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THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

May 14, 2017

“Living Stones”

1 Peter 2:2-10

[This sermon is adapted from: “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” WJK Press]

 

 

While getting ready for today, this Sunday after music appreciation Sunday, I thought immediately of a hymn. “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” I don’t know why it came to me, except that it did as I was reading this text from 1 Peter.

 

Is that hymn playing in your ear yet? Do you remember the words?

 

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

 

I suspect that my memory served up this hymn because it portrays God as something like a rock. Immovable. Unchanging. Static. There are times, of course, when having such an image of God is helpful. In the quickly shifting tides of this life many seek out a god who is static, unmoving and unmovable. Like a stone.

 

Stones are a reoccurring theme in Scripture. From the very beginning there are stone pillars to mark the acts of God: stone for building homes and fortresses; stones as the sites of wells; stones for altars; water bearing stones; tomb-sealing stones; and stones thrown to mark the judgment of a community. One of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, Peter, is called the rock on whom Jesus will build his church. In the familiar hymn, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” we sing about raising an Ebenezer. This word, in the context of the hymn, means “stone of help.”

 

In the first letter of Peter, Jesus is presented as a rejected stone, implying a flaw or lack of something that would have made him not good enough to occupy the most important, strategic, foundational role – and yet he does. Peter continues with this imagery saying that we are ‘living stones.’

 

I have a friend who is in Germany right now, as a guest of the EKHN, the ‘Protestant Church of Hesse and Nassau.’ He is sending pictures of churches there. Massive stone structures whose birthdays make our own two hundred and eighty two seem like recent history. Katharinenkirche, St. Catherine’s Church, in Frankfurt was destroyed in the bombings during World War II, but the stone walls remained standing, ready to frame a new day. Between 1950 and 1954 the church was rebuilt. The pictures of it today are beautiful.

 

If you climb up the rickety staircase above our back balcony and peer into the passageway above the ceiling here in the nave you will see large timbers and limestone. Stones that were stacked a a decade before the first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. What is still visible is a marker from the original building just outside these eastern doors that proudly proclaims, “This is the High German Reformed Church in Heidelberg Township, all who here go in and out should be subject to God and King.”

 

Even in places less historic than St. John’s (Hain’s) United Church of Christ, every church with a building has to regularly discern whether these stones, or bricks in our case, will be an idol or a tribute to the work of God through the ages. For as Peter reminded us, we the people of the church are “living stones,” building a “spiritual house.” As stones working together, we must discern how we can frame a well of living water and not become a wall keeping people out.

 

One of the aspects of God we most treasure is that God is always there. God is the one thing in our life we can count on not to change. We rely on God to remain the same no matter how we, or the world, might be altered. The difficulty with this theology is that it creates a faith that can easily become resistant to new concepts, renewed passions, unexpected directions, or “bold decisions.”[1] It’s never occurred to us before that God might call our church to a new and different life, that God might want us in a new space or a new place, or that God might be done calling us to a particular ministry.[2]

 

We have to come to terms with the fact that the ministry, and even the gospel, is a living thing and while it’s motivation may remain steady it’s application is dynamic. One very essential way to do this is to re-frame our discussion in committees and particularly in our Consistory. I have sat through several meetings lately where not once was the question raised, “What is God calling us to do?” Or, “What does faithful ministry look like in these circumstances?” It was never said, “What would Jesus have us do now, under these circumstances?”

 

Jesus, the unlikely stone, is our chief cornerstone. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Our cornerstone is not the best business model. It is not security of our building. It is not the maintenance of the grounds. It is not preservation of the principle of the endowment. There are many places that have done these things. They are called museums. We are different. Our chief cornerstone, if we are a church and not a friendly fraternity of local folks, is Jesus. And not the ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but the ‘I am a follower of Jesus.’

 

So, as unlikely as we may feel being dubbed “Living Stones” for Jesus, we are simply that. At our best, we are following in his footsteps. Different days may demand different paths, but he goes before us urging us on. We are charged the same imperative he was because, The Spirit of the Lord is upon us through our baptism (and confirmation), because He has anointed us to go and proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18; Matt. 11:5, Isaiah 61:1).

 

If we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, new life can indeed spring forth from these old stones.

 

Amen.

[1] Crossroads Massachusetts, a program of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, 2012, http:// http://www.macucc.org/ crossroads

[2] Edited by Norman B. Bendroth (2014-12-05). Transitional Ministry Today: Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors (Kindle Locations 3396-3400). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

May 7, 2017

“Someone to Watch Over You”

John 10:1-10

 

[This sermon is based on the book, “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C; WJK Press]

 

We are fortunate here at St. John’s (Hain’s) United Church of Christ for many reasons. Not the least of these reasons is when scripture chooses to use an arcane and agrarian image to make a point we have people who will understand it.

 

Sheep, sheep-folds, sheep-gates, and such things are a mystery to many of us modern folks. If someone happened to prepare a leg of lamb for Easter they may live under the illusion that that piece of meat dropped out of the sky wrapped in cellophane and on a foam tray.

 

They would not realize that sheep are perhaps the least self-sufficient creature in the bovine family, genus, Ovus. They drop their lambs in terrible weather and the little buggers are pretty much helpless. I say this because as a young man I helped a friend tend his small flock and sat up more than one night in the barn keeping vigil with a lamb at a heat lamp while it was sleeting outside.

 

Sheep were and still are totally dependent upon the shepherd who tends them with care and compassion. Shepherds were the providers, guides, protectors and constant companions of sheep. So close was the bond between shepherd and sheep that to this day Middle Eastern shepherds can divide flocks that have mingled at a well or during the night simply by calling their sheep, who know and follow their shepherd’s voice. Shepherds were inseparable from their flocks. The shepherd would lead the sheep to safe places to graze and make them lie down for several hours in a shady place. Then as night fell, the shepherd would lead the sheep to the protection of a sheepfold.

 

There were two kinds of sheepfolds or pens. One kind was a public sheepfold found in the cities and villages. It would be large enough to hold several flocks of sheep. This sheep pen would be in the care of a porter or doorkeeper, whose duty it was to guard the door to the sheep pen during the night and to admit the shepherds in the morning. The shepherds would call their sheep, each of whom knew his own shepherd’s voice, and would lead them out to pasture.

 

 

The Evangelist John captures Jesus’ use of a common sheep pen, as a description of the relationship between Jesus/God, and his people. It is interesting that Jesus does not describe himself as the gatekeeper, but rather as the gate itself. You and I who find ourselves so far away from what it was to shepherd in the time of Jesus might think something got lost in translation here in John’s Gospel. It turns out that is not the case. Jesus calls himself the gate, because that was part of what a shepherd was. In the second kind of sheep-folds, the one’s out in the countryside where there was no actual physical gate, the shepherd would lie himself down in the opening which allowed entry and exit. In this way the shepherd knew who or what came and went or who or what attempted to come and go and so could serve as protector of the sheep.

 

 

 

This is an image that people resonate with. There is someone who leads us whose very voice might tell us that they are for us, we are safe, and that we will be cared for. David, the shepherd boy David, knows of this comfort and safety. He is the one who carries a sling and a staff and watches over the flock. I would help my friend with his sheep, usually when he and his family were away for a day or two, or when that spring day of shearing, vaccinating, and worming, all came on one day. When I first started doing this the sheep weren’t buying it. What I mean is that they didn’t trust me. They wouldn’t come into the barn if I was in the barn. But over time, they came to know me and my voice and trusted me.

 

Jesus says that there will be people like that for us. A warm and fuzzy sermon on this text would conclude that we should listen to Jesus, ignore strangers, and stick together when we go out into the world. But this story is not so much about comfort as it is at least equally about challenge.

 

See, we are comfortable with recognizing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we are not so comfortable with actually following him…I mean following and sticking together like they do in the reading from Acts. We Americans don’t do so well with the idea that we need to be lead unless it is leadership that caters to our desires. We resist, in part, because we sometimes are just like sheep that are cautious and fearful, choosing to go our own way. And there are other times that, following risks our emotions and sense of self-sufficiency, so it is easier to go with our gut and not any expertise or guidance of a knowledgeable person. But risking our emotions and following a skilled and knowledgeable leader is necessary for being a follower, a disciple. A real leader is not someone who plays on your fears and self-interests, but someone who does what is best for the flock.

 

Remember with me that the shepherd does not work for the sheep. The shepherd may well care for the sheep and their protection is paramount to them, but the shepherd works for the one to whom the sheep belong.

 

The verb, ‘to shepherd,’ is used in a variety of situations but what it means essentially is to lead. And this leader, if they are a good leader, will not only look after the followers but will also challenge them and lead them in directions they, on their own, would not go. The leader, the shepherd, knows what is best for them is not always what is desired or what is easy.

 

What this following looks like is demonstrated here and there in scripture. Acts tells us to devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We gather not for bliss or for escape, but to grow in faith with others. Sticking together, especially when threatened, listening for the shepherd’s voice, and following when called.

 

In John 10:11 we read, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the contrast with other leaders is not between owner and thief, right or wrong entry and the true gate, but between owner and hired servant, between the one who runs from threats and the One who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is not done, however. The imagery shifts from good shepherd to the shepherd of multiple flocks (“I have sheep who do not belong to this fold”) and a new central metaphor: “There will be one flock, one shepherd.”

 

The trouble is that when you give the task of that one shepherd and gatekeeper to God, you lose control over who enters the fold. God says all are welcome. And you don’t get to decide who is worthy of your help either. There is no pre-existing condition that excludes…see it’s Jesus at the gate, not blocking entry, he’s letting everybody in and nobody out.

 

Eucharist is the church’s way of practicing these things. The table welcomes everyone as equals. Bread and wine remind us that there is enough for everyone. And it is

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

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, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=54, Commentary on Luke 24:13-35, April 8, 2008

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

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.

EASTER SUNDAY

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.

mary-magdalene-tomb-1104114-gallery

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”)

PALM SUNDAY

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, http://day1.org/5721-everyone_loves_a_parade

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.

 

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