimes it was hostile – you can imagine – to the Roman soldiers. But they went for the festivals.

And when Pontius Pilate brings all of his troops into the city of Jerusalem, they come in through the western gate. West always means the “outer” world: the world of time and space and form and order. Imagine as these soldiers came in. They come in the big wide gates. First come the foot soldiers; they’ve got leather sandals and those little short togas. And they’ve got helmets and swords and shields. And they’re marching, and they’re kicking up the dust. And you can hear their leather sandals slapping on the streets, and their swords slapping against their legs. Next come the horsemen. Their horses are stomping and breathing hard. And the riders are proud of their colorful shields and the sun shining on their helmets. And behind them – in the dust – come the chariots with their driver and their swordsmen, who were lethal and dangerous.

The noise would be frightening! There’d be a cloud of dust everywhere. And, as a mother, I can imagine my boys running out of the house to see this amazing, colorful procession of this military group, and me dragging them back into the house to keep them safe … terrified that they’d be crushed under a horse or a chariot wheel.

This is the world that the people of Jerusalem lived in during the time that Jesus lived. A world of total domination. A world where – even if you were a native – you had no power, because you were not a Roman citizen. A world where a Roman soldier could kill you for almost no reason at all, with impunity.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem in a very different manner. While the Roman soldiers came through the large western gate – which metaphysically represents the “outer world”: the world of space and form – Jesus comes through the eastern gate. The eastern gate represents within. It represents spiritual substance and understanding. And Jesus arranged for this procession in advance; he told his disciples – while they were still outside the city – When you go into the city, you’ll go to a certain place, and there’ll be either a donkey or a colt, or an ass (depending on which book you looked like) that had never been ridden. A young one – one that wasn’t tame: a juxtaposition to the well-tamed horses of the Roman army.

Jesus rides that donkey down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. There, he’s met with a crowd. They must have known he was coming. They had palm branches, which they waved; I imagine them putting them over him, making an arch as he walks through. I think I must have seen a picture of that as a child! And they put their cloaks on the ground for them to walk on, so he doesn’t kick up the dust. They were singing hosannas: songs of praise for this man they heard about. Some of them had probably heard the stories and parables and things that he had told. Some of them probably had seen the healings that he had done; at least they’d heard about them.

Jesus riding this donkey will vanish the oppression of the whole land! Jesus will stand against the Roman authority! Jesus will speak out to the priests and their exploitation! Not with chariots. Not with foot soldiers. Not with horses or armor or swords or shields. Because Jesus is the Prince of Peace, taking a stand for non-violence. While Pilate represents power and glory and the violence of the empire that ruled the whole known world at that time. Who came in from the west side of the city, representing the outer world. Jesus countered this activity on the opposite side of the city: on the east side of the town. The side of spiritual substance and understanding. Because Jesus represents the kingdom of man.

The contrast between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of Caesar is central to the Gospel of Mark and the story of Jesus and early Christianity. The confrontation between these two forces sets up what will happen during the Holy Week. All four of the Gospels have some version of this same story; you may want to read them! It’s very interesting reading.

Remember the one about the story of Jesus cleansing the temple? Well, after he came for Palm Sunday on the donkey, he went out. The disciples went out and they came back on Monday, and he cleansed the temple. Some people have called this Jesus’ temper tantrum. Jesus goes into the temple courtyard, where all the people are – the money changers, the people who are selling the doves and the pigeons and all the birds, and the people who are selling their wares. In Matthew Chapter 21, Verse 12 and 13, it says, “Jesus entered the temple of God, and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple. And he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written: my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.’” No wonder the priests, later in the week, sought to have him arrested. He had the audacity to challenge them!

But what happens next? The very next verse – Verse 14 – it’s written: “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” There among the overturned tables, he does the miracles that he was known for. This part of the Easter Story is about clearing out what no longer is valuable to us: to challenge all of our old beliefs. To turn the tables on any activities that keep us from being fully present to the Spirit of God within. To practice forgiveness for ourselves and each other. To return to our own house of prayer. To cleanse our consciousness through prayer and meditation. And then – when our blind and lame thoughts come to us – we can heal them!

Jesus’ message is not about founding a religion about him. It’s about becoming all that Jesus was. All that he taught; all the miracles that he did. About becoming completely human and completely divine. His consciousness was so high that he could heal by speaking the Word. He healed the blind. He healed the lepers. He caused those who could not walk to get up and walk. He restored people’s sight. He brought people back from the dead.

Jesus’ message is about the kingdom of God that he called “the Way.” The Greek word for way is “hodos.” It’s been translated as “way” or “road” or “path.” But the way isn’t just a route to follow on foot to get to a destination; rather, it’s an inner journey. It’s a set of teachings. It’s a lifestyle about being one with God in every moment.

Mark tells us to repent and believe in the Good News. From the Hebrew Bible, repent means “to return from exile” – the exile we’ve imposed on ourselves when we forget to put God first. When we don’t pray and meditate every day. Greek for repent is “metanoó”: “to go beyond the mind that you have now.” To change your mind. To renew your mind. To repent is to take a journey of spiritual understanding that takes us, not only beyond our current beliefs, but to a place beyond belief: one of knowing and living from the kingdom of God within.

Before entering Jerusalem, Jesus taught out in the provinces. He gathered people around on a hillside. He stood at the bottom and they sat on the hillside so his voice would go up like a natural amphitheater. They came to him, and he healed them. He performed miracles. Remember the 5,000 people and the loaves and the fishes? He held the loaves and the fishes up, and he blessed them … and they were multiplied. Whatever you bless in your life will be multiplied!

When he told the stories – he told the parables – and they didn’t get the point, he said, “Only those with the ears to hear could understand.” Well, if he said that to me, I’d try harder to have the ears to understand. And his brilliance! Jesus taught to the masses. Because if he went to a major city, he would be arrested immediately for sedition against Rome. In his message, following Jesus means following the way. The way leads to Jerusalem: the place of peace. Jerusalem was a place of confrontation with the authorities. It’s a place of crucifixion: of death. And resurrection.

I believe that Jesus knew beforehand that this would happen, and he did it anyway! The message of Jesus was a protest against a system of domination that Rome legitimized in the name of God. Jesus’ message was non-violent. He represents a Jewish voice within Judaism against a symbol of injustice – politically, economically and religiously – that was implemented by Rome. His message was one of the people, for the people.

To follow him on the way is to see as the blind person he healed was able to see: to open our eyes and to lift our consciousness. To follow Jesus on the way is to be healed at depth. To follow Jesus on the way is to be tried, to be crucified, and to be resurrected into a new consciousness.

I invite you to join us next week as Rev. Maraj presents Easter celebration as we RISE UP.

Have a blessed week!

 

SOLO
Guest artist Kristen Drathman sings “Awaken”

Sometimes I feel like I’m just existing
I’m not really living
I’m only watching time slip away
I’ve forgotten who I am in You
I’m not who I’m meant to be, no;
I’m drifting farther away from my destiny

Awaken my heart, awaken my soul
Awaken Your power and take control
Awaken the passion to live for You, Lord
Awaken me, oh

My soul is longing, my heart is searching
I’m desperate for You to move
Give me a hunger, pull me closer
I’m crying out for You

Awaken my heart, awaken my soul
Awaken Your power and take control
Awaken the passion to live for You; I want to live for You

Open my eyes and I can see your presence
Dwelling inside
Wake me up, cause I can’t live another minute
If I’m not shining Your light

Awaken my heart, awaken my soul
Awaken the passion in me, yeah, oh
Awaken my heart, awaken my soul
Awaken Your power and take control
Awaken my passion to live for You; I want to live for You

Awaken me, oh
Awaken my heart, awaken my soul
Awaken me

 

OFFERING
Rev. Richard Maraj:
And now it’s time for the giving and the sharing of our gifts and our tithes. And just want to thank everybody for all your continued giving. Appreciate it! It keeps us moving and thriving and able to do the great work that we do to uplift and inspire.

So take your gifts in your hand; hold it together if you’re giving it together. And let’s affirm our love offering blessing: “Divine love, through me blesses and multiplies all that I have, all that I give, and all that I receive.” And so it is. Amen.

 

CLOSING
Rev. Richard Maraj:
And thanks for joining us today! I hope you enjoyed today’s service! Looking forward to seeing you again next week!

And now let’s close with our Prayer of Protection:

The light of God surrounds us;
The love of Gold enfolds us;
The power of God protects us;
And presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are, God is. And all is well!

God bless you all!

Choir sings Peace Song:
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me!
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be!

With God as Creator
Family all are we!
Let us walk with each other
In perfect harmony!

Let peace begin with me;
Let this be the moment now!
With every breath I take
Let this be my joyous vow:
To take each moment and live each moment
In peace eternally!

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me!

Copyright 2021 Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center/Rev. Lori Fleming

Location and Contact Information

Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center

1500 E Greenway Pkwy
Phoenix, AZ 85022
Phone: (602) 978-3200

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