Good Friday Homily

Matthew 27:27-61

Tradition says that Jesus spoke seven words from the cross. That is what our worship service tonight is centered around: those seven last words that Jesus uttered. What we don’t always remember is that those seven last words are taken from four different gospels, written by four different people who, although inspired by God to write Jesus’ story, had different viewpoints about who Jesus was and what he came to earth to do. And so, it is beneficial for us to read the crucifixion account from each Gospel’s point of view, to see the differences in how they interpreted Jesus’ death on the cross. And since we’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew this year, I would like to speak about Matthew’s account of how Jesus died.

According to Matthew, Jesus said only one sentence from the cross, and that sentence was actually a question, ripped out of Jesus’ throat just as the nails ripped through his flesh: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When Jesus uttered that desperate cry, he had already been hanging on the cross for about three hours, and this after a night when he had been tried, beaten, spit on, and then, early in the morning, had seen his people call for his death, had watched the Roman governor wash his hands of him, had been mocked with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, and then been nailed to the cross. There is a difference, I think, between knowing that you are going to die and then experiencing it, especially experiencing the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another. Is there any wonder that Jesus would think that God had forsaken him in the midst of all of that suffering?

We wonder how Jesus, who was divine and who knew that this was going to happen to him, could still cry out and wonder how God had forsaken him. I don’t know the answer to that question; it is a holy mystery that we are left to ponder. But here we see Jesus in his full humanity, not afraid to cry out in his pain and his agony, to cry out to the God who has been with him his whole life and who now seems to have deserted him, and it is a witness to us as well. If even the Son of God on the cross felt free to cry out and wonder where God is in the midst of suffering, then so can we. When we are in the hospital after a surgery and we are in pain and fear despite the medications that we have received, we can cry out to God. When we who have been healthy our whole lives go to the doctor and discover that we have cancer that cannot be cured, we can rage at God and ask why God has forsaken us. When we are feeling alone and lost, we can cry out to God and ask where God is. If Jesus can do it, then certainly we who follow Jesus can do it as well.

And here is the good news: God hears our cries. It certainly didn’t seem like God was anywhere around on that day when Jesus was crucified. But if we look more closely at Matthew’s account, we will see signs of God’s presence. We look for God in the supernatural events that accompanied Jesus’ death: the ripping of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom; the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks; and the raising of the saints who had died (which only the Gospel of Matthew mentions). But even more than that, God was present in the women who stood by Jesus as he died: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of James and John, as well as other women who were there. God was present in the man Joseph of Arimathea, who boldly went to Pontius Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus so that he might bury it in his own new tomb. God did not forsake Jesus on that day; God was with Jesus and suffered in him and with him.

That is good news for us as well. When we cry out to God and ask why God has forsaken us, the answer comes back that God does not forsake us. God is always with us through those times when we are lost, scared, and hurting. When we cry, God understands what we are feeling, intimately, and God weeps with us. God is with us in the community which surrounds us with love and prayer. God is with us always, and nothing—not even death—can separate us from that love of God, which is found in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who suffered and died for us on that cross.

This week, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was partially burned in a fire that initial investigations have revealed to be connected to renovations that have been going on. It was heartbreaking to see this happen to such an old, old cathedral that is a marvel of architecture and engineering even today. But what was moving to me was to see the picture of the interior of the church, where, amidst all the rubble still on the ground, the cross on the altar still stood as a beacon shining in the dimness. That is what Jesus’ death on the cross means: we have a God who is near to us even when all seems lost. God suffers with us. God is still with us amidst the rubble that happens in our lives. God weeps with us. God loves us. And God gives us hope that this is not the end of the story. Look upon the cross tonight and see there your Savior. Look upon the cross and see how much Jesus loves you. Amen.


Maundy Thursday Homily

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

This week it has been St. John’s turn to host Family Promise, and it also happened to be the week of the month when the Harrisburg Area Youth Initiative meets. So, the youth group decided that they would make the meal for the participants in Family Promise, and they also gathered to hear from past participants about what Family Promise was and how it worked in their lives. And I was very happy to hear that they really enjoyed coming to St. John’s, because the volunteers, both at St. John’s and from the other three churches in SOHL, treated them like family; eating with them, our kids playing with their kids, talking with them, and generally making every effort to make sure they were comfortable and taken care of. And one thing that Michael, one of the participants, said stuck with me. He told the youth that if they were going to volunteer with Family Promise, they should make sure they were doing it because they truly wanted to and not because it was some duty that they had to do. The participants in this program, he said, can tell the difference between people who truly care for them and people who are just there out of duty. He said that those who were volunteering out of duty made it clear in their attitudes that they were doing them a favor and would not eat with them, whereas those who showed care for them did what St. John’s has been doing. First of all, I want to say that I am so proud of all of you who have volunteered for this program and showed such love and care for the families who have come through our doors. But second, and most importantly, I think this illustration is a good lead-in to tonight’s Gospel text, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

We’re going to step back in time for a moment to try and understand the cultural context of what Jesus was doing when he was washing his disciples’ feet. And the first thing to note is that a free person would never wash another person’s feet. For a host to offer hospitality to his guests, the proper procedure would be to give them a basin of water and let them wash their own feet. If the host were particularly wealthy, he might have a slave do the duty of washing his guests’ feet. So, when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is doing something that just wasn’t done: he is taking on the role of a slave. Is it any wonder, then, that Peter was so shocked and protested that Jesus should never wash his feet? The only reason that a free person would wash someone else’s feet would be to declare his or her utter love and devotion to that person. Jesus is declaring to Peter and the other disciples his complete love and devotion to them; that passion that would send him to the cross in just a few short hours.

But did you ever notice something about the foot washing scene? Jesus washes the feet of Peter, who he knew would deny knowing him, and of Judas, who he knew would betray him. The example that Jesus is setting for his disciples is this: the love and devotion that Jesus shows for them includes them even when Jesus knows their flaws. Beloved in the Lord, Jesus has the same love and devotion for you and for me. He knows our flaws; he knows the times when we will deny him; he knows the things that we will do that will betray him. And yet, Jesus loves us so much that he reduces himself to the position of a slave in order to wash our feet.

And after this, Jesus tells his disciples, and us many centuries later, “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.” Twenty-one centuries later, in a completely different culture where foot washing does not have the significance that it did in 1st century Palestine, we debate what this means. Loving one another does not mean just being helpful to one another and volunteering at different events because we think it is our duty. Loving one another as Jesus loves us starts with something like sitting down for a meal with the participants in the Family Promise program and getting to know them as human beings. Loving one another as Jesus loves us means that, in a long-standing argument where grudges are held, one person humbles himself or herself, admits that they were wrong, and asks for forgiveness from the other. Loving one another means giving of oneself sacrificially so that the other person might be better off. Loving another person means loving that person completely and without anything held back, even when you know that person is going to deny or betray you, and even when you know that person has so many flaws that irritate you or make you angry.

This is the way that Jesus loves us: completely and without holding anything back. This is the message that he was conveying to his disciples when he washed their feet before he went to the cross. And no, washing feet today does not hold quite the same significance as it did then. But I think it can still be a meaningful experience as we try to understand the power of what Jesus has done for us. So tonight, after we sing our hymn, I would like to invite anyone who wishes to come forward and have their feet washed. Come and experience a physical reminder of what Jesus has done for us. Amen.

Sermon for Palm Sunday 2019

Matthew 21:1-17

Today marks a highly anticipated moment in our culture. Today is the day when we start the final leg of the journey to discover who the true king is going to be. We’ve been on this journey for a long time, and we can see that the end is in sight. There’s going to be all sorts of drama and violence coming down the road, but in the end, everything will be revealed, and we will find out who will sit on the throne and rule the kingdom. Yes, today is the first episode of the final season of Game of Thrones on HBO. For those of you here today who are not familiar with this show, it is a TV adaptation of a series of novels written by George R.R. Martin, set in a fantasy world but whose inspiration comes from the Wars of the Roses that took place in medieval England. In Game of Thrones, a king has come to power after dethroning the previous king, who had gone insane. But when this king dies, it sets off a series of conflicts and of violence as different factions in the kingdom of Westeros, plus the daughter of the insane king who is living and ruling in exile, vie to gain control of the Iron Throne and of the country. And it’s not all that different from the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived, in 1st century Palestine.

So, let’s set the scene. The Romans have occupied Judea since the year 63 BCE, when they wrested control of the country from the Maccabees, who had been ruling for about 100 years before that. Now we’re about in the year 30 or so CE. Unlike many countries around the Mediterranean, who welcomed Romans as the bringers of order and civilization, the Jewish people did not appreciate the Romans at all. They remembered with longing the times that they had ruled themselves, and they yearned for someone to save them from the oppression of the Romans. Now we’re approaching the festival of Passover, a holiday which celebrates God’s liberation of God’s people from Egypt, another country who had oppressed them. In Jerusalem, the atmosphere is tense as Rome increases its military power to keep the population under control, and the Roman governor himself, Pontius Pilate, is in residence as an added sign that Rome is not going to tolerate any nonsense from its subjects.

Into this scene comes Jesus. Now, it would be easy to say that the Jewish people were expecting a Messiah who would liberate them from Rome, and given the political situation with the overtones of the Passover holiday, that would seem to help us understand why the people welcomed Jesus on the day he rode into Jerusalem and then were calling for his crucifixion by the end of the week. But, as with many things in history, it’s just not that simple. Some people thought that John the Baptist was the Messiah, and—I actually learned this in an article I read this week—there is still a group of people who believes this today, who are called the Mandaeans. Some were expecting a priestly Messiah, and others were expecting a military figure. Some people thought the archangel Michael was going to be the Messiah. And still others thought the prophet Elijah would usher in a messianic age. Still more thought the Messiah would be a shepherd.

So, what was Jesus doing when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that day? Well, according to Matthew, he was fulfilling the prophecy spoken in Zechariah about Israel’s king coming to them humble and riding a donkey. This is important, so let’s stay with this image for a moment. In ancient Israel, horses were only used in warfare. When it came to tasks like plowing or pulling carts, oxen and donkeys were the animals of choice. For Jesus to ride in to Jerusalem on a donkey signifies that yes, he is a king, but he is not a military king. He is a king who will usher in his kingdom in peace. This most likely means that he is not there to forcefully overthrow the Roman occupiers. But if he comes in peace, and his kingdom is one of peace, the question among the crowds is probably going to be: how exactly will he be a king?

Let’s then turn our attention to those crowds who are shouting out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” We think the word “Hosanna” is a word of praise. We sing it whenever we have our communion liturgy: Hosanna in the highest. The account of Palm Sunday is where we get that from. But “Hosanna” is not a word of praise. “Hosanna” means “save us”. The crowds were shouting to the Son of David, “Save us!” But from what did they want saving? Well, let’s look at all the different expectations of what the Messiah was going to do. I’m sure there were some who wanted Jesus to save them from the Romans and to liberate them from their oppressors, just as Moses had liberated them long ago from the Pharaoh of Egypt. Perhaps there were some who had heard stories of how Jesus had miraculously healed people, and they wanted to be saved from the oppression of their illnesses. That would fit in with the later part of the story, where, after Jesus clears the temple of the money changers and those who were buying and selling, people came to him and he healed them. But it’s really hard to know what was in the minds of the people on that long ago day.

However, here’s one thing that we can be certain of: Jesus does not fit our expectations of what a king should do. Instead of entering the city of Jerusalem in glory on a magnificent horse, Jesus comes in riding a humble donkey. Instead of kicking the Romans out of the holy city, he clears out the temple to make room for people who are seeking to be healed from their illnesses. Instead of gaining power in the ordinary ways that people gain power, Jesus teaches the people in the Temple, seeking to transform the minds and hearts of the people who hear him. And, finally, instead of a glorious seat for a throne, Jesus will be enthroned on a cross, a gruesome form of Roman execution, and it is there that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, as the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. Jesus is a king who gains power not in human ways, but through his love for all of humanity and his apparent weakness as he dies on a cross.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? Well, first, let’s ask ourselves: when we cry out to Jesus, “Hosanna!” what are we asking Jesus to save us from? The standard answer in church is “our sins,” and of course, that is a good answer. But do we really and truly believe that Jesus has set us free from our sins? Because if we do, then we should be shouting out this good news from the rooftops. As I was working on this sermon this week, Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door to invite me to their Good Friday service, which they called “the annual commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ”. Now, I don’t agree with the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at all. But I do admire them for being brave enough to go door to door and invite people to come. They clearly think that they have something worth sharing with people around them. And guess what? We do, too! We have the good news that Jesus has saved us from our sins. We have experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ first hand. We should be excited to come to our church building on Sunday mornings to worship this one who has answered our cries to save us. We should be smiling, laughing, crying—and those emotions should be bubbling over as we speak to other people about Jesus and invite them to come and experience what it is like to worship a God who loves us enough to go to the cross and die for us.

But even more than that. Jesus came as a king into Jerusalem on that long ago day, but he came as a king of peace. And Jesus introduced his reign in Jerusalem by clearing the money changers out of the temple and making room for people to come in to the temple to be healed of their diseases and to listen to him teach about what God was like and about what the kingdom of heaven was going to be like. In other words, he made room for people to come closer to God—the God who loved them so much that he became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and died on the cross for them. We, as Jesus’ followers, are also called to go and make disciples, to make room for people to come close to God, to love them, and to teach them; to pray for them and to help them. This is what Jesus calls us, his disciples, to do.

As we turn our attention from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and begin to focus on the events of his Passion, it is appropriate for us to remember what kind of king Jesus intends to be. He has come as a king, yes, but as a humble, servant king, one who wins the hearts of his people by making room for them to come close to the God who loves them. As we meditate on Jesus’ passion this week, let us reflect how, as Jesus’ followers, we can tell others about this servant king who loves us so much that he died for us, freeing us from our sins. Let us reflect on how we can make disciples by first making room for them to come closer to God who has already drawn near to us through Jesus Christ. And let us consider how we might sacrificially serve one another as Jesus first served us. Amen.


Sermon for Lent 5 Narrative

Note: Last Sunday we had a joint worship with other area Lutheran congregations, and I was not preaching. Thus the jump from Lent 3 to Lent 5.

Matthew 25:31-46

Today we come to the last in the series of parables that Jesus tells of what the kingdom of heaven is going to be like. So, for context, first remember that Jesus tells this parable, along with the parable of the talents that Pastor Mike preached on last week, as well as a parable about 10 bridesmaids, during the days after he has entered Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey. Jesus is coming closer to the day when he will die on a cross, and he is doing some final teaching before these events begin to happen. But, for more immediate context, we need to return for a moment to chapter 24. And chapter 24 starts out with Jesus’ disciples standing in awe of how large the stones of the temple are, and Jesus’ response being, “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The disciples ask him what the sign of his coming will be, and Jesus starts in on the list of wars and rumors of wars; nation rising against nation, etc., and all of this being just the beginning. He continues with more signs of what will happen, and at the end of chapter 24, he tells the disciples to be ready. And then he tells the series of parables about the bridesmaids, the talents, and today’s parable of the sheep and the goats. So, these parables are a continuation of Jesus’ teaching to be watchful and to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

So then, let’s focus in on our parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats that we have in front of us today. I remember when I was on internship that my supervisor preached on this passage one Sunday and said that, if those who usually came to the church looking for financial assistance would come during the week when he was preparing to preach on this text, they would find him more receptive to their pleas and more willing to give them money to help out whatever their need was. And indeed, this is my first response to this parable as well: I frantically search my memory and see what I have done in recent days and weeks to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. That person who came to my office looking for help the other day—did I give her enough money to help her out of her financial jam? Should I have given her more? How long has it been since I’ve gone through my closet and donated clothes to a place that takes those donations? Or maybe I should just go out and buy some new clothes to give; after all, how often do people in need get new clothes? Is there anyone in the hospital that I’ve neglected to visit? How are our shut-in members doing? And then, my final frantic question is this: O Lord, how do I know that what I’ve done is enough? Have I done enough to end up on the sheep side rather than the goat side? How will I know?

But here is something that I don’t think we always notice when we talk about this parable. Neither the sheep nor the goats know that what they are doing or not doing, they are doing or not doing to Jesus. Let me say that in another way: when the Son of Man comes in his glory and he says to the sheep, “for I was hungry and you gave me food,” and so on, the response of the sheep is, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry,” etc. Those who are separated into the sheep category did not realize that what they were doing, they were doing to Jesus. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, and so on and so forth, was just something that they did. It was an automatic response: you see someone in need, you help them. And that is how our Christian faith is supposed to operate: if we are truly following Jesus and if his teachings are truly becoming a part of who we are, then it is only natural that we help someone in need to the best of our ability.

When we look at the parable in this way, I think it takes off some of the pressure and the frantic need to take stock of what I’m doing or not doing. Jesus knows, after all, that we are human beings and that the problems in the world are greater than any one of us. Jesus also knows that we are sinful and that we will miss opportunities, deliberately or not, to help those who are in need. But in the end, if our faith compels us to help more often than not, and if we trust in Jesus to see us through those times that we mess up, we will be good with God.

Now, let’s look at this parable from another lens. As we have journeyed through the Gospel of Matthew, we have seen many stories that Jesus tells where, in the end, the good will be separated from the bad. But, while we are here on earth, we will not always be able to tell one from the other, and therefore we should leave the judging up to God. It’s the same thing with the sheep and the goats. Depending on the breed, age, and state of wooliness, it can be very difficult to distinguish between sheep and goats. It’s the same thing with human beings. People very often present one image in public and a different image in private. In public, a person could seem to be the kindest human being ever, but then could go home and be abusive towards family members. Or, the reverse: in public, a person could be the most obnoxious, curmudgeonly person we have ever seen, and yet, in private, this person could be bringing food regularly to the homeless person who lives nearby. Therefore, we are not the ones called to judge what is in a person’s heart; only God is, and so, as part of our Christian faith, we are called to leave the judging up to God and simply to live out our walk with Jesus by serving one another.

Finally, here is a third lens that we can see this parable through. In congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary, which we used to do, this parable is heard on Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church year. Yet, in its context here in Matthew, Jesus tells this parable and then, in the next chapter, the events of his passion begin to happen. So, let’s consider the parable this way: Jesus says that whatever we do to the least of those among us, we do to him. And then we turn the page, and Jesus literally becomes the least among us. He is clothed, and his clothes are taken away from him as he goes to the cross. He starts out full and with his thirst quenched, but then, on the cross, he becomes thirsty and all that is given to him is sour-tasting wine. He starts out in the story as a free man, but he becomes a prisoner, and instead of standing by him and visiting him, his male disciples run away.

The most common mistake that Christians have made through the centuries, when meditating on Jesus’ crucifixion, is to weep and say, “If I had been there, I would have stood up for him. If I had been there, I would have cared for him. If I had been there, I would have stayed by his side.” But that is presuming that, in the moment, we would have known who Jesus was, and that is a pride-filled presumption that we make. We could very well have been part of the crowd that yelled, “Crucify him!” We could have been the Roman soldiers who stripped Jesus, beat him, and nailed him to the cross. We could have been the male disciples who fled the scene for fear that they might be crucified, too. We like to pretend that we are civilized and that we know better, but deep down, we all have the potential to treat our brother and sister human beings as mercilessly as Jesus was treated on that long-ago day.

So, for example, when we hear of someone who is executed for his crimes, instead of feeling pity or praying for his family, who, along with the victims of the crime, are suffering, we say, “He got what he deserved.” Instead of advocating for our government to feed the hungry, we cheer when the government cuts back on those programs and condemn those who are hungry for being lazy and not wanting to work, without even hearing their stories. Instead of welcoming and aiding the stranger, we build walls and tell people to go back where they came from, without realizing that going home would mean their certain deaths and not asking what role our country might have had in creating the circumstances which caused them to flee in the first place. Any time we do any of these things, we are doing this to Jesus, who is found in the vulnerable people of the world.

Maybe we all need to step up our game a bit. Remember in the parable that Jesus told, the sheep did not know that they were sheep and the goats did not know that they were goats. We may think that we are sheep, but in reality, Jesus is saying that we’re leaning more towards the goat side of the spectrum. So, yes, feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; visit the sick; welcome the stranger; visit those in prison; do all of this as you have opportunity in your daily faith life. But also remember, in your devotions, how Jesus became the vulnerable one on the cross, and ask in your prayers if he might be calling you to do something more: to speak to those in power about how we as a larger community treat those who are vulnerable. This is the challenge of discipleship that Jesus gives us. Believing in Jesus does not mean cheap grace. Believing in Jesus means repenting and experiencing a transformation in our lives as we follow him. And we will fail: we will miss opportunities and we will be deliberately sinful, because we are human beings. But Jesus will be there to catch us when we fall, and the Holy Spirit will be with us to urge us onward. Amen.