Sermon for Good Friday

             This week, known as Holy Week, has been rather terrifying as we get report after report of bad news. We’ve heard of the chemical attacks in Syria, and the military response of the United States. Coptic Christians in Egypt were attacked as they worshiped on Palm Sunday. Here at home, there has been another school shooting, and a passenger on a commercial airline was forcibly dragged off the plane when he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. This has all been terrifying enough, but probably the event that had the most disturbing implications for us as Christians was the White House press secretary saying that Syrian President Assad was worse than Hitler because Hitler never used chemical warfare “on his own people.” The reason that this caused such an uproar was because Hitler did in fact gas scores of Jewish people to death in concentration camps, and those Jewish people were Germans. The fact that he made these comments in the midst of the celebration of Passover made it even more offensive, and made it seem like he was, at best, ignorant of the history of the Holocaust, and, at worst, a denier of the Holocaust. And even though he did apologize for these remarks, I doubt that many people will excuse him or forgive him.

            Why am I speaking about this? Because anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head in the United States in different places and in different ways, and because the anti-Semitism that developed over many centuries in the church has stemmed from a misunderstanding of who Jesus was and who was responsible for his death on the day that we call Good Friday. Over the centuries, misinterpretations of Scripture and a lack of understanding by Christians of why the Jewish people would not accept Jesus as the Messiah has resulted in Christians saying, “The Jews killed Jesus,” and have been used as an excuse for hatred of the Jewish people and violence against them. Many Christians have forgotten that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Jesus’ crucifixion was a result of several complicated factors. One of those factors was the relationship of the Jewish authorities to the Roman occupying force. Another factor was the complicated relationship that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had with both Rome and the Jewish people—he was often caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance keeping the peace in Judea with making his superiors in Rome happy. There was really no one person or one group of people to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion, and when Christians over the years and even in the present time try to do that, they are simply in the wrong.

            So, then, how do we speak of the death of Jesus? On an earthly level, we speak of it as the result of weak and sinful human beings—those in authority worried about retaining their power and also about keeping the peace, so the Roman soldiers wouldn’t come in and take things over completely by force. We speak of it as a travesty of justice, for Jesus had done nothing wrong. But theologically, we speak of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, so that we might live forever. We speak of God being present even as we shudder at how human beings devise such cruel methods of execution, and we contemplate our own sinfulness at how we might be complicit in systems that make other human beings suffer. And we know that, even when we believe that God has forsaken us, just as Jesus cried out when he suffered on the cross, God is still present with us in our suffering. And more than that, because of what Jesus, the Son of God, went through on the cross for us, God understands our suffering in an intimate and mysterious way. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

            We speak of the death of Jesus with sorrow, with awe, and with wonder, as we meditate on its mystery. We do not, however, cast blame on anyone for his death. For we do not know if, had we been present on that day, we would have been one of the women who stayed with Jesus to the end, or if we would have been one of the disciples who fled for fear and left Jesus to suffer alone. Even more than that: we may have been one of the mob shouting “Crucify him!” or we could have been one of the high priests who wanted Jesus to die. Or, we could have been Pontius Pilate, who valued peace in Jerusalem more than he valued justice, and handed Jesus over to be crucified. We simply don’t know, and so we cannot speak of blame for Jesus’ death unless we want to condemn ourselves.

            For in the end, it was our sinfulness that put Jesus on the cross. And when I say “our,” I mean all of us: all human beings who ever lived, past, present, and future. There is no need to single out any one people group, and no reason especially for anti-Semitism. We are all guilty. But the good news is this: in Jesus’ death on the cross, we have forgiveness for our sins. So, let us come and worship Jesus as we see him suffering on the cross for us. Let us come with sorrow and let us also come with profoundly thankful hearts for what he has done for us. Amen.

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

When I lived in southeast Texas, I had a good friendship with the secretary of our congregation and her next-door neighbor, who was also a member of the church. The parishioner, whose name is Sharon, has a phobia of cockroaches, which can be a problem in southeast Texas. That area of the great state of Texas is part of Texas’ Gulf Coast, and so the climate is very warm and very humid; all kinds of insects thrive in that kind of climate. The secretary, whose name is Brenda, has no such phobia of cockroaches and other disgusting bugs. And so, when Sharon encounters a roach in her home, she immediately gets on the phone, calls Brenda, and asks the question, “Brenda, how much do you love me?” And Brenda immediately comes over to Sharon’s home with her fly swatter, asks, “Where is it?” and then proceeds to kill said disgusting bug.

Can love be measured by what someone is willing to do for another person? If love can be measured in this way, where does killing a creepy insect for someone fall on the scale? Or, as in my parents’ case, disposing of mice caught in traps for the spouse who is both afraid of and repulsed by mice? And where does washing feet fall on the scale of measuring how much someone loves another person? I’m curious, and I’d like to take a quick poll of the congregation here tonight. Think of the person that you love the most. Now, how many of you would kill a cockroach or some other really frightening bug for the person you love? OK, and how many of you would dispose of a mouse caught in a trap for this person? And finally, how many of you would wash the other person’s feet? I think it’s interesting, because, of those three options, I would find washing the other person’s feet least offensive. And yet, when I suggested we consider doing the rite of foot washing at this service tonight, I was met with a great amount of hesitation. Why do we have no problem walking around in sandals during the summer and letting other people see our feet, but we do have a problem with the idea of someone washing our feet for us?

As I pondered this, I remembered that a couple of times when I’ve been up at Chico Hot Springs, I have gotten a massage. And the first part of the massage is having your feet washed with a warm citrus scrub. It felt so good to have someone else wash my feet with care that I normally don’t take when I wash my own feet. But perhaps this is the difference: while I did talk with the woman as she was washing my feet, I didn’t know her very well. And washing my feet was simply part of her job that she was getting paid for, so there really wasn’t anything too intimate or embarrassing about it. When congregations hold the rite of foot washing, on the other hand, it often means that we are forced to look one another in the eye, and perhaps even to wash the feet of someone whom we don’t like very much. Or even, to have our own feet washed by that same person. Just a little bit awkward, and somewhat frightening if we haven’t been brought up with doing this in the church.

In Jesus’ day, when you were invited to someone’s home, the good host would offer you a basin of water to wash the dust of the road off of your feet before entering the home, but he would not wash your feet himself. If your host were rich enough to own slaves, he might command one of his slaves to wash your feet. So in that culture, it was understood that a person who washed your feet was a slave. So can you imagine how truly stunned the disciples must have been to see their Lord and their Teacher, Jesus, taking on the role of a slave? I think they were all shocked into silence, and Peter was the only one brash enough to take what they were all thinking and speak it out loud. And when Peter protests that Jesus will never wash his feet—after all, Peter did not want his Lord and master demeaning himself to the status of a slave—Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Craig Koester, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary, paraphrases this, “Unless I love you completely, you will not be in relationship with me” (Word of Life, p. 193). In other words, when Jesus takes on the role of a slave and washes his disciples’ feet, he is loving them completely, and he is foreshadowing his death on the cross, where he will more fully show them what being a slave for one’s beloved looks like.

What’s even more interesting about Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Judas has not yet gone out from the meal to make arrangements to betray Jesus, but Jesus knows that Judas is going to do this. And yet, Jesus washes Judas’ feet, showing Judas that, even though he knows what’s going to happen, he still loves him. The response of good to the evil in this world is not to retaliate and to give evil back for evil, but instead, to respond with utter love and devotion in an unexpected act of service.

And after this unexpected and disturbing act of service is completed, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” If we 21st century Americans can’t even bear the intimacy of literally washing one another’s feet, how are we to metaphorically carry out such selfless acts of love and devotion towards one another? How are we to make ourselves vulnerable, even in the company of people who might betray us?

As Jesus said, he is the one who sets the example for us, first by washing the disciples’ feet, then by going to the cross to die for us. That is something that is impossible for us human beings to live up to. But as we live in this world, Jesus will give us opportunities to humble ourselves and to show selfless love for one another, even for those who would hate us and betray us. When we respond to evil with love and service rather than with fear and retaliation, then we truly show the world that we are disciples of the one who gave his life for us. When we show selfless love to one another, we build up the community, which again bears witness to the world of how much Jesus loves us. So perhaps in the future, we might begin by physically washing one another’s feet. Amen.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

I don’t usually preach on Palm Sunday. The reason for that is because I think our readings, from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the beginning of the worship service, to the lengthy congregational reading of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem and his crucifixion, are enough to speak for themselves. I like to let the images of the story take hold of our imagination, and I hope that we can reflect on them as we enter into Holy Week. But today is different: we have one of the young people in the congregation ready to affirm the faith that she was brought up in. And so, I felt that today I needed to give a short meditation on the texts that we have before us to mark this occasion.

As I was preparing for this day, I found out from several of my colleagues that it used to be tradition to celebrate confirmation on Palm Sunday. This was because confirmation used to be the time when the people being confirmed would also receive their First Communion, and the church wanted those who were newly confirmed to be able to receive communion with their families the following week, Easter Sunday. But now that our children receive communion whenever their parents think that they are ready, how does confirmation tie in to the liturgy and ritual of Palm Sunday? Very well, I think. Simply put, on Palm Sunday, we hear and we reenact the foundational story of our faith. This is the story into which we are baptized, and when we affirm our baptism in the rite of confirmation, we are affirming that this is the story that we continue to have faith in: the story of the Son of God who became human for our sake, who showed us how we are to live by serving one another, and who died on the cross for us, that we might have forgiveness of sin and be with him forever.

So, let’s start with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and let’s look at what the crowds were shouting when they threw their cloaks on the road. When we hear the word “Hosanna,” being shouted, we think it’s a word of praise, kind of a “hip-hip-hooray, Jesus is coming into Jerusalem and is revealing himself to be the king.” Well, actually, that is incorrect. The word “Hosanna,” is an Aramaic word meaning, “Save us!” So, my next question for us to think about is this: What did the people shouting Hosanna to Jesus on that long-ago day want to be saved from? I honestly don’t think that they were wanting to be saved from their sins. Remember that Jerusalem is under Roman occupation and is being directly ruled by Rome’s governor, Pontius Pilate. Also remember that Jerusalem has a long history of being both God’s home—the Temple was located here—as well as the political capital of Israel, the place where the great kings David and Solomon reigned. And the fact is, the crowds are proclaiming Jesus as the Son of David. They are wanting Jesus to clean house; to run off the Roman occupiers, and to restore the rule of Israel to the Jewish people.

And after Jesus enters Jerusalem, he seems to be off on a good start towards that goal: he gets off of his donkey and goes into the temple, driving out all of the money changers and those who were turning the temple into a marketplace. That seems to be the kind of thing a new political leader who wanted to start a rebellion would do, right? But then, in the next several days, Jesus seems to take an alternate approach. Instead of promoting a rebellion by kicking over more tables and planning raids on storage places for Roman weapons, he starts healing people and teaching them, just as he did when he was in Galilee. Some of his teachings were very pointed against those in power, yes, but still, this is generally not the way someone who is set on overthrowing the authorities would go about it. So, what is Jesus doing here?

In short, I think that Jesus is teaching those who would hear him how they are to live under an Empire that cares very little for their well-being. In the parables that he tells during this time, he is also showing those who would hear him how God’s kingdom is different from the current Empire in power, and he is encouraging those who would hear him to live and work as though God’s kingdom were already here and in full force. Empires do not always fall by military might. Instead, it is those who live differently than the Empire would have them live and who are brave enough to resist injustice when resistance is called for who bring about the changes that are needed in the world. When those in authority heard Jesus’ teachings and knew that these things that he was saying were being said against them, they feared that they would lose their power, and they decided that they needed to get rid of Jesus. And so, in the space of a few days, the crowds went from hailing Jesus as the Son of David who would save them from the Romans to crying out for his death.

This is the faith that we Christians are baptized into. Paul writes in Romans that “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In just a little while, Elsie will be affirming this faith that she was baptized into many years ago—she will be taking this on for herself. If you were here Wednesday night, you saw her talk about how following God is not an easy path, and how you can’t take anything with you but your heart. In the readings today, this is what we see Jesus doing—following God’s call upon his life even unto death. And while my hope for Elsie, and for all of us here, is that God would call us to live for him rather than to die for him, we know from Jesus that God is with us in every situation in life, that God goes before us, and that, even when we die, God is with us.

And so, when we cry “Hosanna!” we are not asking Jesus to save us by overthrowing the earthly empire under which we live. Instead, we are crying out for Jesus to save us by showing us how to live and, when necessary, how we are to die. We are crying out for Jesus to save us by walking with us in every dark place and every light place that we are called to go. And yes, we are crying out for Jesus to save us from our sins, those bad things that we do and the good things that we fail to do. And Jesus meets us to save us, not in the glory of his parade into Jerusalem, but dying upon a cross, giving his life for us that we might live. He pours out his love upon us and gives us the strength and the faith that we need to live our lives in his grace. My prayer for Elsie and for all of us is that, seeing how Jesus pours out his life for us, we would live out our baptismal callings by showing forth the love of Jesus in everything that we do, to everyone that we meet. May God give us the strength and the wisdom to do so. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 5A

John 11:1-45

I went to see the new Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, recently. Before I tell you about this scene in the movie, I feel like I should call “spoiler alert”. However, if you saw Disney’s cartoon version of this story once upon a time and long ago (25 years ago—just to make us all feel old) then what I’m about to describe isn’t really a spoiler. So, I’m hoping that all of you who are going to see the live-action movie have seen it already, or at least will know what I’m talking about from your memories of the cartoon. Towards the end of the story, the last petal falls from the rose. The beast seems to die, and, in the live-action movie, 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.

To use an image from another movie, Lazarus is dead: most sincerely dead. There is no getting around this. And what’s disturbing about this story is that Jesus deliberately delayed his arrival in Bethany to come after Lazarus’ death, when he might have been able to come earlier and heal him. It’s all good in theory: the Son of God must be glorified through what Jesus is going to do. But in reality, here is what has happened: Mary and Martha and those who knew the family have been put through the wrenching grief of losing Lazarus, and the pain of knowing that Jesus could have come and healed him, but didn’t. The glory of God doesn’t seem to matter very much when you’re weeping over a beloved brother, does it? I think we can all understand why Martha and Mary might be angry with Jesus when he does bother to show up.

But then, Jesus himself gets angry. And our translation doesn’t really show that; it glosses over Jesus’ emotions by saying that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” A more accurate translation of the Greek verb would say something like this: Jesus snorted in anger, bringing to mind the snorting noise that a warhorse makes. The harder question for us to answer is this: why would Jesus be angry? And why would he be so angry that he makes a snorting noise? Well, he could be angry at being scolded by both Martha and Mary; both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or, perhaps Jesus is angry with himself: Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus, and he knew that it would be for God’s glory so that those who witnessed it would believe in him, and, as I said before, that’s all good in theory. But when confronted with the pain and the grief that his delay had caused, Jesus experienced the real consequences of his actions. And he was angry at himself for the pain and the suffering that he had caused by delaying. Then, some of the people surrounding Martha and Mary are saying that Jesus could have kept this man from dying, and he snorts in anger again. Here, I think it’s easier to say that he was angry over the people’s inability to trust in him, even in the event of death, or that he’s angry that the people, too, are scolding him. But whatever the reasons, Jesus is angry.

We say that Jesus is both human and divine, and sometimes, in our minds, the divine takes over the human part. Oh, since Jesus is divine, since Jesus is God’s Son, he can’t get angry. After all, we think, anger is not good and it is sinful, and since Jesus is without sin, he can’t get angry. That’s why, I think, the translators of our Bibles gloss over Jesus’ anger by saying, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s just vague enough to get Jesus off the hook; to say that yes, he experienced human emotions, but he didn’t experience the really bad ones. But let’s think about that for a moment: as human beings, we all get angry from time to time. It is a natural human emotion, and there is nothing sinful about anger in and of itself. Rather, it is what we do with that anger that is sinful. So for me, and perhaps for some of you here today, too, Jesus becoming angry at this whole situation that he’s in makes him more human. He really did experience everything that I do; he understands what it’s like to lose a loved one. Not only did Jesus weep as he saw the others around him weeping, he became angry at himself—and became angry at God, too.

What Jesus does with his anger, though, is the important part of this story. He follows through with what he knew he was going to do all along: he confronts death head on. We tend to laugh when Martha objects to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone from the grave by saying, “Lord, already there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” It is a realistic and pragmatic touch to this powerful story that makes us love Martha. But, there is something more going on here. I’d like to explain it by telling this story.

Back in January, I lost one of my cats to something called FIP, a virus against which there is no vaccine and no cure. I watched my cat die in front of me, and I brought him back to the vet to have him confirm that my cat was dead. I mourned for my cat, but after a couple of days, my life was starting to return to an equilibrium, and a new normal with just one dog and one cat in the house. Things started to settle into a routine again. Then, a couple of weeks later, I got the call from the vet that the ashes of my cat who had died were ready to be picked up. I went to pick up the box, and the moment of my cat’s death replayed itself in my mind, and the wound became raw once more.

I think that’s what is going on here when Martha tells Jesus that there will be a stench if they open the tomb. The stench will be a reminder to her and to Mary that Lazarus is truly dead, and the pain of the wound will come once more to the surface. They will relive the moment when they saw Lazarus take his last breath. They will have to confront death. I think that Martha and Mary and those who were with Jesus were expecting Jesus to mourn at the tomb at this point in the story; they were still not expecting Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life, and that’s why Martha is surprised at Jesus commanding the stone to be removed. And so, Jesus urges them once more to believe, so that they may see the glory of God. And he does the impossible: he brings Lazarus back to life.

It’s comforting to me to see that, even as far back as this ancient story of Jesus raising Lazarus, no one likes to confront death. It shows me that human nature hasn’t changed all that much over the years. But one of the points that John is making by telling us this story is this: we can’t appreciate resurrection and new life until we have first acknowledged the reality of death. And we don’t like to do that in our society today. More and more when I look through the obituaries in the paper I see that there is no funeral or memorial service planned for a person who has died. Or, if there is one planned, it is named as a “celebration of life” because we don’t want people to be sad. We are uncomfortable with grief. But denying death in this way, and in other ways, is not natural, and denying grief is simply not healthy. Gathering together to console one another in our grief, as the friends of Martha and Mary did for them when Lazarus died, is a vitally important and healthy thing to do.

But something that is even more disturbing to me is that this avoidance of death in general society has infected the church, too. In the years that I have been with you here at Hope, I have seen only small numbers of people come to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. I know that this was the pattern even before I got here, and I have struggled with this. Part of me understands that it may be hard to commit to going to two worship services two days in a row. But I think there’s something deeper than that in play here: we don’t want to confront death. We want the joy of Easter without having to go to the cross and stare death in the face. But here is the truth: without death, there can be no resurrection. We cannot truly understand and experience the joy of Easter without first understanding and experiencing the crucifixion on Good Friday.

I think deep down, Jesus understood that. In John’s Gospel, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is the final straw with the authorities: after this, they go off and seriously plot to kill Jesus. Jesus knew that. And so, when they opened the tomb of Lazarus and the stench of death came out, Jesus was confronting his own upcoming death. Jesus knew that, not long from this moment, he would be experiencing this same thing. And yet, whatever fear he might have felt in this moment, he also had hope that death would not be the end, either for him or for Lazarus. And he gave the people the sign that there is hope for resurrection by raising Lazarus, and through that sign, he himself knew that he and all of the people around him would experience that resurrection as well.

As Christians, we are resurrection people. But as Christians, we know that we cannot experience resurrection without first experiencing death. Jesus teaches us the way to confront death and to not be afraid. We should be able to look death in the face and say, “Yes, death, you are pretty scary. And you are disgusting. But, we have hope. We know one who has died for us, and yet has conquered death. And he claims us as his brothers and sisters. And because of that, we know that one day, we, too, through Jesus, will conquer death, and we will live forever with Jesus. So go ahead, death. Do your worst. We will acknowledge you, but we trust that God through Jesus will bring us through you. You will not take away our hope in Christ.” Amen.