Sermon for Easter 4 Narrative Lectionary

Acts 16:16-34

It’s good to be back after an extended time away traveling through Greece and Turkey. And it’s especially exciting for me to be preaching on today’s text from Acts, because the setting for this story is the first archaeological site I got to visit in Greece: Philippi. Just prior to today’s story, Paul and his companions have traveled from present-day Turkey to Greece in response to a vision that Paul had from the Holy Spirit. There, Luke tells us, Paul met a woman named Lydia, a prosperous merchant who was a dealer in purple cloth, and her heart was open to the Word of God that Paul proclaimed, and she became a believer in Jesus. Philippi was a city nestled in a valley; Paul would have taken the Roman road from the port city of Neapolis over some high mountains to get there. Philippi was a Roman colony in the province of Macedonia, in the northern part of present-day Greece, and many retired veterans of the Roman army lived there as a reward for their service. This was a place steeped in Roman culture and where most of the people worshiped the Greek and the Roman gods.

When I’ve read this story before, I’ve never quite understood why Paul got so annoyed with the slave girl who was telling everyone that they—that is, Paul and his companions—were proclaiming a way of salvation to the people. After all, you would think that Paul would want all the help he could get. But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. The slave girl who had a spirit of divination was most likely a priestess of Apollo, one of those who received oracles from that god. And the girl’s reference to the Most High God very well could have been a reference not to the one God that Paul and his companions were speaking about, but rather a reference to the Greek father of the gods, Zeus. Paul knew that having that slave girl following them and crying out after them was really not going to help him at all, because then he would be seen as just another messenger of the Greek gods rather than the one God that he was proclaiming. He also probably wanted to free her from her enslavement: not necessarily to her human masters, but more so from her enslavement to the pagan gods. Furthermore, having a demonstration of the power of the one God over the pagan ones could not hurt at all.

And yet, this act of liberation for a slave girl results in physical imprisonment for Paul and Silas. Let’s take a look, first, at the accusation that the owners of the slave girl level at Paul and Silas: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” In the Roman Empire, the emperor was considered divine, and every good member of the Empire was supposed to periodically offer up incense to the emperor and acknowledge that the emperor was lord. The only people that got a pass on this were the Jewish people, because of their belief in one God. But that didn’t mean that non-Jewish people could adopt Jewish customs and stop acknowledging that the emperor was divine. Furthermore, for this new sect of Christianity to say that Jesus is Lord, not the emperor, was downright treason. So we can see that, even though the owners of the slave girl were upset because they had lost their means of making money when Paul drove the spirit out of her, they knew that they had to charge Paul and Silas with political treason in order to get them imprisoned.

So, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail. When you visit Philippi, the tour guides will show you a room underneath the ruins of a church that was supposedly the place where Paul and Silas were imprisoned; that is, however, not true; the archaeologists have determined that the prison was likely in another place and the underground room used for something else entirely. Wherever Paul and Silas were imprisoned, however, Luke tells us that they were witnessing to the other prisoners by praying and singing hymns, when suddenly there was an earthquake. On our trip, we discovered that earthquakes are very common in that area, and that an earthquake is probably what caused most of the buildings in the archaeological site of Philippi to now be in ruins and that settlement abandoned. But it sounds like, in this story, the jailer was not so much frightened by the earthquake itself. Rather, he saw that the doors to the cells were open and he thought that the prisoners had escaped. The honorable thing to do in this culture in this case was to kill yourself, because you had failed the responsibility given to you by your superiors. And suicide was more honorable than being executed for failing your duty. But when Paul and Silas call out to the jailer that they are all still there, the jailer’s response is to ask them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

When someone in a Bible story asks a question like that, this is the question I want to ask: Saved from what? What did the jailer want to be saved from? The obvious answer would be that he wanted to be saved from death by his own hand, but when he saw that the prisoners were all still there, he should have known that he was, indeed, saved from that fate. The Christian answer would be that the jailer wanted to be saved either from his own sins or from hell—but this was a man who, most likely, was steeped in the Greco-Roman culture and simply did not think in those terms. There was no heaven or hell in Greek belief like we think of heaven and hell; after death everyone ended up in the underworld called Hades, which was kind of a shadowy, twilight existence. So what, then, did the jailer want to be saved from?

I’m actually not sure, but why don’t we try this? In this story, there is a lot of playing going on with the idea of freedom and captivity. The slave girl in the story was very obviously captive: captive to her owners, and captive to the spirit of divination that caused her to cry out after Paul and Silas. Then, through the power of Christ, Paul sets her free from her bondage to the spirit of divination, only to have his physical freedom taken away by being thrown into prison. But in prison, Paul and Silas show that, while they are physically being held captive in a jail cell, they are free to sing hymns and pray to God. And when the doors are broken open by the earthquake, they could have walked out and had their physical freedom, but they chose to remain captive in order to save the jailer’s physical life, and then received the opportunity to set the jailer free. What if the jailer wanted to be saved from his captivity to the system that he was enslaved to: to be set free from that system that demanded he kill himself if he failed in his responsibility to keep the prisoners in jail? And what if Paul and Silas told him the good news that, among other things, Jesus had come “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”? That’s directly from Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth, in Luke 4, the Gospel that was written by the same person who wrote Acts. What if the salvation that Paul and Silas proclaimed was not about salvation from sins so that the jailer could go to heaven, but was instead about freedom from a sinful human system so that the jailer could live a full and abundant life in Jesus here on earth?

One of the things that became clear to me on this trip to Greece and Turkey, traipsing around ruin after ruin of old cities and learning about 1st century Greco-Roman society was this: society in the 21st century in the United States is very similar in many ways to society in the 1st century Roman Empire. As the Empire then was hostile towards the budding Christian movement, so too we are surrounded by a culture that has become disenchanted with the church, many times because the institutional church has been so caught up with being right that we have forgotten how to truly love one another and witness to that love of Jesus, causing many people to be hurt and to fall away. And in other cases, it is because the church has focused so much on where we are going in the next world that we have forgotten that the better part of the witness of the Scriptures is telling how Jesus has come as an inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven here on this earth and now in this time. Jesus’ call to us is that in loving one another and in doing what is best for one another, salvation has already come and has set us free from the systems that would oppress us here on this earth.

So, how are we doing at witnessing to this Jesus who has come and liberated us from oppression? Are we acting as though we are free, or do we still labor under our bondage? If we were thrown into prison for setting another person free with the good news of Jesus, would we react by singing hymns and praying? Or would we loudly and obnoxiously assert our rights and demand to be let out? And if an earthquake came and knocked our chains off and opened the doors, would we immediately run out, or would we recognize that the welfare of another person might be at risk and stay physically imprisoned for that person? Because being a follower of Jesus does not mean being comfortable and just getting along with the systems that are in place. Being a follower of Jesus means that we believe that Jesus has brought freedom from oppression to us here and now, and we want to proclaim that freedom from oppression to everyone in our neighborhoods. And sometimes that means speaking up against oppressive laws, advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and being willing to give up our physical freedom for the well-being of another person.

The earthquake in Philippi on that long-ago night changed everything for the jailer. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has broken in on our sinful world like an earthquake, and that has changed everything for us—not only with the promise of resurrection in the future, but also for our life here on this earth. So let’s start acting like Jesus has made a difference in our lives. Let’s go out from here and be bold in our witness to others, proclaiming that Jesus’ salvation has come for all of us here and now, and that now is the day when freedom from oppression has come for us and for all humankind. Amen.

 

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Sermon for Easter

John 20:1-18

It must have seemed like a very cruel April Fool’s joke, even though in 1st century Palestine there was no such thing as April Fool’s Day. Mary Magdalene had been there with Jesus through the horrible crucifixion. She had stood there with Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, and another woman named Mary; Mary, or rather, Miriam, was a pretty common name for women at that time. She had watched for hours as Jesus was slowly tortured to death by hanging on that cross; she had seen him give the care of his mother into the hands of the disciple whom he loved; she had seen him thirst; and finally, she had seen him die. And on top of all that, she had witnessed the Roman soldiers perform a final act of barbarity on her rabbi by driving a spear into his side, just to make sure he was dead. She came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning—not to anoint Jesus’ body, for, according to John, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already done that—but to say goodbye to Jesus and to mourn for him at the tomb. So to arrive and to find the tomb open and the body gone must have sent Mary Magdalene into further shock. Resurrection was the last thing on her mind—even though Jesus had talked about resurrection in his ministry, Mary probably assumed that he was talking about resurrection on the last day. No, in Mary’s mind, a grave robber has come and taken Jesus’ body for some evil purpose, and she runs to tell Peter and the other disciple that the body is gone.

But before we get further into the story, I’d like to take a step back and talk about who Mary Magdalene was and who she wasn’t. Back when Jeff first announced to the choir that he wanted us to sing “Hey-sanna, Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday, someone laughingly brought up the song that Mary Magdalene sings in that production, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. And I said that that song would never be sung in this congregation. Why? Because nowhere in Scripture does it ever say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. So, why is she often portrayed as a prostitute? Well, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the women disciples who followed Jesus and cared for his needs, as well as those of the other disciples. Luke says that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary. And right before that story is the story of a woman who led a sinful life anointing Jesus’ feet. Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily in the year 591, made the mistake of saying that the unnamed woman who led a sinful life was Mary Magdalene, and since then, she has been portrayed as a prostitute in the Western church. In the Eastern Church, however, Mary Magdalene has been known as the Apostle to the Apostles—she was the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and without her, the other disciples would not have heard the good news.

So let’s go back to the story that John tells, of Mary going to the tomb and encountering it empty, with no body of Jesus anywhere in sight. She runs and tells Peter and the other disciple, who come running to the tomb, and they confirm that well, yes, the tomb is empty. But they don’t do anything about it! They shrug their shoulders and go home. Yes, John tells us that the disciple whom Jesus loved believed, but what did he believe? The next line says that “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So perhaps this other disciple simply believed Mary’s story that the body was gone. We don’t quite know.

But now we see Mary standing outside the tomb, weeping. She had already come to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death, but now she has even more to mourn: Jesus’ body is gone and she does not know what has become of it, and the other disciples seem like they have no will to try and discover what has happened. Mary’s whole world has come crashing down around her. But then she looks into the tomb and sees two angels there who ask her why she is weeping. Well, that seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? If you’re at a tomb, it means someone you love has died, and you know what? You might just be sad about that. But Mary answers as if it’s nothing unusual to be questioned by angels sitting in a tomb, and says that they have taken her Lord away and she does not know where the body is.

Well, then she turns around and sees Jesus. You know, we don’t always understand why Mary does not recognize Jesus, and why she thinks he is the gardener. Was Jesus carrying a hoe or a spade or wearing a hat to keep his face shaded from the sun? That’s the image that I have when it says that Mary mistakes him for the gardener, which is kind of funny. But we don’t know how resurrection changes the appearance of someone. And it may simply have been the fact that, when someone dies, they usually stay dead: Mary simply wasn’t expecting Jesus, the man she saw tortured to death, to be standing there in front of her speaking to her. Perhaps also blinded by her tears, she does not see Jesus clearly and does not recognize him.

But then, he says her name, “Mary.” In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus says that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” By simply calling Mary by her name, Jesus cuts through all of the grief and all of the doubt, and Mary instantly knows that this is her Lord and her Master, her great Good Shepherd, calling to her and telling her that he is, in fact, alive once more. And Jesus is not just a spirit, but is resurrected completely in the body. When he tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” the better translation of that would be “Stop holding on to me.” In her joy at seeing Jesus, I want us to picture Mary grabbing hold of Jesus in a big bear hug, and Jesus saying, “Okay, okay, it’s okay, you can let go of me now.” And then Jesus tells her to go and tell his disciples what she has seen, and Mary, joyfully named as one of his sheep and given the authority to do so, runs and tells the disciples that she knows now why there is no body in the tomb: she has, in fact, seen the Lord.

And so, my question for all of you is the same as the one that the angels and Jesus asked Mary Magdalene: Whom are you looking for? Why are you here today? Is it just something that you’re supposed to do, to go to church on Easter to make your family happy? Is it just something that you do out of a sense of duty? Or is it that you want to find hope? Have all of your dreams been shattered, and you don’t know where to turn next? Are you hoping against hope to hear some good news in your life? Or do you want to see Jesus: the Jesus who was crucified, who died for us, and who now lives again?

For those of you who are here to make your family happy or out of a sense of duty, I say to you: Rest easy, for you have now fulfilled all righteousness. But beyond that sense of fulfilling an obligation, I pray that you have also encountered the risen Christ and I pray that you would hear him calling your name and welcoming you into his community as a sheep of his fold. And if you would like to find out more about what it means to be part of this community that follows Jesus, please let me know after the worship service today and I would be happy to talk with you further.

For those of you who are here because your dreams have been shattered, you don’t know where to turn next, and who are hoping to hear some good news in your life, welcome. We are a people of hope, and it is our business to spread that hope to all of those whom we meet, both inside this church building and outside of it. The good news is that Jesus loves you: it doesn’t matter who you are now or who you were in your past. It doesn’t matter if you have enough to eat or are scraping to get by. And it most definitely does not matter what color your skin is or who you choose to love. Jesus loves you, and meets you with that abundant love and grace, calling you by name. We are a community who follows Jesus Christ, the one who is risen from the dead and who promises us resurrection as well. Please let us know how we can be as Christ to you and how we can walk beside you in whatever circumstances you find yourself in.

And for those of you who are here because you want to see Jesus: it is my prayer every week that somehow, during our time of worship, you do encounter the risen Christ. That encounter does not have to be in the sermon, although I am always very flattered and moved if that is where you see Jesus. But you can also encounter Jesus, and I certainly pray that you do, in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion; in the beautiful hymns that we sing and the music that we hear; in the laughter and the chatter of the children who worship in community with us; in the readings of Holy Scripture, and in the liturgy, which also has words taken from Holy Scripture in it. And I pray that you also see Jesus in the face of the person sitting next to you, and that you can lean on that person for material and spiritual support, and that they can lean on you for the same, in our journey together here on Earth.

On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene served as Apostle to the Apostles, and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. The commission that Jesus gave to Mary on that long-ago day has been passed on to us. We have seen the risen Lord, and we are charged with telling everyone this great, joyful news. My prayer is that each one of us would take this commission seriously and tell others about our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But we can do this joyfully, letting the love that Jesus has shown us spill over into our relationships with others, and we can do it with laughter. Today is April Fool’s Day in the secular world, but what is foolish to the world is wise to us. Jesus, who once was dead, has been raised from the dead, and that’s no foolin’. Amen.

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

John 12:12-19 & John 19:16b-42

Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday heralded by the crowds as the “King of Israel”. At least, that’s what the Gospel of John tells us. The other Gospels, not so much. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the crowds named Jesus “Son of David”. In Mark, they name Jesus as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and make reference to the “coming kingdom of our ancestor David”. Luke has the crowds calling Jesus “the king who comes in the name of the Lord”. And out of all four Gospels, John is the only one who specifically names the branches that the people used to strew Jesus’ way as palm branches. Matthew and Mark just say the people used “leafy branches”. Luke only says that people laid down their cloaks for Jesus to ride over. Now, these may seem like minor differences in the story, but I promise you, there’s a reason that John tells things a little bit differently here. In different parts of his Gospel, John has been playing with the idea of what it means for Jesus to be a king. In John’s telling of Jesus feeding the 5000, he relates that when the crowds realized what Jesus had done, they decided they were going to make him king by force. When Jesus saw that, he left the crowds and withdrew. In John’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when Jesus hears the crowds naming him specifically as the “King of Israel”, and sees them waving palm branches, which were a sign of national triumph and victory, he goes and gets a donkey and rides on that. Donkeys were a sign of humility, as opposed to horses, which were a symbol of a conquering military hero. By riding a donkey, Jesus is signaling that he is not, in fact, a king like the people expect him to be, and he is not going to militarily throw out the Romans and restore self-rule to the people of Israel. He is going to be a different kind of king.

We’ve seen that in the last few weeks as we have meditated on John’s account of Jesus’ trial, first before the chief priests and then before Pontius Pilate. Jesus does not claim the title of king for himself, although others accused him of it. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews, Jesus answered that his kingdom was not from this world. If Jesus’ kingdom were from this world, Jesus said, his followers would have been fighting to keep him from being handed over. And indeed, back in the garden when Jesus was arrested, he reprimanded Peter for drawing his sword to defend him. Jesus proclaims God’s reign over this world by love. And that love means not responding violently when violence is done to him, but rather, laying down his life for the sake of those he loves.

And so, today we see Jesus carrying his cross to the place where he is to be executed. And even here, John shows us a Jesus who is completely in control and who knows what he is doing. If you recall, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a man named Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross when he can no longer do it on his own. Not so in John. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that no one takes his life from him, but that he lays it down of his own accord. He has power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. And we see this in John’s telling of Jesus’ crucifixion as Jesus does not need any help to carry his own cross to the place where he will die.

But even in this moment where we see Jesus walking to the place where he will die, carrying his own instrument of death on his back, we see Pilate arguing once more with the Jewish officials. This time it is about the sign that he has written to place above Jesus on the cross. Crucifixion was an especially cruel way to put someone to death. People who were crucified would hang on the cross for hours, struggling to catch their breath, and every time they would try to twist to relieve that discomfort, the pain of the nails in their hands and feet would pierce them. Rome did this to those criminals that they wanted to make an example of, and they hung those criminals in a public place, so that everyone who walked by would see and be warned what would happen to them if they did the same thing. And so, by writing “The King of the Jews” on the sign to be put over Jesus’ head, Pilate was warning people what would happen to them if they made claims of kingship and tried to rebel against Rome.

But more than that, Pilate was, once again, ridiculing the nationalistic hopes of the Jewish people he ruled over. “Look at this King of the Jews,” he was saying. “You pitiful, conquered people. You can’t even raise up a king for yourselves without getting him killed.” But, as John has shown us before, there is an important truth that is coming through even in the mockery. For Jesus is, in fact, the King of the Jews—but not the king that was expected. Being lifted up on the cross was Jesus’ coronation ceremony, and the cross was Jesus’ throne. And by having the inscription on the sign written in three different languages—Hebrew (or rather, it would have been Aramaic), Latin, and Greek—this is a sign that Jesus is not only king of the Jews, but king of the Romans (Latin) and king of the whole world (Greek was the common language that most people in the Roman Empire spoke). This is our king, up on the cross, and, as Jesus said in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

So what does it mean for Jesus, someone who was executed by the state as a criminal, to be our king? It might mean that, when we think about people in prison, we do not rush to judgment, but that rather, we take into account their stories and ask whether or not they may have been falsely accused or imprisoned unjustly. It may also mean that, when there are laws in place that are unjust: such as laws that forbid feeding the homeless in public places, that we deliberately obey God rather than human beings and be willing to be imprisoned for violating those laws made by human beings. Having a king whose throne was a cross should also keep us humble, as we remember that Jesus took our sins with him to the cross and in their place, gave us his righteousness, so that we might live and walk in newness of life.

Besides having someone who was crucified as our king, what does it mean that Jesus is king not only of the Jews, but also of the entire world? For one thing, it means that racism has no place in the community of Christians who follow Jesus. Jesus, after all, did not speak English, and he was not white. Jesus spoke Aramaic, which is related to Hebrew, and he probably looked like someone who would have a difficult time getting through airport security today. We Americans often forget that we are grafted into Jesus’ family, and that we are not the natural-born heirs of the promise. But in spite of that, Jesus does love us. And, Jesus loves the immigrant who comes to our shores, either legally or illegally. And Jesus loves the refugee who comes seeking asylum from persecution, because he knows what it’s like to be persecuted. Can we who claim to follow Jesus do any less? If Jesus is king for the whole world, then we who follow Jesus must love the whole world just as Jesus does, and get rid of any racist attitudes that we might have.

Jesus is a king who rules, not by earthly power and glory, but by his suffering and death. Jesus is the king who draws all people to look on him and to believe that he loves us, which is much more than any earthly king or ruler can do. Jesus, who was executed as a criminal by the empire on a horrible instrument of torture, is the one who we look to as our king, with the cross as his throne. Let us behold our king on the cross, and let us take his actions as the model for our behavior. Let us strive to show sacrificial love for our brothers and sisters here in Steelton and around the world in every way that we can, not just in word but also in our actions. In all of our actions, let us remember this: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. Amen.

 

Sermon for Lent 5 Narrative Lectionary

John 19:1-16a

This week, we continue where we left off last week with Jesus facing a trial at the hands of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Last week we saw Pilate asking, “What is truth?” and we saw in Jesus’ response that he, Jesus, is the truth; the one who is willing to give up his life to show the world how much he loves the world. This week, we continue to see who Jesus is throughout the story of his trial. But we also see the gospel writer, John, asking us this question: Who is really on trial here? Is it Jesus, or is it the world?

In the opening scene, we see a continuation of Pilate making a mockery both of Jesus and of the Jewish people. Pilate orders Jesus to be flogged, and the soldiers make a crown of thorns and place it on his head, and dress him in a purple robe, and they say, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Pilate then brings Jesus out to the crowds and shows Jesus to them, saying, “Here is the man!” What Pontius Pilate doesn’t know is this: what he says in a brutal attempt to shame both Jesus and the Jewish people is actually the truth. This man who is deeply wounded from the vicious flogging and the torturous crown of thorns pressed into his head is actually king over both the oppressed and the oppressor. But Jesus is not king as any of the kings of this world are: instead of majesty and beauty, we see in this king frailty and weakness. And isn’t this indeed how God rules in the world? We do not always see the face of Christ in the strong, the healthy, and the beautiful, but we do often see Christ in those who are suffering, who are weak and sick, and who we consider to be ordinary or even ugly. But we human beings continue in our violence, and we continue in the ways of the world to value the beautiful and the strong above the weak and the ordinary. The verdict in this scene is this: Jesus is innocent, we human beings are guilty.

In the next scene of the trial, we see Pilate continuing to relentlessly mock the people that he rules. The people shout out for Pilate to crucify Jesus, and Pilate tells them to crucify Jesus themselves. Only the Romans were allowed to crucify people, and Pilate knows it. He is taunting this people who he does not understand with their utter powerlessness in the face of his authority. It’s like he is saying this: “You pitiful people who want to rule yourselves. Here is your king: whipped, beaten, and tortured, wearing a crown of thorns. You can’t even execute him in the way that you want to.” But then the Jewish officials say something that makes Pilate think twice: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

John then tells us that Pilate is afraid. Why? Because the people whom he rules have just upped the ante. This is no longer just about a man who claims to be a king in an empire where the government tolerates no rivals. Now this is about someone who is potentially divine, and even though Pilate doesn’t believe in the Jewish God, he does have a healthy respect for the Roman gods. He does not want to suffer divine punishment for killing someone who may be semi-divine. And so he starts asking Jesus where he comes from. When Jesus does not answer him, Pilate, in frustration, pulls the authority card: “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” When we human beings don’t get the response that we want, we start pulling the power card over the people we think do not have as much power as we do. But Jesus replies, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”  What Pilate hears is this: Yes, the power over Jesus has been given to me from the emperor. But what Jesus means, and what we know, is that the only power that Pilate has over Jesus is given to him, temporarily, by God. The verdict in this scene is this: We human beings are guilty of pretending that we have power and control over things that we really don’t. And Jesus, once again, is innocent of this.

In the face of Jesus’ refusal to play along with the system and answer Pilate’s questions, Pilate for the first time may be sensing that there is something more to Jesus than what he appears to be, and so he tries to release him. But the people taunt him once more: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” First, the people say that Jesus claims to be the Son of God and so, by their law, he must be killed. Now the people are back to saying that Jesus claimed to be a king, threatening Pilate with what he fears the most: Rome removing him from power because he did the wrong thing. The people are playing along with the system—a system they hate, by the way– to make an injustice happen, and we still do that today. Again in this scene, the verdict is that human beings are guilty and Jesus is truly the innocent one.

And finally, we come to the last scene in our reading today: the scene where Pilate gives in. But once again, Pilate taunts the people. When they shout, “Crucify him!” Pilate responds, “Shall I crucify your King?” Pilate is saying, “If he’s your king, you pitiful conquered people, shouldn’t you want him to live? Shouldn’t you place your hope in him so that he can throw us Romans out and you can rule yourselves? Are you so stupid that you want me to kill the hope that I know you have to rule yourselves one day?” And the chief priests respond with, “We have no king but the emperor.” I think there should be a note here that says, “They spoke this line dripping with sarcasm.” They are playing along with the system and with Pilate. You Romans told us we have no king but the emperor, so we’re just repeating that line right back to you. But, when you read this response another way, you can see the people’s betrayal not only of themselves, but of God. As Jewish people who worshiped only one God, God was supposed to be their king. Back in the book of 1 Samuel, we hear how God was not pleased when the Israelites demanded a human king to rule over them. God and God alone was supposed to be the ruler of God’s people. And in this response to Pilate, they denied not only God’s rule over them, but also their very nature as God’s chosen people. The verdict in this scene is that the people are guilty of betrayal, and once again Jesus is innocent.

Even while Jesus is on trial before the world, the world is on trial before God. And this is the world that the trial reveals: we human beings value the strong and the beautiful above, and many times at the expense of, the weak and the ordinary. We try to exert power and control over people and things that, in reality, we are powerless over, and which, in a different situation, would have power and control over us. We are willing to play along with systems that we otherwise hate in order to create an injustice to one person, so that we might get our own way at the expense of the other person. And we deny who we are and whose we are—God’s children beloved by God—and worship other people and things as our gods and as our kings. This story may be about Jesus’ trial before Pilate, but in reality, it is about our trial before God, and we are revealed to be guilty of the worst kinds of sins.

And yet. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus knew all this ahead of time. Jesus knew exactly how wretched and sinful human beings are, and he still chose to become flesh and to dwell among us. Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him, and he still chose to be with us, to be one of us, and to die for us. Jesus knew all of this, and he still chose to love us enough to show us a different way: a way of non-violence and a way of giving up oneself so completely that he was willing to die for his love and his passion for us. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

Christ died for us. For all of us. Because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. This week, Stephen Hawking died. If you don’t know who Stephen Hawking was, he was a prominent physicist who was trying to unify Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics, and he also suffered from ALS. He was also a professed atheist, and for that reason many Christians are saying that he wasn’t saved, based on the idea that you have to believe in Jesus. But this is us trying to understand the mind of God, and it’s also us trying to understand the soul of a person who claimed not to believe, and it’s also us trying to be God and pronounce judgment. This is an example of many of the sins that we see humanity guilty of in the story of Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate. The fact that Jesus died for everyone—while we were still sinners—should make us humble, aware of our own sinfulness, and not willing to pronounce judgment on others. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And that is what we are called to do, too: to love one another in humble gratitude for the love that God has showed us in Jesus Christ. Let us be mindful of our sins and be merciful to others as God has been merciful to us, and let us love one another as Christ loved us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Lent 4 Narrative Lectionary

John 18:28-40

Today we continue with John’s story of Jesus’ arrest and trial with no break from last week; today’s scene with Jesus before Pontius Pilate comes right after Peter denies being a disciple of Jesus. And the central question that this scene revolves around is, “What is truth?” This is a question that seems to reverberate down through the centuries to our society today, with “fake news” and “alternative facts”. But lest you think this is a new problem that has come up within the last few years, I found a clip online of Stephen Colbert from 2005, when he was still doing “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, where he coins the word, “truthiness”. What Colbert mocks in this clip is how we define truth in our society: whether we believe that something is truth based on the facts before us, or whether we believe that something is truth based on the feelings we have in our gut. And this should give us pause to think. When presented with facts, evidence-based facts, that are contrary to our world view, do we believe those facts? Or do we immediately cry out, “No, that can’t be right. It’s fake news, and I’m going to go find some group who will reassure me that it’s wrong so that my view of the world will not be broken.” No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, we all do this to some extent. But these days it seems more pronounced than ever. We don’t know what truth really is anymore, and so we echo Pontius Pilate’s disdainful, sarcastic question, “What is truth?”

But let’s go back to the first century for a moment and find out a little bit more about Pontius Pilate. After all, if you look at our creeds, there are only two human beings named in them besides Jesus: Mary, the woman who gave birth to Jesus, and Pontius Pilate, who was the one who gave the order for Jesus to be crucified. We hear a lot about Mary in the Scriptures, but not so much about who Pontius Pilate was outside of being the Roman governor who authorized Jesus’ death on the cross. And in order to understand his question, “What is truth?” I think we need to know a little bit more about the man.

The first thing to understand is this: Romans, in general, did not understand the Jewish devotion to one God. They also did not understand why the Jewish faith prohibited making images. In all of the other cultures that the Romans conquered, those cultures simply added the Roman gods to their own, and made idols of the Roman gods to put next to their own. But the Jewish culture and faith was different: the Jewish people insisted on worshiping one God alone and on not making images. When Roman officials discovered that entering Jerusalem with images could cause the people there to riot, they made an exception in their usual practice and removed the images from the shields and other paraphernalia of Roman soldiers. Pontius Pilate, however, decided not to follow this practice, and he allowed the images to once again come in to Jerusalem. He did not relent until he discovered that the Jewish people were ready to die rather than allow the images in their city, and he finally had them removed. So, already he was off to a bad start in his rule of the people. Furthermore, Pontius Pilate had a reputation for being cruel and for insulting the people that he ruled. So it is rather confusing, given his reputation, that he would try to let Jesus go free rather than have him crucified.

But, I think that we miss something in this scene if all we see is a Roman governor who is bewildered at why the people would want to have Jesus crucified. In the first part of the conversation, we see a Pilate who is utterly bored with and dismissive of these people that he does not understand. “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The only reason that Pilate continues on with the conversation is because the Jewish people, under Roman law, are not allowed to put anyone to death. But after questioning Jesus, Pilate finds no reason to have him put to death. Jesus has not admitted to leading an active rebellion against Rome, which is all the Roman officials were really concerned about. But, in the end, Pilate goes along with what the people want, simply because he does not want to be blamed for causing another riot. Rome is watching him, after all, and if Rome doesn’t think he’s doing a good job, then he could be removed from his position of power. And he doesn’t want that. He doesn’t think Jesus is innocent because he’s convinced by anything that Jesus tells him. His sole concern is this: What action of his will keep the people under his control from rioting and making him look bad to Rome?

That is the truth for Pilate: he is a man who doesn’t want to be removed from his position of power. And so, when Jesus says to him that he came into the world to testify to the truth, Pilate asks him that famous question, “What is truth?” Because for Pilate, the truth is that he is enslaved by the power structures of his day and he can see no way out of them, but instead must do what he can to try and survive. But what Jesus testifies to is a different truth: the truth that God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son. And Jesus is that Son of God, the one who John names as the Word, the one who was in the beginning with God, and the one who brings abundant life to his disciples. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep, the one who is the light who overcomes the darkness. That is the truth that Jesus testifies to, the truth that the world cannot see.

In a world that asks the same question that Pilate did, “What is truth?”, how do we see that Jesus is the truth? And what does it look like for Jesus to be the truth in a world where even Christians of different persuasions seem to disagree on how to live by what Jesus taught? I’d like to share with you about the movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” which is out in theaters now and is adapted from Madeleine L’Engle’s book of the same name. In this story, three children are charged with traveling through the universe to find their father, who is trapped on a planet that has given in to evil. Their angelic helpers give them the command to fight the darkness with light. And when Charles Wallace, the youngest of the children, is caught up in and trapped by the evil, Meg, his sister, discovers that the only way to rescue him is by giving him her love. And I think that goes along well with how the Gospel of John describes who Jesus is. And that is how we determine what the true voice of Jesus is amidst all of the competing claims in our culture: Jesus is the voice that brings light and love.

The love that Jesus shows for the world is the sacrificial love that would do anything so that the beloved might live. In our society, true love for one another would mean that, even though the government gives us the right to own guns, we would be willing to sacrifice the right to own certain types of guns because we love our children so much, that we want to give them the best chance we can to help them live a full and abundant life. Sacrificial love would mean that, even though immigrants may have violated the law of the United States by the way in which they came here, we as Christians have mercy upon them, try to understand why they felt they had to flee their own country, and do what we can to help them to live full and healthy lives. The truth that Jesus testifies to is that God loves the world and every single life that is within the world: from the baby conceived in the mother’s womb, to the single mother with three kids trying to make ends meet, to the Mexican immigrant family fleeing gang violence on the desperate chance that they might be safe in the United States, to the children in our schools wondering if they will come home from school or will be shot that day, to you and to me. Jesus stands in front of Pontius Pilate and says, “Don’t you think I could command an army to come and free me? But I’m not going to, because that’s not how God’s kingdom works. God’s kingdom works on love, and even you, Pontius Pilate, the one who will sentence me to die on that cross—even you are loved by God. And that is the truth to which I testify. And that is the truth for which I will give my life.”

One final thought: Jesus is taken from his hearing with the high priest to Pontius Pilate right after the cock crows, and just as morning is breaking. He testifies to the truth of God’s love for the world right as the sun is rising, bringing daylight to the world after a long, dark night of sorrow. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” When we follow in Jesus’ way, the way of sacrificial love for one another, we do not stumble about in the dark, but rather, we walk in light. And as we show love for one another, we also bring light to the people and to the world around us. So, as we go about our daily lives this week, let us walk in that light, remembering that we are beloved by God, and so is everyone we meet. Let us show that love and that light to everyone we meet. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 3 Narrative Lectionary

John 18:12-27

This week, we have jumped several chapters ahead in the story of Jesus that the Gospel of John has presented to us, and so I would like to take a few moments and summarize the stories that we have skipped. After Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, John tells us that, not only was there a plot to kill Jesus, there was also a plot to kill Lazarus, because people were coming to see the man whom Jesus had raised from the dead and were putting their faith in Jesus because of him. After this, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey with the crowds waving palm branches—come back to worship on Palm Sunday to hear that story being told. In the next scene, some Greeks come to Philip with the request to see Jesus, and Jesus says that this is the sign that his hour has come and the Son of Man will be glorified. He speaks of his death as the means by which the Father will glorify his name, and how, when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. John tells us that some people believed in Jesus while others did not. Jesus says that whoever believes in him believes in the one who sent him. In the next chapter, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and gives them a new command—to love one another as he has loved them. Come to the Maundy Thursday service to hear more about this story. Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him. Then he gives his disciples final teachings about the Holy Spirit, about himself, and about how they are to continue following his teachings. Jesus then prays for his disciples, and they all get up and go to a garden. Judas, who had left the gathering earlier, reappears with a group of soldiers and temple police to arrest Jesus. In the process, Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave, whose name was Malchus. Jesus tells him to put up his sword.

And now, we have arrived at today’s portion of the story of Jesus’ arrest and interrogation: the scene of Peter’s denial. There are two things that I would like to point out about this story. First, I would like us all to notice how the scenes of Peter standing at the charcoal fire are interwoven with the scenes of Jesus’ trial. In one scene we have Peter making his denial, and then in the next we have Jesus standing firm and telling the truth, and then we have Peter denying again. So, we have a comparison between the model that Jesus sets when he testifies to the truth of who he is over and against the bad example of Peter denying that he is one of Jesus’ followers. And that is the next thing I would like for us to notice: Peter is not denying Jesus directly in John’s gospel; he is denying that he, Peter, is Jesus’ disciple. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peter denies knowing Jesus. But here in John, Peter denies that he is a disciple of Jesus. It may be a subtle difference, but it is an important one. There is a difference between knowing who a person is and actually following that person’s teachings. In the first instance, when you know a person, it is possible for you to only have a passing acquaintance with that person. But, when you are a disciple of a person, that implies that you have a deep relationship with that person and do your best to follow the person’s teachings.

So, here is my question for you: Are you primarily a member of this congregation? Or are you first and foremost a disciple of Jesus? Like the difference between knowing Jesus and being a disciple of Jesus, there is a difference between the two. Our constitution defines a member of the congregation as one who receives communion once a year and gives once a year. If you do that, then you are a member. But that says nothing about your relationship with Jesus. Are you studying the Scriptures? Are you learning to obey what Jesus has commanded, as taught in the Gospels? Are you praying regularly? Are you finding ways to work for justice and peace? Are you forgiving others as God forgave you? These are just some of the things that a disciple of Jesus does, and these things become a very part of the identity of that disciple.

 

So, why would Peter deny not only Jesus, but also his very identity when tested? One word: fear. This is the man who earlier that night swore that he would follow Jesus and lay down his life for him. This is the man who, in the garden, drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. But now, when the true test comes and when he is asked to own his identity, Peter gives in to fear and denies Jesus and himself. Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to be afraid. Fear is a natural human reaction and gives us information about circumstances that could be harmful to us. But, we do have a choice as to what we do in response to that fear. Scientists tell us that the natural responses are to fight or to flee. We see Peter responding with both reactions: he fought in the garden, and now by denying his relationship with Jesus, he is fleeing. But Jesus offers us a third way: in the face of the threat of violence against him, he calmly stands and testifies to the truth of who he is and what he has taught the people, come what may.

What does this third way that Jesus offers look like today? It means that, when we are confronted with violence, we do not respond in kind, but, as Jesus told Peter, we put up our swords. Responding to violence with non-violence can be a frightening thing. But if we are to follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his life for the truth of the Gospel, which is the message that God so loved the world, then we are called to respond to violence with non-violence, and to testify to the truth about our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Here’s the thing, though: we are sinful human beings. We are going to fail at being disciples of Jesus. We may say that we are going to respond to violence with non-violence, but when confronted with violent circumstances, we may forget ourselves and fight back. We may say that we are going to be welcoming of everyone who comes through our doors, but then one day we may say or do something that hurts someone else, so that they do not feel that welcome. We may say we’re going to forgive others as God forgave us, but then continue to hold a grudge against someone without seeking reconciliation with that person. We may say we are going to live at peace with everyone, but then threaten someone because that person doesn’t act in the way that we think he or she should. In short, like Peter, there are going to be days when we don’t live up to the ideal of being a disciple of Jesus. We may be all bravado—we may think that we’re ready to declare to the world that we follow Jesus—but when the true test comes, we deny who we really are.

Here is the good news: Jesus stands ready to call us back to ourselves. The moment of grace in Peter’s story is when the cock crows. This is the sign that Jesus predicted, and this is the moment when Peter realizes what he’s done. In John, we don’t see Peter weeping, and we don’t see Jesus offering forgiveness until after he rises from the dead and asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. But the point is this: when we fail, and when we deny being Jesus’ disciple, Jesus will use something to call us back to ourselves and to remind us who we are. There is forgiveness when we don’t live up to the ideal of being Jesus’ disciple, and the Holy Spirit is with us as our helper as we start over and try again to live as Jesus’ disciples in this world.

Our failures are not the final word in our journey as Jesus’ disciples. Peter denied being a follower of Jesus, and yet Jesus restored him, and Peter went on to make many more disciples of Jesus before his journey on this earth was finished. We are a people of hope, and we therefore have hope that Jesus is with us through our failures and uses even those to work for good in the world. But more than that, because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we have hope that we can be restored as Jesus’ disciples and that God can continue to work through us. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 2 Narrative

John 12:1-8

Last week, we heard the incredible story of Jesus declaring that he is the resurrection and the life, and then demonstrating that by raising Lazarus from the dead. Before we get into today’s story, there is a plot development at the end of chapter 11 in the Gospel of John that we need to fill in. Because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, John tells us, many of the people there believed in Jesus. But some went and told the Pharisees what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a council, and in that council expressed their fear that if they let Jesus keep going as he was, then he would gain a following and the Romans would come in and destroy the temple and the country of Judea. The high priest, Caiaphas, then declares that it will be better for one man to die than for the whole country to be destroyed. And from this moment on, the leadership begins to actively plot to have Jesus put to death. So Jesus withdraws from that area to a town called Ephraim, in the north, near the wilderness, and stays there. But as the Passover approaches, the people begin to go to Jerusalem, and they start to ask among themselves whether or not Jesus will come. They also know that there are orders out for anyone who sees Jesus to report him to the authorities, so that they can arrest him. John is building up the suspense of the story.

And now we come to today’s story, where Jesus returns to Bethany and eats with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and many others. This is a very interesting story with layers of meaning that don’t always come through with our English translations. For one thing, this is a very intimate scene. A Jewish woman of good standing would not let her hair down in public. For another thing, washing another person’s feet is an act usually left to the slaves of a household; if you want to hear more about foot washing, please come to the Maundy Thursday service during Holy Week, where we will hear about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. For Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet with very fragrant and costly perfume in front of her sister, her brother, and many other guests there for dinner that evening would have caused outrage and offended sensibilities on many levels in that time and place.

But the main question in this story seems to be about how this perfume was used. The perfume that Mary had bought was indeed very expensive: three hundred denarii would have been about one full year’s wages for a laborer. In today’s dollars, think somewhere around $20,000 to $30,000. And so, I can kind of understand Judas’ very obnoxious, but ultimately self-serving, question: wouldn’t it have been better to sell the perfume and use this money to help the poor? Wouldn’t Jesus have been happier to have his feet anointed with something less expensive, and all of that money used to make other people’s lives on this earth better?

But let’s think back a moment. Jesus had just raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. And in that story, we know that Lazarus had been dead: dead for four days, so that, when Jesus commanded the people to open up the tomb, Martha protested that there would be a bad smell. There was no doubt that Lazarus was dead; there was no trick on anyone’s part. And Jesus did something that no human has ever been able to do: he restored life to a dead body, not in a horror movie/zombie type fashion, but full and abundant life. Lazarus was as he had been; it was as if he had never died. If someone restored your loved one back to life after he or she had been dead for four days, what would you give to that person? Wouldn’t you respond with all of the love and gratitude in your heart? Wouldn’t you devote your entire life to serving the person who saved your loved one from death? How much money would you spend for that person? Twenty thousand to thirty thousand dollars doesn’t seem like too much money now, does it?

However, we should not take Jesus’ comment about, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” to mean that we should stop working on behalf of the poor. The entire witness of the Scriptures says differently. Rather, it is simply this: Jesus knows that his time on this earth is short. He knows he is headed to Jerusalem to undergo a gruesome death on the cross. He knows that, when he is gone from this earth, his disciples will have all of the time in the world to help the poor. And so, in this moment, before he continues on to give his life for the world, he approves of Mary’s lavish and sensual act of devotion on his behalf. Mary is pouring out her life for him in love and in gratitude for him, just as Jesus will soon be pouring out his life, literally, on the cross for his love of humankind.

So, the question becomes, how do we devote our lives fully and completely to Jesus, to the one who has saved us from our sins? How do we give so completely of ourselves that our entire lives are marked by love of and service to Jesus? If we think that just coming to church on Sundays is going to do it, then we may need to rethink what we believe about Jesus. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark traces, in a sociological manner, how Christianity went from a group of several disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to becoming the religion of the empire. And one of the arguments that he makes has stuck with me. He makes the case that, when an epidemic of illness hit, the Christians showed their love for one another and for the non-Christians around them by nursing those who were sick. In the process, the Christians themselves often became sick and died. For the Christians, this was simply what they did out of love and devotion to Jesus, and they were not afraid of dying in the process. For the non-Christians around them, this was something so new and different that they had to find out more about this faith for themselves. And thus, Christianity gained new converts.

When the message of the culture around us is that we need to have more and more stuff in order to be happy, how do we proclaim the counter-cultural message of Jesus: that we find our lives only when we lose them in service to others? And how do we do this in a way that others will be drawn to want to know more about this man, this Son of God, who gave himself away so that others might live? How do we witness to others that what we have is enough, and give ourselves away in costly devotion to Jesus?

If you’ve grown up in the Lutheran church, I hope that you’re getting uncomfortable right now. Lutherans teach that there’s nothing that we can do to earn God’s love, and that is the absolute truth. We have God’s love already and nothing we do is going to earn it, and nothing we do is going to earn us a place in heaven. We have it already. But, we also hear from the Holy Scriptures that faith without works is dead. If it were John talking about this, he would phrase it in terms of love: if we claim that we love Jesus because Jesus first loved us, then that love should be showing in our actions. As the old song has it, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. So, my question to you today is: How do you show that you love Jesus? Well, here are some suggestions for you to consider:

Giving back to God what God has first given to us. Mary showed her devotion to Jesus by anointing his feet with a very expensive perfume. If a stranger were to come upon your checkbook and open it before she gave it back to you, would she be able to tell that you love Jesus? Are you giving to the church? Are you giving to groups that help other people in ways that God has commanded us to? What about if a stranger were to come across your calendar and open it up before giving it back to you? Would he be able to tell that you love Jesus by the places you go and how you spend your time? Could you give more of your time, talents, and treasure to serve God than you are doing right now?

What about the time that you spend in prayer? Now this can be considerably more private, because it is about the relationship that you have with God. But even so, there are ways to pray for others in public that can be a good witness to others without being obnoxious about it. For example, if you are having a conversation with someone else, and they are relating some struggles they are having to you, you can ask them if they would like to pray about it. If they say no, that’s fine—let it go and pray for them on your own time. But if they say yes, take a moment and pray together. Yes, it might feel awkward at first, but God knows what’s in your hearts and will hear you.

With these suggestions and with other ideas that you may come up with, it’s also important to examine your motivations. What you do to show your love for Jesus is not so that you just look good to everyone else—it should be a genuine act of devotion to show your love and gratitude for what Jesus has done for you. Mary of Bethany certainly did not do what she did to make a spectacle of herself, even if that’s what others thought she was doing. But the life of a Christian was never meant to be one of comfort and ease. The life of a Christian is a commitment to walk the path that Jesus has set before us. Jesus’ path meant crucifixion, death, and resurrection. While the path that he has set before us may not mean literally dying for the faith in Jesus, it does mean a commitment to a life that will entail hardship for the faith that we have. But it also means great joy as well as great pain, for in giving our lives away for others, we can see the joy that Jesus gives to the world through us. So do not be afraid—give of yourselves abundantly and joyfully for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the world. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 24

John 11:1-44

This week, we move from the healing of the man born blind, to Jesus being the Good Shepherd that we heard on Ash Wednesday, and now to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals who he is, not only through the signs that he does, but through several statements where he starts the sentence with the words, “I AM”. Unfortunately, our readings on Sundays have not covered those statements until today, so I will give you a list of what Jesus has said up to this point. In chapter 6, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In chapter 8, he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” In chapter 10 he says, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And finally, also in chapter 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In these statements, we find that Jesus has come to bring us nourishment, light, and protection. And in today’s chapter, we hear what I think is the ultimate revelation of who Jesus is: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus has come to bring life, and when he brings life, he brings it so abundantly that life can spring forth even out of death.

So, let’s take a look at this story in some more detail. Last year, I went to see Disney’s live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Towards the end of the story, the last petal falls from the rose. The beast seems to die, and all of the talking furniture becomes real furniture, instead of turning back into the servants like they would have if the curse had been lifted. And as this moment of the curse becoming permanent seemed to go on for a few beats too many, I sat on the edge of my seat, saying to myself, “Come on, Disney, you’re all about happy endings. Let’s get on with it already.” And, in the end, the curse is lifted, as we expect it to be. But the reason I thought about that moment when all hope seemed to be lost as I was preparing for today’s sermon is this: I wonder if this is the kind of thing that Mary and Martha felt as they watched their brother Lazarus become ill. As his illness worsened and Lazarus grew closer to death, I can see them hopefully, then desperately, watching the door to their house, expecting Jesus to come in at any moment and heal Lazarus. After all, Jesus had healed a lot of other people whom he barely knew. Why shouldn’t he come and heal Lazarus, whom he knew and loved? And then, as the spirit of life slowly leaves Lazarus, and Jesus doesn’t come, the last spark of hope is extinguished. Lazarus is dead, and even though Jesus can do many extraordinary things, the sisters clearly are not expecting Jesus to be able to raise the dead.

I think that we have all experienced these emotions at one time or another. We have been there with Martha, who looks at Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We have been at funerals where we have heard the preacher say that our loved one will rise again on the last day, and we know, in our minds, that this is correct theology, and our minds trust that theology, but it doesn’t really help when we are in the midst of our grief and we are crying out from the raw pain of acknowledging that the one whom we loved is dead, and we will never see that person again in our life. And, like Mary, we have all been in a place where we throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet, say to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and then weep uncontrollably. This is the reason that today’s story still speaks to us: we look back at this 1st century family, a family who believed Jesus could heal their brother if he would just come, and we know that their emotions are still our emotions so many centuries later. For all of our modern technological advancements, we have still not been able to conquer death. And the feelings that surround the death of someone we love are still the same down through all the years and in different areas of the world.

But Jesus is, indeed, the resurrection and the life, and he proves it by raising Lazarus from the dead. Not long ago one of my pastor colleagues said this, “Lazarus didn’t come back to tell us heaven is for real.  He was raised to show us Jesus was for real.” This story is not about someone coming back from the dead to tell us that there is a heaven and that it’s going to be glorious. No, this is a story to show us, once and for all, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name. Jesus is for real, and Jesus gives us hope for life, even in the midst of death.

The problem becomes this: we are all still going to die. We heard that on Ash Wednesday when I and Pastors Chuck and Victoria marked everyone with the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. Even those who believe in Jesus will one day die; we know that eventually, Lazarus did die again, along with his sisters Martha and Mary. So what does Jesus mean when he says those who believe in him will never die? It means that he, and he alone, has the power to defeat death, and those who trust in him have that promise of eternal life, not just after we die, but starting right now.

So, for us Christians, this puts our grief in perspective. We are confident that Jesus knows our sorrows and understands, for this is the other big part of this story: When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and all of those around her weeping, he first of all becomes angry, and second of all, he begins to weep. When our translation says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit, the Greek literally says that he snorted in anger, kind of like the snorting of a great warhorse. Perhaps Jesus was angry at death; after all, death was not the original plan for creation. Or perhaps he was angry at himself for having to delay coming to this family whom he loved. After all, it’s all well and good to know, in theory, that you’re going to raise Lazarus from the dead and that it’s all for God’s glory. But when Jesus is confronted by the real pain and suffering that Martha and Mary are experiencing, he becomes angry at himself. And then, finally, he is overcome by the crying around him, and Jesus begins to weep. In movies that have portrayed Jesus’ life, when it comes to this point of the story, they show Jesus shedding one or two elegant tears, as if even that’s too much emotion for the holy Son of God to show. But that’s not what the Greek says. The Greek word used here for weeping means that Jesus had a big, ugly cry, with red eyes and running nose. And that’s how I want us all to picture Jesus when we are mourning someone we love: if we’re having a big ugly cry, then you can bet that Jesus is, too.

This week, our nation mourned again as we witnessed another school shooting that resulted in 17 people being killed. And of course, now the political fallout begins. Is lack of mental health care to blame? Or is it because we need to tighten up gun restrictions? Well, my personal belief is that we need to both improve how we keep an eye on one another and improve access to mental health care, as well as tighten up gun laws. But I’m not going to go deeper into the debate than that right now. What I want to say is this: Jesus is snorting in anger when he sees that people are dying because of this situation. He is snorting in anger that so many people saw signs that this young man was disturbed but could not seem to do anything to get him the help he needed. He is snorting in anger because we seem to lack the willpower to do anything substantial to prevent this from happening again. It seems as though death is winning, even when those who believe in Jesus know that he came to bring us life.

But we also know this: Jesus is weeping with those who mourn. He is having a big ugly cry with all of those parents who have lost their children. He is with the family of Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who was killed when he threw himself in front of students to protect them from the oncoming bullets. Whether he knew it or not, Coach Feis was imitating the Good Shepherd himself when he laid down his life for those children. Jesus is weeping with all of these people, and he is mourning with all of those across this country who mourn for the people in Parkland, Florida. And we can take comfort from that.

But you know what the even better news is? Jesus does not leave us in the grief and anger in which he finds us. He continues to give us hope: hope that in a culture of death, life will break through and death will one day be conquered. When we are focused on Jesus, we trust that yes, he does have the power to raise us from the dead, and yes, eternal life has already started for us.  When we are focused on Jesus, we are focused on living that abundant life that he brings us here on earth, and thoughts of death and of heaven flee into the background.  When we are freed from thoughts of death, we are freed to love and to serve one another, even to the point of giving up our life for one another, if it comes to that.  And God will come to us in the best way possible to speak to us and to show us what God would have us do, unbinding us from our fears, and setting us free to live life abundantly in Jesus.  The only question is, now that we are free from fear and from death, how is God loosing us to love and serve one another?  The possibilities are endless.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

John 10:1-18

 

Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday—on Ash Wednesday. We here at St. John’s, and also at Salem, have been trying something new, and have been following the narrative lectionary. We entered into this on the Year 4 cycle, which focuses on the Gospel of John, and we have been going through the Gospel of John somewhat in order for the last several Sundays. I will admit that when I saw that the text the narrative lectionary had assigned for Ash Wednesday was the text about the Good Shepherd, my initial reaction was a bewildered, “Huh?” And I did seriously consider changing it back to the Revised Common Lectionary, with its text from Matthew which says to pray, give alms, and fast in secret, even though it would mean yet again struggling to reconcile that reading with the fact that we’re putting big ugly ash crosses on one another’s foreheads. But then I took a second look at the John reading and saw this verse: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And I realized that this is, after all, what we’re supposed to be focusing on during Lent: Jesus laying down his life for us. Now I’m wondering why the Revised Common Lectionary assigns this text for the fourth Sunday of Easter.

Lent is a time when we focus on what Jesus did on the cross for us, and it is a time when we examine ourselves and find that yes, we are still sinful human beings and as such, that we miss the mark in many ways. And when we hear this portion of the Gospel of John, the image that we get in our heads most likely comes from paintings of Jesus as the kindly shepherd, perhaps with a lamb on his shoulders, and with kind-hearted, white, fuzzy sheep frolicking around him. In fact, if you look up at our stained-glass window over the balcony, that’s exactly the image that I’m describing. Well, I’m here to tell you that sheep are not like that at all. Richard Swanson, in his book, Provoking the Gospel of John, describes sheep like this: “. . . to anyone who has worked closely with sheep, it is not a compliment to say that we are the sheep of God’s pasture. Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (p. 269).

What does it mean for us to be sheep? Well, we like to think of ourselves as those cute and fluffy animals who are so sweet that we see in our pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And most of the time, we delude ourselves into thinking this is so. But Lent is a time to come clean and acknowledge that we are more like those creatures that Swanson describes so poetically for us: greedy, smelly, and not too bright. It is a time for us to acknowledge that there is something deeply wrong in each of us, and we each have the potential to violate God’s law in the worst of ways. As an example of that self-examination: I have been working my way through the wildly popular cable TV series, “Game of Thrones”. And part of me is appalled at myself that I am still watching this show, because it is probably the most graphically and gratuitously violent thing I have ever seen. I tell myself that I still watch it because the story is compelling and because I want to see who is going to finally end up sitting on the Iron Throne. But what if I’m deluding myself? What if, on some level, I am enjoying the violent side of it as well? What if, deep down, I’m not as good of a person as I imagine myself to be?

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What does it say about Jesus that he wants to be our shepherd? I have a friend whose father raised sheep, and she told me a story about how one day he came in to the house, fully exasperated with whatever the sheep had done that day, and said, “The only thing dumber than sheep is the man who raises them.” Is Jesus dumber than we are? Well, I don’t think so. But I do think that he has compassion on us. The Gospels tell us in several places that Jesus has compassion on the crowds because “they were like sheep without a shepherd”. And that compassion that Jesus has and that love for us means that Jesus knows us completely: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he loves us in spite of all that. His love for us is so immense that he is willing to suffer violence at the hands of his sheep and to give his life so that these sheep—us—might live.

This year for Lent, I invite you to contemplate Jesus as the good shepherd, willing to give his life for us dirty, smelly, violent sheep. Many of us will be taking on extra disciplines during these 40 days, such as fasting from something, praying or studying more, and giving money or time to good causes. And that is all good—as long as you remember the reason that you are doing it. If you’re just doing it to have an answer to someone when they ask you, “What did you give up for Lent?” then that’s not a good reason to engage in this discipline. But, if you are doing it to remind you of what Jesus has done for us, how he laid down his life for us, and to grow in your love for him, then do take on that extra discipline this Lent. Jesus is the good shepherd who loves us so much that he lays down his life for us. What awesome love that is, and what a good thing to hold in front of us as we enter the season of Lent. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 23

John 9:1-41

This week, we have gone from the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well to the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. There are several chapters of the Gospel of John in between that we have suddenly skipped over, so I’d like to fill you in on what Jesus has been doing in the meantime. After Jesus and his disciples leave Samaria, they go back to Cana in Galilee, where Jesus heals the son of a royal official who lies ill in the town of Capernaum. From there, they return to Jerusalem, where Jesus heals a paralyzed man on the Sabbath, and the Jewish officials start plotting to kill Jesus because he was violating the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. Then Jesus teaches the people about who he is in relation to the Father: that he can do nothing on his own, but does what his Father commands him to do. Next, we find Jesus back in Galilee, where he feeds the five thousand and walks on water, after which he teaches the crowds more about who he is and says that he is the bread of life. Because of his teachings, and especially because he says that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life, many in the crowd stop following him, but the twelve still stick with him. Next, Jesus goes back to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths, goes up into the Temple, and teaches the crowds. Officers are sent to arrest Jesus, but they start listening to him and they don’t arrest him. We then have a short interruption with the story of the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus tells those who want to condemn her, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” We then find Jesus continuing his teaching in the Temple, including one of his I am statements: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” As we enter into today’s story of the healing of the man born blind, keep that “I am” statement in mind, because I think this healing story is, in part, an extended object lesson on what it means for Jesus to be the light of the world.

But first, some things about this story that need to be said. Jesus and the disciples encounter a man who was born blind. And the first thing the disciples ask Jesus is, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus tells the disciples that no one did anything wrong. We like to think that we are past that kind of thinking today—that God is somehow punishing people by making them sick. But we have our own version of this theology today that’s running around in some Christian circles. You might have heard some people say that, when a person becomes ill or when a person dies from an illness, it was because that person did not have enough faith or did not pray hard enough. If you’ve said it in the past, I want you to never, ever say it again. If you hear someone say that, I want you to tell that person to stop talking right now. God does not punish people for sins by making them sick. And God does not refuse to heal a person because the person “doesn’t have enough faith”. Even when we have faith in God, sometimes bad things happen. We are mortal and we will all die eventually. We cannot ask why, because we don’t know the mind of God. But death and disease don’t happen because of a person’s lack of faith.

The next thing that needs to be said about this story is that the argument among the Jews in this story is not necessarily a bad thing. I met a Jewish person once who told me that “where there are two Jewish people gathered together, you will find three opinions.” In the Jewish faith, argument and discussion about God’s law are a part of being faithful to God. It’s like a marriage relationship: You are confident that your spouse loves you. But, you have rules in the house that help you get along with one another in daily life. You don’t follow the rules in order to make your spouse love you; you follow the rules in order to show love and respect for your spouse. And sometimes, the rules need to be reinterpreted or renegotiated in light of new circumstances in your life. So it is with God: the Jewish people know that God loves them, and they want to show God love and respect by being as faithful to the law as possible. The third commandment says to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy by doing no work on that day. The main argument in this chapter of John results from the fact that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath day. Healing was considered to be work, so the Pharisees believe that Jesus has violated the Sabbath, and thus is a breaker of that law given by God. But, this healing resulted in a good thing: the man who was blind can now see. So, the question becomes this: would God allow a good thing to come out of someone breaking God’s law by healing on the Sabbath? This is why the Pharisees are having such an extended discussion about what has happened to this man.

We might answer this question with, “Yes, of course God would allow good to happen even if God’s law is technically violated.” That is also the verdict of John, who tells how Jesus takes in this man whom he has healed when the man testifies that Jesus has done a good thing and the Pharisees end up kicking him out of the synagogue. But that does leave us with an ethical question to ponder, “Do the ends always justify the means?” As an example, when the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan in 1945, they did bring World War II to an end much more swiftly than would otherwise have happened. But, in the process, they killed many people and caused many others to suffer illnesses resulting from the radiation. And, dropping those bombs started a nuclear arms race that we are still dealing with today. Did the end goal of bringing World War II to an end justify the means of dropping the atomic bomb?

Well, that’s a question for us to ponder another time. And I think the original question, that of Jesus violating the Sabbath in order to heal the man born blind, is not necessarily the point that John is trying to make here. In verse 5 of today’s chapter, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This is what he is demonstrating by healing the man who was born blind: he is bringing light into this man’s world, where the man had previously known only darkness. So then, what does it mean for Jesus to heal our spiritual blindness? When we sing the words in the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see,” what does that mean?

I’m sure many of you have your own personal stories about how Jesus has enabled you to see things you haven’t seen before, and to deepen your faith in him. I encourage you to tell those stories to your friends and to people you meet who are interested in why you believe what you do. Those personal stories make all the difference in bringing people to faith in Jesus. But today I would like to suggest something that is on a larger scale. Our society today is polarized and, despite some recognition of that and some work to make more connections between people, our society is in danger of becoming even more fragmented. Each of us, and I’m including myself in this as well, go into our own “tribes” and think we are right in our viewpoint and everyone else is wrong. A glance at the letters to the editor section in the newspaper will tell you this. And I know that it’s difficult for me to read an opinion piece in the newspaper that has the opposite point of view from my own. I tend to get a few lines into it and then either throw the paper down or move on to something else.

If Jesus were to return today—not in glory, as we hope and expect him to do—but as he came the first time, as a member of our society who teaches us about God, he would not be Republican and he would not be Democrat. He would be neither completely socially conservative nor would he be completely socially liberal. He would not take political sides, but he would be on the side of abundant life. As the light of the world, Jesus would shine his light on those dark corners of our society that do not give life but rather suppress it. For those who claim that they clearly see how things should be, he would name them as blind. And for those who admit that they are blind, Jesus would enable them to see.

Where are we blind and where do we see?  To use a more immediate example: we know that homelessness is an important issue, and some of us give to causes that support people who are homeless. But for those of us who volunteered when St. John hosted Family Promise in January, our eyes were opened to see real life examples of what homelessness looks like, and we wanted to help out even more. I think Jesus was there and helped remove our blindness that week. And if you weren’t able to volunteer last month, St. John’s is hosting Family Promise again in April and I would encourage you to sign up for that. When Jesus removes our blindness, he enables us to have compassion on others and to walk with them through life more easily.

And in the end, that’s what Jesus being the light of the world is about. When Jesus heard that the Pharisees had thrown the man whom he had healed out of the synagogue because he had testified to Jesus’ power, Jesus found the man and invited him into a new community—the group of people who had faith in him and who believed that Jesus was the Son of God. When Jesus removes our blindness, we may have a rough time as we try to communicate what we have seen with those who still do not see. We may be ostracized and we may no longer fit in with our polarized tribes who think one way and are unwilling to see where they may be blinded. Our call, though, is to follow Jesus and to ask that our eyes may be opened in areas where we are blind, and then to testify to others about the one who has opened our eyes. And we have no reason to be afraid, for Jesus is with us through it all. Amen.