April 30, 2017

“Walking With Jesus”

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Luke 24:13-35

“What one sees depends on how one sees.” – Søren Kierkegaard

[This sermon is based on the series: “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” WJK Press]



Many years ago, when I was a young, strong, fit, athletic kind of guy, I would run between five and ten miles every day. As a kind of spiritual practice, on somedays I would pray the “Jesus Prayer” as I ran. The prayer is quite simple and quite profound. It is this: “Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Synchronized with my breathing, I would inhale with the words, “…have mercy…” and exhale with the words, “…a sinner.” There were days when that five mile run was a mystical experience. I could do that five mile run today, and it would likely be a ‘religious experience,’ but of a more terminal kind.


In our Gospel lesson, two disciples take a seven mile walk. It became a mystical experience. There is something about being on the move that put’s you in Jesus’ presence.


These two disciples were unable to recognize Jesus in the moment. But, we have the deep meaning communicated in this storytelling that must have been something like the experience of Philip and the eunuch. This was personal, close, specific, filled with questions and mystery, wonder, and in the end it was a beautiful new way to understand themselves and what they are to be about.


There are always those around who insist that our vision is great, our understanding of ourselves and the world around us is complete, and that like Thomas last week, they dismiss every alternate view of the world and life as untrue. If you subscribe to the narrow and binary pigeon hole terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ then you are probably an active participant in this particular version of blindness.


But what if we assumed that our vision isn’t all that great, and that there are times and seasons where we miss the truth that is staring us in the face? What if we sought those moments, like the quiet space of my run, or a church service, or a silent walk with friends, to listen differently and to truly entertain in our heart what God may be speaking to us. If we are lucky, we might feel safe enough, open enough, to have just such an experience.


You probably don’t know that there is a structure here that is designed to accomplish just this experience. You can find it right in your bulletin. Scholars and clergy call it the ‘ordo’. It is the ‘order of worship,’ that follows a certain progression and contains certain elements to as to (hopefully) precipitate a walk with Jesus. It looks something like this:


We Gather, we prepare ourselves to hear God’s Word, we hear that word read and preached, we respond to that Word, and then we are ‘sent’ literally as Jesus said, “…as the Father sent me, so I send you.”   We experience something of the beloved community as we gather, we may be moved through God’s word, and we respond…always with offering…yet because faithfulness to Jesus requires the use of our whole-selves we offer symbolic proportional gifts…and what the earliest church did was to respond by revisiting Christ’s table. If we allow ourselves to be moved along this journey, we are brought to a new place in which we literally move to a table and offer and receive hospitality. Christ is made known in the breaking of the bread, in the community gathered around this welcome table. It is the place where Jesus continues to reveal himself. The Christian faith is born and nurtured where people share in worship through word, gesture, and tactile things such as water, bread, wine, and expressions of mutual care–the smile, the clasp of another’s hand, perhaps even an embrace. That is why a walk like this can never be over done or too frequent so as to loose its meaning.


Still, it isn’t always within the experience itself that we are able to grasp the depth of meaning. The disciples did not recognize Jesus until after the encounter. I don’t know how many times someone has remarked to me appreciation for a worship service, later, after the fact, prefacing their complement with the phrase, “on the way home we were talking.”


So do not be surprised that some scientists have learned that movement that helps our brains integrate information. Our brains receive information all the time. We have a great collection of information and this connection occurs in ways we might not otherwise.


Can you imagine this walk? These two on the road are reviewing the harrowing events of the past few days and are walking in the night under the spell of terror. Jesus appears as a stranger and proclaims to them the stories of the liberation of their people.


…the story for today is one of movement. It contains at least nine verbs describing movement. The two men “are going” (24:13), Jesus “came near and went with them” (24:15), they “came near” Emmaus (24:28), Jesus “walked ahead of them” (24:28), “he went in to stay with them” (24:29), “he vanished from their sight” (24:31), and “they got up and returned to Jerusalem” (24:33). Some of the verbs tell of movements made by Jesus; others tell of the two men. Either way, both Jesus and his followers are on the move. But it is not movement for its own sake. The moves being made have a purpose, and that is to tell the story of Jesus, to interpret it, to understand that a change is underway, to have fellowship (communion) with Jesus and others, and to share it all with others. That is what it means to be the church.[1]

[1] Arland J. Hultgren,, Commentary on Luke 24:13-35, April 8, 2008


April 23, 2017

“Reach Out And Touch”

John 20:19-31

[This sermon is adapted from A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans For Years A, B, And C. WJK Press]

Thomas will not be content to believe the stories of his friends, and in return for his caution he is invited to touch the body of the resurrected Lord. He knows what he knows, and despite their friend Lazarus, dead people, especially tortured and killed people, remain dead.


In a twist of irony, legend has it that it is Thomas who takes the Gospel message to far-away India, where one has to wonder what words he found to convince people in such a different land that he had been witness to this miraculous act of power, and that its implications should be compelling for them.

But he did compel them. Apparently he took quite seriously the great commissioning, which in John’s gospel comes here in chapter 20 when Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Some say that he arrived in Kerala in 52 CE and converted several Brahman and families. These converts in India became known as St. Thomas Christians. They represent a multi ethnic group. Saint Thomas Christian culture is largely derived from Jewish, East Syrian, West Syrian and Hindu influences, blended with local customs and later elements derived from indigenous Indian and European colonial contacts. Their language is Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and Syriac is used for liturgical purposes. Talk about getting off the beaten path!

Thomas’ story is the story for everyone who makes their own way. I intentionally described his condition at the appearance of Jesus as caution, and not doubt, because too often we believe that faith and doubt cannot be present in the same moment. They can, but it is much easier to accept that someone has faith, and is at the same time cautious. Doubt is too often equated with dis-belief.

See, Thomas is like so many of us who cannot simply inherit religion but who struggle to figure out what is true for ourselves. But I am also convinced that faith doesn’t grow out of nothing. I for one have always been uncomfortable with parents who say “I am not going to insist on my children being confirmed and all that religious education. I will wait until they can decide for themselves.” I am not sure that waiting for them to decide works. But I also know that confirmation and all that religious education does not exclude some of us from being cautious. But with that experience we are given by parents and mentors and teachers we then have a resource for our questioning. As Brian McLaren said, “We Make the Road By Walking.”

Many of us who might describe our life of faith as a journey, have had some encounter with the holy that is at the heart of our travel as Christians. Faith, even if it is lifelong and the tradition of our ancestors, is realized in each of us through, as one tradition teaches, experience and reason. And this experience can be quite mystical or ordinary and at the same time do battle with our reason and our tradition.

Thomas has become the sign to every church that demands a lock step adherence to a peculiar and particular way to believe. Thomas illuminates the individual way that we grow into our faith, even while we live out this same faith in community.

Questioning and caution, perhaps, are under rated. If we only rely on what we have learned, we are not available to the grand new thing that God may be working on right in our midst. And, let’s be honest, if we only rely on some mystical experience we might run in the wrong direction, chasing some errant passion or simple indigestion. There is a balance between what we have learned and what the Holy Spirit reveals.

A prime example of this balance is the story from last Sunday of Peter’s transformation to the place where he could proclaim, “I perceive that God shows no partiality.” Here was a man who by all accounts is pretty set in his ways and with the power of the Holy Spirit is able to change his mind.   Another place to witness this balance is in the letter 1 Peter, where the distinction is made between people who knew Jesus during his lifetime, and those who have joined the community later because of the accounts of Jesus’ life told by these people.

Today, everyone falls into this second category. It doesn’t matter if it is you or I or one of the 42% of people in our township who are totally unaffiliated with any religious institution and who have never stepped foot into a church. For the most part, we are all going on hearsay.

Understanding ourselves this way can be good and bad.

It can be bad if we prioritize seeing ourselves as those special folks who ‘have never known a time when I didn’t believe.’ For those of us who grew up in the church, we ‘font to grave’ christians; it is easy to believe that we are somehow ‘better’ than other, newer, members of the faith community. It is also bad if we happen to be one of those newcomers and assign special privilege to some of the old time ‘saints of the church.’ There is no difference between those of us who have been trying our best to be a disciple of Jesus and those who are just starting, and we are wrong to define one.

It can be good if we understand ourselves as ‘on the way,’ and not as ‘having arrived.’ It is helpful because it can force us to give others room to explore their faith. It can be healthy to accept that we are not all at the same place in this journey of faith. That is why we might say of some new initiative, “I know that not everyone will agree or understand, but the goal is to bring everyone along.” New faith experiences happen all along our path. The Holy Spirit directs and guides along the way.

That is not to say that a long road of practicing the Christian faith isn’t helpful. It is. And when we accept that all of us are still exploring the edges of faith, that we all have something to learn, and that humility and caution are not antithetical to faith, we have great potential for faithful following. But the measure of that faithful following is not someone else’s calling, it is your calling.

The story of Thomas, for the writer of the Gospel of John, speaks to all those in later generations (including us, today) who didn’t witness with their own eyes the things the Gospel describes, and yet have come to trust the testimony as true. As Eugene Peterson translates it: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” (The Message). One scholar (Arland Hultgren) calls Jesus’ words a “beatitude” that “puts all Christians of all times and places on the same level before God as the original disciples” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Thomas also reminds us that we are all ‘sent.’ In that sending we are asked to live our own lives faithfully. My call may be different than yours but it isn’t better, or worse. This equality can be empowering. In today’s passage from the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” reassure us that God has given us, each one of us in every age, the Holy Spirit, and has commissioned us, empowered us, to be, like any faithful follower you might think of (I’d think of Oscar Romero), a holy and brilliant flame, each in our own way, breathing love and peace and justice in the midst of fear and pain and hopelessness.

Who ever we are and wherever we are on our faith journey, Jesus invites us to reach out and touch him as Thomas did. There is no judgment for asking questions or for needing a little more convincing than someone else. There is confidence on his part that we each have this gifts required for that which is set before us. This is true because we are all on this journey together, sharing our own encounters with the risen Christ as we grow closer to one another and to God. That is why Jesus himself said: “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”


Let me begin by saying that I am a ‘slight’ second career pastor.  I spent six years working in Civil Engineering and Public Works prior to giving in to the nagging God that had pestered me for decades.

That is to say that during my undergraduate days I spent many hours in math, physics, and various science related courses.

The current climate of anti-intellectualism, and particularly anti-science is not only a ridiculous antinomianism, but it threatens the biosphere.

Several of those early years of my working life I spent in field services during construction of EPA funded projects to improve wastewater and water treatment.  Then I spent a couple of years in management of just those kinds of facilities.  During this time I witnessed first hand a lot of precious public dollars being spent on projects that were designed and built by small and regional businesses.

The 1970’s and 1980’s marked a significant improvement in the environment.  This change was a product of science, and a willingness to spend important public dollars in the service of this same environment.

It appears as though there is a growing trend to deny quite simple scientific facts, not because they are in question, scientifically, but because their acceptance would morally and ethically demand a response that would put in jeopardy profits.

So let’s call this propagation of alt-facts what it is: greed.  Follow the money in these denials.

Other denials have been based upon ‘religious beliefs.’  To give this argument any traction requires that one understand science as being incongruent with faith.  This, to me, is a ridiculous and dangerous dualism.  It is also a false assertion.  Religious texts, scripture, were never intended to be science books.

But we live in a society that is comfortable with lies being regularly and constantly offered as truth, as if their repetition made them facts.  The cool thing about science is that when approached with diligence and an open mind, the truth emerges and lies are debunked.  That is why Bill Nye is back to ‘save the world.’

Humanity has a lot to lose in this fight.  The biosphere is threatened.  I am in the ecosystem’s corner on this one…my religious texts suggest somewhere that I was created to till and to keep, not to destroy.  If you are more interested in profits than clean water, melting ice caps, and climate change, then just be honest about it.  Don’t insult science. Don’t wave the religion flag.  I call BS.


April 16, 2017

“Tales Women Tell”

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

John 20:1-18



Some of you casually accepted the title for this sermon without blinking. Some of you read it and were put off by it. Everyone should be a bit uneasy.


The tradition of the day is that these witnesses cannot be believed. Women are not to be trusted for their testimony. Neither are they the ‘official’ leadership in any group or system. At best, they are allowed to worship just outside the ‘real’ sanctuary where the other ‘goyim’ or ‘God fearers’ pray. They are exactly like the women of the wall today who are relegated to a spot several hundred feet down the sacred foundation of the temple. They are not allowed to pray loudly so as to not distract the men who are praying at the ‘real’ wailing wall. These people offer the first testimony.


Someone, not of our close knit group of guys, a person who had to follow along on the edges, makes her way to the tomb. Her name was Mary. She has been called Mary Magdalene. She has been the subject of wild speculation like so many prominent figures are. Some have said she was a harlot. Others, quite creatively, have suggested that she was Jesus’ partner. Some have even imagined that she bore his child. Early in the church’s tradition, she is is often identified not only with the anonymous harlot with the perfume in Luke’s gospel, but also with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; this interpretation is often called the “composite Magdalene” in modern scholarship. The seven devils removed from her by Jesus “morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well.”[1]


What we do know is that she appeared to be the leader of this group of women who also followed Jesus. Being a woman, and living in a society where they were seen as little more than property and a means for procreation, she was never the less depicted as a brave and resolute person who stayed nearby Jesus throughout his suffering and crucifixion. She was one of the best disciples.


The men, you might note, have scattered. The end of the Jesus story, as they had conjured up in their minds, did not turn out as planned. Fearing for their lives, or soundly dejected, they have made their presence scarce in the final days. I do not blame them.


Then, maybe because she and the other women were doing the woman’s work of anointing the body, or perhaps it was because of her unwavering dedication, early in the morning on the first day of the week, she leads a small group of women to the tomb.


I do not know precisely what was going on. But I have stood at the edge of freshly dug graves enough to have a sense of the mood. There is a scripture I use there, perhaps one of the earliest writings of the christian era, from another outsider named Paul to some folks in Thessolonica: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”[2] But on this day no one knew this, so no one could say it.


Perhaps they are there to do what so many do, to tidy up the grave site and mourn. I imagine that this is the work Mary was about that day. So it was a normal day, the usual for those who were grieving. But the removal of the stone and the empty tomb disrupt what she was about. Her mind moves to the logical conclusion that someone has taken Jesus’ body. What other conclusion could there be?   In a closed an ridged structure of ‘that’s the way things are’ only the old and familiar occur. In this closed system of thought that only includes “this is the way we’ve always done it,” this is a wrinkle that requires some serious straightening out. Find the body, and get things back to normal.


To this one who is not an authority in this ‘good ole days’ system, this one who was not welcomed at the table, but had to tag along at the margins, Mary’s closed world (and ours) is broken open when Jesus calls her name. The one who was certified as dead greets her. The established rules as to what should happen, what can happen, how things can happen, are overthrown. Those who had authority and expertise on such things are demoted. And because of who she was, the old structures of who is an ‘appropriate’ disciple of Jesus Christ is left in shambles. The faithful are depicted as followers, not so much believers. It is a new day.


But even Mary is stuck in prevailing mindset. She asks the gardner, “tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”[3] Even she wants only to do what is acceptable and proper. She only wants to do what she is charged with doing, permitted to do by her place in society. But his calling of her name, that familiar voice, shatters her customary world, as comfortable as it may be. It is Mary Magdalene, who begins the proclamation of Easter.


Now, remember with me that we do know the entirety of the story, so that with Mary we can experience, and with Peter, we can proclaim, the reality that Jesus demonstrated day after day: ’God shows no partiality.’ With Saint Paul we can affirm that now and forever ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.’ Despite every effort among secular and religious folk to assert otherwise, it is absolutely true, that ‘whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, Jesus welcomes you…Today we know this. Today we are certain that Jesus came to redeem the whole world, even you and I, as imperfect as we are. John ends his gospel in a way that affirms the least likely of prophets saying, “So we proclaim and so you have come to believe.”


Do not be afraid. Tectonic plates are shifting, yes, but it is because God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. Do not be afraid. Your life and your security are where they have always been-hid with Christ in God. This is the good news. Rejoice.


[1] Morrow, Carol Ann, “St. Mary Magdalene: Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation.” Liguori Publications. Catholic Update Newsletter. Nov. 30, 1999.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

[3] John 20:15

Triduum Funk.  This condition is an annual affair, even though I do my best to strike it from my calendar. I suspect that the reason for it is other events that dominate my calendar.

The liturgical calendar demands that I immerse myself in the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to Golgotha. I wish that there was a way to keep one foot planted in present realities, pleasantries of my choosing, and just dip a toe into the Triduum tide. Apparently I cannot manage this dialectic.

What is strange is that it isn’t as if I don’t know the entirety of the story. Our bible study group has been reading Luke. Miraculously, the series ended yesterday, Maundy Thursday, with our reading and contemplation of chapter 24. Two weeks ago, the group wondered if we should cancel our meeting this week, what with it being Holy Week and all. I said, “no, the timing is perfect. I am happy to meet if you are willing.”

I suspect that my consternation is due to my observation that most folks do not travel the whole route. It could be this avoidance is because it is just to hard a route to take. Another reason is that this part of the story tells us something about ourselves we’d rather not face. We, after all, are sensible, progressive, modern folk.

I hope that I am not bitter. Who can blame those who would rather not make the entire trek. We could all be spared what is by any estimation a few days that chronicle the worst human traits; betrayal, violence, greed, self-righteousness. The large crowd of Palm Sunday will not be repeated until the following Sunday, despite the best efforts of musicians, liturgists, and preachers.

I guess that, as clique as it sounds, I wonder if the fullness of the good news can be received if the fullness of the bad news is not paused over, considered, and taken up as part of our own story.

“One little problem with our attempts to be thoughtful, prudent, reflective, and careful people: we are also the ones who on a Friday – just rationally following the best of western jurisprudence – tortured to death the Son of God.” (“The Best of William H. Willimon: Acting Up In Jesus’ Name”)


April 9, 2017

“Celebrate and Wait”

Matthew 21:1-11




Often, Palm Sunday has a divided focus. The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is usually read before the procession with palms and in many liturgies is followed by the full passion reading, a preemptive move anticipating poor attendance at later holy week services. I did not do that. There is a certain cognitive dissonance that occurs when we try and marry the triumphal entry and the passion narrative.


I have chosen to give you the celebratory procession. It is something most of you are much more comfortable with, as is evident by attendance patterns being up today and next week (Easter), and pathetically low this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. So even though it’s tempting to insert some passion in here today, we won’t. Today we will celebrate. You’re welcome.


Let’s be clear about what we are celebrating. This procession is modeled on the imperial Roman procession. When a new prelate came into Jerusalem they and their accompanying army would march up the Roman road, into the gate to the city with much pomp and splendor. Think about the procession up Pennsylvania Avenue on inauguration day. This Roman procession into Jerusalem was both religious and political in so far as the prelate was not only a secular ruler but was also a representative of the ‘god’ titled Caeser.


It was quite a spectacle. Roman soldiers carrying standards with roman insignia, chariots and war horses. Gleaming armor. And then the prefect, in this case Pontius Pilate, riding into town, Cesarea by the sea the ruling seat for the Romans. Every image in this parade was an attempt to convey power and strength.


In 332 BCE, three centuries before Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance, Alexander the Great, having conquered “Tyre and Gaza after terrible sieges . . . Jerusalem opened its gate without a fight.” And we can “Imagine the victorious Alexander entering Jerusalem on his famous war-horse, the black stallion Bucephalus.”


This procession carries with it all this memory, but is decidedly different. This celebration today is not populated by the aristocracy, but it is the common religious folk. It is a scene of deep humility and risk-taking. The arrival of this ruler is not on a war horse or implement of warfare. Jesus is on the least spectacular beasts of burden, a donkey. A young donkey at that. It may be that the skeptics in the crowd see this procession as a comedy of sorts, making fun of the oppressors parades. But for the true believers, they remembered the prophet in their bible and found great hope in what they saw.


Some “paved” the road with their garments; others with layers of leaves, at least some of which were from palm trees (Jn. 12:13), hence the expression “Palm Sunday.” Spreading garments before a dignitary was a symbol of submission (see 2 Kgs. 9:13). Palm branches were employed also as token of victory (Suetonius, Caligula, 32). Some Jewish coins from the first century had palm leaf engravings with the accompanying inscription, “the redemption of Zion.” It was all very encouraging and exciting, worthy of celebration. The prophet Zechariah predicts:


Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.[1]



It should be no surprise that a crowd gathers here. Crowds have been following Jesus for years for a variety of reasons, sometimes to his own frustration. It makes sense that this same crowd would gather and welcome him into Jerusalem, potentially becoming the revolutionary and riotous mob that Rome worried about at every Jewish festival. Passover is approaching, the authorities (both religious and civil) are already upset at him. So this scene, while exciting and invigorating to the casual passer-by and for observers like us, is precisely the scene that the disciples wanted to avoid. It is why Thomas said, “Let us go with him to Jerusalem to die.”


And, this was obviously a planned protest. It was not only Jesus who chose the symbolism present today. The crowds, obviously, appeared with branches cut ahead of time to demonstrate victory and allegiance to the ‘king’ riding on a humble foal of a donkey.


In this latest election cycle and the months following we have witnessed gatherings of people who are anxious to proclaim their affection for one leader or another. But this procession mocks every procession of domination and military power. This procession casts shade on the ways of the world because this king, every reader knows, is the king of love. Not hate. Not violence.


In the flurry of celebration we might forget that the journey is not really over. We might have our polite excuses to avoid the darkness of the next few days, but as Joseph Sittler said, “if you completely wipe out the darkness, nothing can come forth and grow.”


It is in times of crisis, such as this, when thoughtful observers are full of doubt, confusion, and helplessness, that we need some way to thoughtfully reflect on what is happening. Some space needs to be created. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He creates space this week so we can participate in this celebration today.


Like every situation that seems to be going from good to bad, there needs to be reflection as much as action. Impatience has its roots in anxiety. Experience has taught these followers that healing has its own timetable. Being hasty is low-road functioning.[2]


So now we wait. This is not idleness, it is purposeful, which is also called anticipation.


The British author Graham Greene once waited two and a half years for a 15-minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who resided in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be “a living saint” and bore on his body the “stigmata” or the wounds of Christ. On the day Greene was due to meet with the mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. Instead, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew directly back to London. When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited for two and a half years, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.” Perhaps the same could be said for you and me. We want to focus on the parade and the festivities of life because we are not ready for the Passion and the way in which that man–Jesus–can change our lives. His Passion will change us forever, if we let it.[3]


[1] Zechariah 9:9

[2] Steinke, Peter Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Alban: VA, 2006, p. 71

[3] The Rev. Marek Zabriskie, “Everyone Loves a Parade” Day One,

Worth the read:


Altar Calls: Discussing Liturgical Worship with Evangelicals



As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
And immediately they followed. (Matthew 4:18-22)

Jesus calls us to be His disciples.

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20)

The earliest Christians did not understand themselves to be an organization that was called to build buildings or create institutions. They responded to the most basic commands of a certain Jesus of Nazareth. One of the very first was “follow me.”

It is understandable that in over 2000 years we have expanded this basic command to do something. It would not be a surprise for someone to believe that a response to “Jesus calls us to *fill in the blank*” might mean more prayer, give more money, and come to church more often. Instead, he said ‘follow me’ over twenty times in the gospels.

We have translated this basic command into the construction of grand basilicas and extensive agencies for service. Boards and committees in extensive organizations spend countless hours concerned for the upkeep of buildings and grounds, security, and financial management of extensive funds. All of this could be understood as extensions of this command in-so-far as these physical assets serve this basic command. If they were.

The problem is that they often become an end in themselves and the basic command to ‘come, follow me’ is mired in the mundane tasks of maintenance and (for lack of a better term) perpetuation of that which we have done before. Even the intent that these resources be that, tools in the business of following, becomes lost.

The word ‘church’ is never used in the new testament unless you are talking about the greek word ‘ἐκκλησία,’ which literally means “gathering” or “assembly.” St. Paul uses the term ‘ἐκκλησία’ frequently, as in the letter to the ἐκκλησία at Corinth. It means the assembly of disciple at Corinth. We have come to use the term church to mean building, which it isn’t.

And, these gatherings of people are not exactly what we think about when we think about the crowd (or faithful remnant) on Sunday morning. The Bible never speaks of “church members.” Not once, ever. In fact, the Bible only uses the word “Christian” three times. And the word “believer” only comes 27 times in the New Testament and only 14 times in the Gospels and Acts. Much more often, around 100 times, the Gospels and Acts talk about people being followers of Jesus, following Jesus.

I am not suggesting that congregations give up their buildings and deconstruct mission organizations. I am not saying that we throw off the modern associations of place and people of Christianity. What I am saying is that if, in the course of our board meetings and reports, activities and care for these things, we cannot clearly predicate a sentence about a proposed action with the phrase “Jesus calls us to…” then we need to rethink what it is we are concerning ourselves with. What we are about should be easily linked to Jesus’ in his example, spirit, and teachings.

Let us pray: Dear God, grant us a glimpse of your vision and a foretaste of the kingdom that we might be prepared to hear and respond to your call. Help us to know what we must take up, and what we must leave behind to follow you faithfully in our time. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.


April 2, 2017

“Dead Ends”
John 11:1-45

[This sermon is based on a sermon in the series: “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016]

There comes a point in every trial or tribulation when it seems difficult to go on, as if all possibilities for the future are lost. We are speaking of those times when in life when we can no longer do what we used to be able to do.  Perhaps because of a chronic illness or financial problems, the loss of employment or a divorce, or a physical condition that makes each day difficult.  We are talking about where life has suddenly grown empty.  We are talking about what those first moments must have felt for Mary and Martha as they stood beside their brother’s grave.  Their world changed forever.

The road to Easter runs through a cemetery.  As in so many times in life, we struggle before we arrive at our destination.  Despite our best efforts, the future seems sealed away. Things die. Ideas. plans. hopes. There is a point in every difficult test where there seems to be no vision for relief or revival.

On Wednesday evening we focused on Psalm 130, where the psalmist, from a place of deep despair, speaks “out of the depths.” There are many synonyms for “despair” which make very clear the sense of hopelessness and pain associated with that deepest of human emotions: desperation, distress, anguish, misery, or wretched. And in that place of darkness there may well be no hope or anticipation for anything better in life. Even if there is, the one in this darkness is usually too dispirited or pessimistic to be able to rise above it.

In his despair the psalmist turned to God with this cry: “…I call for your help. Hear my cry, O Lord. Pay attention to my prayer. Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive…?”

Human beings have come over time to understand death and what happens to bodies after death in great detail. In various ways our ancestors have artfully or brutally found places to put the bodies and sometimes actively engaged the decomposing body to facilitate a complete end. Whether in caves, in holes, in fires, or on towers, the body decayed and people understood well how it happened. Death was a one way street. The fact that our modern society is largely unfamiliar with death does not change its reality or finality.

As if we did not know the biology of such things, the prophet Ezekiel is asked: can these bones live?” If I join the prophet in his loathsome valley, I know what my answer would be: “Are you kidding? Dry bones are just that, dry and dead.” Ezekiel is more circumspect, as he answers, “YHWH God, you know” (Ezek 37:3). In the gospel lesson Jesus leads the disciples into a dangerous situation for him and his followers, because some people there want to kill him. It’s likely Lazarus is going to die. So Thomas says, “let’s go and die with him.” If ever there was a ‘dead-end’ and a place to avoid, this is it. Thomas predicts it. Even Jesus plainly tells them “Lazarus is dead.” Yet he, at the same time, insists this is not the end.

Today’s readings from the prophet Ezekiel and St. John challenge what we do know about death, literally and metaphorically. These are not healing stories. It is not an account of feeding large crowds. It isn’t the provision of water from a rock. It does not involve spit and the dust from the road. No. Every possibility for living has ended. Life is over; only the stench and decay remains. There is no reason to be emotionally invested or newly concerned. Wondering what could have been or what had been promised would be like being mired in a long-ago past. In both situations hope is dead, appropriately, and into this valley of death God drags the prophet Ezekiel, and Jesus drags his disciples. The prophet and the family and friends of Lazarus know that life is no more. Before their eyes, however, that reality is defied. Life returns to the lifeless.

But it doesn’t return quickly or easily. Delay. Delay. Delay. I am reminded that the Israelites spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt until Moses lead them out. And then they did not take a direct route but wandered in the wilderness for another forty years until entering the promised land of freedom. This is the story of our lives.

Why doesn’t Jesus drop everything he is doing and rush over to see Lazarus? “Don’t you realize how needy I am?” “If you love me, why don’t you respond immediately?” Those are the questions we demand of each other, aren’t they? Ah, but it is not the people who respond most urgently and most anxiously who love us most. Often, the people who are willing to drop everything and help us are the ones least equipped to help.

What is seemingly the worst outcome happens. The neighbors come, other members of the faith family come. They come to do what we all do, bring some food, some consolation, some affection. They immediately come. They comfort, but the situation remains. In the Hebrew tradition, we might do this for seven days, literally ‘sitting shiva.’ Cover the mirrors, don’t bathe, and don’t go to work. It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools, or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being “brought low” by the grief. Upon leaving an Ashkenazic shiva house, visitors recite a traditional blessing: “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The sadness is communal.

Some friends come, but later. The friends who help us most are those not driven by the tyranny of the urgent, those not in the biggest hurry, those who are not most anxious, those who do not panic. The ones who love us most sometimes take longer to arrive than others. Maybe it is after the hustle and bustle of the initial attention that the mourners receive and when the initial visitors have left that it all becomes real. Then a friend comes. So it was with Jesus. He heard the news that Lazarus was ill, and he waited two days to respond. It was a long time. It was not because he did not love Lazarus. It was because his strength did not need to respond according to urgent schedules and anxiety. This kind of strength, this kind of health, is beyond our notions of time.

When Jesus finally arrives on the scene, you can hear the dejection in the sister’s voices. “If you had been here,” they say. The King James version, with it’s poetic language records Martha, the sister of him that was dead, who “saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” He stinketh. This is the absolute recognition of the end without possibility of a different resolution.

So, today we stand in the stench, sorrow, and maybe even blame of death, and God acts to revive us again. We have a foreshadowing of what is to come next week, a little encouragement as we prepare for the hardest week of the church year. We also have a reminder that our brutal, death-filled world can be flooded in the reality-shattering light of God again.

11:40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’

The raising of Lazarus is not the only sign. You may have noticed that after Lazarus comes out of the tomb Jesus turns to the crowd and commands them: “untie him and let him go.” The people are not simple observers. Those interested in this miracle are charged with something to do as well as to believe. Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.  The community has a chance for resurrection too.

We will soon see that death is not the end. There is no ultimate separation from the love of God. The breath of the prophet enlivens the bones that have given up all flesh. If this is so, then what power can death have over us? What limit is there to God’s love for this world? The answer is, that despite all appearances otherwise, there is no limit to God’s love. None. Nada. We can participate in this miraculous reality, or simply be observers, an audience, which of course is not what Jesus had in mind. We are capable of heeding the call of our savior. We can embrace this good news with our lives. Depending on it, hoping in it, the future is not a dead end.



John 18:28-19:22

When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.

Pontius Pilate arrived in Caesarea by the Sea in 26 AD. Tiberius had named him prefect of Judea, and he was coming to take over that position. He belonged to the lower nobility of the equestrian order, not to the more aristocratic senatorial class; in the eyes of those above him, he was a man who had to make a career.[1]

Pilate has high aspirations, but at the moment is in a backwater of the empire. It is one of those places that is the product of imperialization or colonization, depending upon how you want to look at it. But he has a challenge before him because there is a conflict arising among the people you see, and conflict is not good for commerce, and commerce is really the reason he is there in the first place.

The prefects’ primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as—in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem—the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest Caiaphas.

Now, Caiaphas is not the focus here today, but let me digress enough to say that sometimes people draw a sharp distinction between him and the guy I am talking about. Caiaphas is a religious person who has political influence. Pilate is a political person who has religious influence. Why? Because he is a roman in the roman empire whose official religion identifies the Caesar as god. And because everyone knows that there is only one God, or at least Caiaphas and the religious folk know that, there cannot be two. So either somebody has wrongly identified their object of worship, accidentally; or somebody is a blasphemer…claiming God’s rightful place for somebody or some thing that is not God. It happens easily when something other than God becomes the object of our ultimate concern. And his influence on behalf of the emperor cult comes on the edge of a sword.

There was a person[2] at the time who wrote down an occurrence of just this kind of religious clash. He said that while past prelates had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, This man allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to this guy to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, He had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Finally the images were removed. I find it hard to believe that Pilate did not anticipate the problem with caesars ‘graven images.’ Any chance this was done intentionally? Do you feel the tension there?

In the midst of all this the religious authorities are about to get unhinged at another guy. This local rabbi has attracted a crowd of followers whose faith practices contradict the ‘way we’ve always done it,’ and whose allegiances don’t allow for Caesars. The religious leaders are mad because he questioned the entire economy of the temple. The focus on money at the expense of doing ministry was eating away at him. He sees this injustice first hand, and bothers him so much that he chases the money changers and merchants out. This idolatry is not limited to the first century, we are guilty too.

Because we have baptized capitalism, made a sacrament of low taxes, and defined money as free speech, I wonder what tables Jesus would turn over today. I also wonder if what Jesus now regrets is that we no longer let the abuse of the poor make us angry.[3]

The same religious leaders who are nervous about his growing following, who are upset by his calling out the injustice in the temple, also believe he has blasphemed by claiming to be the ‘Son of God.’ So, he has to go. But here’s the problem. Their own ethics don’t allow them to kill somebody. In fact, if they did that with any frequency they’d have the Romans coming down on them for disrupting the peace. So what is a pious, upper class, religious leader to do to keep the system of privilege going? Why get the system to kill the one who is questioning them, that’s what. So they take him to my guy, Pilate.

Now, Pilate doesn’t want to deal with this. He knows a zero sum game when he see’s it. He is in trouble no matter what he does. But some of the reporters of the time remember that he is a ruthless egomaniac that is willing and able to squash any opposition by force. If Jesus was making trouble, he was making trouble for both Caiaphas and Pilate – and trouble for Pilate was still trouble for Caiaphas. It would seem to be a ‘gimmie’ to take this “brown skinned, marginal, jew” to the ruling whites from Rome and have them take care of him.

Pilate is playing a chess game with the Sanhedrin and the people. He is aware of the pitfalls. When they bring Jesus for judgement, Pilate realizes that there isn’t (technically) any reason for him to intervene. But the religious leaders know that Pilate has intervened plenty of times in the past with less reasons than this. His ethic is entirely situational. His violent tendencies are his only predictable quality.[4]

Listen, he once spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. The religious leaders complained. So he had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them and, when Jews again protested his actions he gave the signal for his soldiers to randomly attack, beat and kill – in an attempt to silence Jewish protest.  It happens. If people are speaking out, even if they are right, there are ways for the powerful to do their best to silence them. You can brutally turn them back. Or you can pass legislation that allows the government to seize their possessions. Power does that stuff to shut you up.

And that is what the religious leaders were doing. They wanted Jesus shut up. They were not as powerful as Rome, so it would be helpful if they could get Pilate to do their work. Ordinarily this might have not been a problem. Pilate was a guy who regularly killed people and dealt in alternate facts. During his interrogation, Jesus tells Pilate:

‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’[5]

You can read Pilate’s response as an honest and straightforward question. Or it can be read as rhetorical, not expecting an answer, from a man who is used to speaking lies in the place of truth to get what he wants.

It is understandable that Pilate freely substitutes the concerns of commerce over justice. But the religious folk? Even those you expect to know the truth sometimes get the object of their faith mixed up. Instead of God, it becomes something more convenient. Sometimes it is easier to hitch your wagon with a known tyrant whose violence can be predicted rather than a God who works independently in subtle and mysterious ways.

Then, Pilate brought Jesus out one last time and said to the religious leaders,

‘Here is your King!’ 15They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’[6]

And then Pilate knew he had everyone right were they needed to be. Despite appearances, the religious question is a convenience. The real issue is that Jesus has transgressed is the economy of Rome and the economy of the temple. Now there is no going back.[7]

“So Jesus’ crucifixion is not a terrible mistake, or the result of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. The Son of God is executed by the representative of there Roman Empire, at the instigation and initiative of the local (religious) aristocracy.”[8] This is not the last time that religious leaders enlist the help of a ruthless tyrant in service to their own ends. In the case of Jesus, history has wanted to blame the religious leaders because this gospel was written at a time when the church was interested in getting cozy with the empire. And it is easier to not offend the empire if you place the blame on the Sanhedrin.   But Pilate, despite his protests of innocence, is the one who allows this to happen. Blame is shifted somewhere else by the powerful all the time.   Both the religious establishment and the politicians have shown just who they are and unfortunately, not everyone believed them.

This story easily translates into our times. Jesus is saying that God does not bless the current state of affairs, no matter how much we like it. So there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. For people like Pilate, especially among those who love the empire more than anything else, it is easy to get your facts wrong and commit all kinds of atrocities. For the sincerest folks, even the religious establishment, who are attempting to be faithful, there is always a danger…the danger is that you confuse the emperor, whoever it is, with God. In both cases, what you lose in that bargain is your soul.

When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.


[1]Jose A. Pagola, Jesus: A Historical Approximation, Convivium: Miami, 2007, p. 361

[2] Josephus, The Jewish War

[3] Michael Piazza, “The Liberating Word,” March 9, 2017.

[4] Pagola, p. 362

[5] John 18: 37-38

[6] John 19:14-15

[7] on Pilate and Caiaphas’ complicity, see Pagola, p. 363.

[8] Pagola p. 367

[9] John 18:19-22


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