An Easter Sermon

a Homily for Easter
Text: John 20:1-18

a sunrise

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

The Recap

I know that many of you were unable to attend the many parts of Holy Week and so missed the opportunity to know what we are actually celebrating this morning. So here’s a brief recap.

  • On Sunday, Jesus, surrounded by a great crowd, arrives in Jerusalem. He makes it very clear that His God is GOD, not Caesar, when he enters riding a donkey in mockery of Rome.
  • On Monday, Jesus visits the Temple and drives out the money-chagers and dove-sellers for their participation in a system of economic exploitation. He says that our job is to worship and live, not obsess about the rules.
  • On Tuesday, Jesus returns to the Temple to teach the people, but before He can, He is confronted by the Temple Authorities and harassed for His lack of credentials “By what authority” they ask Him. Jesus proceeds to school them and humiliate them in front of everybody. So the authorities begin to hatch plans to get rid of Jesus. The rest of the people, however, are raving about His teachings and how he has revealed the hypocrisy of their leaders: in the Temple, their King, and their Roman occupiers.
  • On Wednesday, Jesus is anointed for burial with an expensive oil, called nard (which is still very expensive, by the way) and the disciples protest. Let’s sell it they argue. Jesus tells them that this anointing is the Good News.
  • On Thursday, Jesus has the last supper with his closest followers, teaching them that the most important attribute of the Christian community is intimacy and vulnerability. He is then betrayed, arrested, and brought before the authorities. Sounds vulnerable to me.
  • On Friday, Jesus is tried, convicted, and killed by Rome.
  • On Saturday, we have Sabbath. Nothing.

Which brings us to this morning. The empty tomb. Mary Magdalene witnessing, proclaiming the Good News to the disciples.

A GOD worth believing in

Easter is nothing without Holy Week. A story of Mary Magdalene and the tomb is of no value if we don’t also make sense of who was in the tomb and how He got there.

And it is actually destructive to wipe it away as merely GOD’s doing. GOD made it all happen (we’re often told)—needing to balance some divine checkbook—but don’t worry about any of that nonsense because Look! It’s balanced!

Nor should we get too caught up in the blood of Friday that we never arrive at the tomb to find it empty. To hear that Jesus is not there—He is risen!

The true reason we can’t do Easter without Holy Week is that we can’t believe in GOD if we are never left with nothing but belief. If your life isn’t on the line, it isn’t actual belief.

And we certainly can’t have belief strong enough to survive if we don’t have a GOD worth believing in. Like a GOD that believes in animal and human sacrifice of any sort. A GOD that wants us to continue the ancient tradition of the scapegoat: to place our base desires for vengeance and violence upon an innocent victim, just because we have trouble getting along. A GOD that cares more about what we wear to church than how we treat the people we find there. Or step over to get there. A GOD that expects everyone to just know what GOD is thinking. A GOD that says typos in the bulletin are totally more important than praying for other people or forgiving them for their mistakes.

No. The GOD we know frees and restores. The GOD we know is moved by people who have faith: from Noah to Dorothy Day. The GOD we know rejects our expressions of violence in place of adoration; pragmatism in place of hope; outrage in place of love.

The Good News

I was brought to tears several times this week. First was the murders in Kansas City when a supposed Christian killed three Jewish people on the first day of Passover. Now, this weekend, news out of Ukraine that Jews in Donetsk, a city in east Ukraine, in the midst of ongoing violence, militarism, and invasion, are being asked to register with the pro-Russian forces or face deportation. So like the anti-Semitism of Nazi-era Germany, so connected with our past and disturbingly, with our present.

This news out of Ukraine was breaking as many of us prepared for Good Friday services in which we read the Passion from the Gospel we call John with its references to “the Jews” and bathed in 2,000 years of religious history of scapegoating the entire Jewish culture. Not forgetting that Jesus is a Jew, but choosing violence and hatred because sometimes violence and hatred is all we know. And yet, we are not making Good News when violence and hatred are what we express–on a culture, a group, or even an individual.

That is only true because Jesus broke that mold. No matter how many times we try to recast it, we can’t. The scapegoat is gone. Gone from us. Gone from our tradition. Gone from our people’s experience. Gone from GOD.

The innocent one, the one killed for insurrection, carried no weapon. The innocent one brings with Him an end to the evil we would wage. The innocent one isn’t the only thing risen today.

The Truly Good News

When Jesus was anointed on Wednesday of His last week and the disciples were freaking out because the oil could be sold to feed the poor, Jesus tells them that they’re on the wrong track. They are obsessed with money and action and doing the right thing. And Jesus says a curious thing. He says

wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Whenever the Good News is proclaimed, her story will be told. In remembrance of her, not Jesus. Her story is gospel. The Good News today isn’t just a risen Christ, but the rise of these women. The woman anointing Jesus; Mary the Mother at the cross; Mary Magdalene at the tomb. The rise of the nameless and the voiceless. The rise of the poor and the powerless. The rise of Good News that is actually good! News of generosity and thankfulness. News of change and redemption. News of resolve and faith. News of tenderness and mercy.

News captured in the gentle hands of the woman rubbing the oil on Jesus’s skin, in Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, in Roz and the small group of drivers making sure Charlotte was with Stu in his last days, in all the acts of true power and authority that make us whole, that make us holy.

This is the Good News and this is what we mean when we declare as one that Christ is risen.

Faith In Spite of Death

a Sermon for Good Friday
Text: John 18:1-19:42

By what authority?

There’s a telling moment toward the beginning of Holy Week that explains the drama that is unfolding. A moment that involves a simple enough pair of questions:

By what authority are you doing these things?
Who gave you this authority to do them?

Authority.
It is the very crux of the story.

For us, the question is simple. By what authority? GOD. GOD has given Jesus authority because, well, Jesus is God. Or at the very least, GOD’s authority is found through Jesus. That certainly is a variation of the answer Jesus would give if He gave answers rather than responded with new questions.

But the Temple authorities, the people asking Jesus this question on Tuesday of Holy Week, aren’t thinking like that. They are thinking about people. Which person authorized this? Who are you to be teaching us? Where are your credentials, Jesus?

Their response to Jesus is clearly based in fear. Each step along the way, Jesus proves to be smarter, wittier, and quicker than they are. He is more magnetic than they are, and the people have fallen in love with Him. They love Him and they love His message. So the Temple authorities respond, not from a place of theology or tradition, but of pure politics. Jesus is a genuine threat to their authority.

At the same time, Rome is beginning to get antsy. Jesus is causing a problem for them, too. Problems need solutions. So they find a way to take care of their problem, permanently.

It would be disingenuous not to mention that Jesus started it all. He is the one who entered Jerusalem in a political way. He is the one who made a big political statement at the Temple the next day, overturning the tables and driving out the moneychangers and dove-sellers. He is the one who chose to expose the hypocrisy of the Temple authorities by shaming them in front of their own people.

Jesus was clearly making a political statement. It is no wonder that his adversaries responded from a political position.

Jesus’s authority

Each of Jesus’s actions reveal His sense of authority. That it is not His will, but GOD’s. But Jesus has a very different idea of how to express authority.

For Jesus, it is not about ruling the people, but communing with them. It is not about reinforcing GOD’s rules of behavior, but witnessing GOD’s actions in our midst. It is about living the way GOD calls us to live, creating the blessed community that GOD has revealed in the world and in Scripture, and working toward the great Shalom, the great sort, the great restoration of the world.

Jesus is preaching justice and new life. Jesus is preaching food for the hungry and sacrifice for the wealthy. Jesus is preaching hope for tomorrow and action for today.

For Jesus, the Kingdom isn’t about who is in charge, because that is not up for debate. And He is quick to remind them that He isn’t the answer, either. Truly, the authority isn’t human at all. The authority isn’t rules or a book. The authority is GOD and everything else isn’t.

The faith of Christ

Today, Jesus has died. God is dead. And we will do what we do when we’re afraid. We scatter and desert Jesus. We run away. Away from our fears and our problems. Our anxieties and our losses. Our pain and our conflict. We run. And we leave behind the mother to watch her son hang there.

We abandon our faith for certainty. And we know without a shred of evidence to the contrary that up there on that cross is not really GOD, for GOD is untouchable. And up there on our crosses are certainly the deserving dead.

The authority of Jesus’s life is GOD, but not His death. The authority of every life that comes into this world is GOD’s. And for far too many, the authority of their deaths are on us. On our negligence and bigotry and cowardice. On our need for certainty and blame. On our obsession with rules and outrageous systems of injustice.

The authority of Jesus, however, is life. And that authority remains, even in death.

Today and tomorrow, we resist the urge to desert Jesus; to run away, to scatter—for we are already scattered. Instead, we are here as witnesses. Witnesses to the wonders Jesus has done. Witnesses to the love that has invaded and transformed our lives. Witnesses to the work Jesus has done.

And we pledge to live the way Jesus has taught, act the way Jesus has shown, pray the way Jesus prayed, and we live out the Kingdom as if the Good News Jesus proclaimed was worth bringing here. Living or dead, Jesus has brought us here and defined the very nature of our faith.

For faith is not faith if it is dependent on Jesus. Today, all we have is faith. And each other.

More Good Friday

Here is last year’s sermon about the cross, which is still one of my personal favorites. And check out the one from 2012 which deals with how we choose responsibility for the crucifixion. If you haven’t noticed, something about Good Friday brings out the intellectual side of me…

Not Alone: Maundy Thursday and the Building of Intimacy

a Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The Cup

This year, it was helpful for me to remember that we have developed a different way of marking days from Jesus’s time and place. Then, the day began at dusk. So this, Jesus’s final day, has begun. He gathers His friends for dinner, for a final teaching. Small. Subtle.

In the version of the story we receive from the gospel we call Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus brings his followers together to eat. In the middle of dinner, Jesus takes the bread from the table, breaks it, and passes it around saying “Take; this is my body.”

He takes the cup, blesses it, and passes it around. They all drink from the cup. Then He tells them what they’ve just consumed:

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Thus begins the end. Jesus has eaten with all of His followers, including His betrayer. It is now time for him to go and announce Jesus will be on the move. To tell the Temple authorities where they might find this blaspheming zealot. The Messiah. The self-described Son of Humanity.

Jesus takes His disciples out to the Mount of Olives and says:

“You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

I always miss that part. Peter’s denial, which comes next, is so prominent. Of course Peter would say that he would never desert Jesus. Just as he believes he’ll stay awake through the night and protect Jesus from arrest. Always the guardian, protector. And Jesus’s response is heartbreaking.

Regardless of Jesus’s actual words, Peter must have heard Jesus this way:
Yes you will Peter. No matter what you say, you will desert me. You’ll fall asleep. You’ll deny me. You can’t be my guardian.

It isn’t just Peter; it is all of them. They flee. They avoid being arrested. They miss the trials, the torture, the rejection. They are gone at the end of the day, when Jesus is left to die.

Scattered. Gone.

I wonder where we desert Jesus. When we abandon Him, when we scatter; what we avoid and who we reject.

Our desertion only seems different, but it is somehow the same. When we confront our authorities; our culture, our tradition; our comforts, our egos, our very beliefs; how often we scatter. We abandon our faith for institutional security.

In fact, I wonder if there is truly much difference between Peter and Judas. Besides the obvious, of course. In the end, both desert Jesus, the community, the mission. All of them do. Perhaps it is only that Judas can’t come back.

We take it for granted that Jesus will face His trial and death alone. Without Peter, His followers. Perhaps Jesus must face this by Himself. It is not their time or ours. Not yet anyway.

It is this solitary scattering that Jesus prepares them for. This day begins in unity. In sharing. In eating the same food and drinking from the same cup.

When, in the gospel we call John, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, He tells them to wash each other’s feet, that they are to be Christ for each other as Jesus was Christ to them.

He tells them to create intimacy.

It begins with intimacy. Sharing. Being vulnerable to one another and open to GOD’s transformation.

Our very sacraments embody that intimacy; as we are held and washed and marked with oil. When we share from a common loaf and drink from the same cup. As the disciples did. Our lips touching the very cup our neighbors’ lips have. We gather, for centuries now, in intimacy.

We begin this Triduum sharing with one another. Allowing ourselves to be open to GOD and one another. Because what comes after is wounding and troubling. What comes next tests our relationships and our relationship with GOD. For next is the scattering.

Tonight, may we hear Jesus’s words to Peter as if they were meant for each of us: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” That is Jesus’s response to rejected intimacy—treated as the very rejection of Jesus, of GOD’s mission.

Our trials, all that we face in the coming days, all that happens with our families, friends, and loved ones, all of it can be faced as a whole community thriving on intimacy, vital relationships, and healthy actions. Or we can go it alone—without GOD, without community, without anyone.

The truly amazing part is that we even have a choice.

Speaking: Palm Sunday and the liberation of Jesus

a Sermon for Palm Sunday A
Text: Matthew 21:1-11

palms - narrow

Photo Credit: Drew Downs

Something to Say

What would you say and how would you say it?

That was the basis of the writing exercise we did Wednesday night.* Imagine that you have a prime time block on TV on Thursday night; 50 million people are watching, you have a nearly unlimited budget, and freedom to make the program the way you want it to be.

  • What concern would you address? What change would you hope to see?
  • How would you communicate that message? A drama or a comedy? A reality show or documentary? A benefit concert or an update of a classic musical?

With this exercise, we were hoping to unlock our passion and purpose. And, of course, our creativity.

The root of Christianity is communication; communicating GOD’s purpose in the world and in our lives. Often, our problems come from our unwillingness to hear or see what GOD is doing, dreaming, or hoping for us. Or from our unwillingness to share what we hear or see. Our pain and our will so often get in the way.

The Message

Palm Sunday is all about communicating. Jesus has a message about GOD and about the Kingdom of God. He presents it as a visual contrast:

  • Pilate, entering Jerusalem at one end of the city with the visual reminders of political power: the flags, the soldiers, the warhorses. The city receives the might, dominance, aggression, supremacy of a Roman official who comes to the great city to oversee order during the Passover.
  • Jesus, entering Jerusalem differently, with the visual reminders of humility: the peasant clothes, the unwashed fisherman disciples, the donkey. Jerusalem receives humble, weak, patient, hope in the Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi who comes to expose the world’s greatest power for its true weakness.

Jesus has a message that contrasts with Rome’s. A message that is understood only when Roman and Jewish authorities are exposed. Only when the great city’s turmoil is revealed as sin; as not of GOD; as preventing the people from being in a healthy relationship with GOD.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil”. A city which spent the previous thousand years and would spend the succeeding two thousand years in near-perpetual turmoil. Constant conflict. Virtually never communicating GOD’s mission through a unified voice: the Kingdom of GOD is at hand.

Breaking Rome’s Message

Jesus’s message will shape the coming days. The Temple, the authorities, the disciples, the mission will be the wood of daily devotion, as Jesus builds His final statement, His elevator pitch. He will build the chair that will become His cross.

Still, for the carpenter, His mission, His masterwork is nearly complete.

The message Jesus communicates is so easy to us. Too easy. Peace. Freedom. Love. So often that message is filtered through Rome’s message of Peace (through war); Freedom (through order); Love (through hegemony and oppression). For Jesus to confront Rome on Rome’s terms is to abandon His message of peace, freedom, love. For peace through war is not peace, but war. Freedom through authoritarian rule and the fear of domination is not freedom, but tyranny. Love through hegemony and oppression is nothing at all like love. And nothing like the Good News.

In riding a donkey, Jesus shows the Kingdom of God, communicating the real character of the Kingdom; communicating what a true God (not Caesar) does to care for all the children. Love and sacrifice. Hope and trust.

Even in the midst of turmoil, a great cloud of witnesses forms to receive the Son of David, the unifier. He is a great prophet of humble origins. He is blessed by GOD! He has come to us! The crowds surround and compel Him.

Jesus Speaks

In focusing on the entrance to Holy Week, my hope is that we can stay in this moment longer. This space has Jesus’s hope and humility and purpose. It sets in motion the things that are to come, but these things can overpower the nature of what Jesus is doing. The tradition and the dogma dominate Jesus, turning Him into an object of belief and transform His story into a creed: the Romanizing of our very liberation!

What Jesus is doing instead is communicating a way of being. He shows us protest. He shows us conviction. He shows us what loving GOD looks like, including laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

This time of year, we are called to remember Jesus and live like Him, love like Him, pray and eat like Him. We are called to gather not like Rome or the Temple Authorities, but like Jesus and the disciples. We are called to be apostles, all of us, inheriting the mantles of our ancient ancestors who lived with, loved, and followed Jesus.

Despite His attempts to communicate we often misunderstand Jesus. He came to be with us. To be one of us. He came to learn from us and speak like we do. He came to play with us and help us and love us.

He isn’t a thing to be believed, but the person of our liberation. He is here! We are here! This is our Jerusalem!

 

*The exercise may be found in Lloyd Edwards’ Discerning Your Spiritual Gifts. It is an excellent resource and I highly recommend it.

Unbinding: emptying the tomb

a Sermon for Lent 5A
Text: John 11:1-45

picture of barbed wire

Photo Credit: manoftaste.de via Compfight cc

Preventing Death

Our story is almost over. Jesus is nearing Jerusalem. And in one final, glorious act, Jesus reveals the very thing He has come to do. A big show of great, inhuman power, in which the whole purpose of the mission is revealed.

For us to get there, we have to abandon our own blindness.

Martha, then Mary reveal the human confusion in Jesus’s mission; confusing prevention of death for an act of love. But we already know that “for God so loved the world.” To Jesus, prevention of death is not an act of love. Lazarus needs to die.

The text tells us that Lazarus’ death is needed to reveal GOD’s glory. We may then jump to the conclusion that his death is a pawn in a game; a ransom or exchange. That some eggs need to be cracked to make an omelette. Sorry Lazarus. We may see his death as a permanent sacrifice, intentional and meaningful; for a greater purpose.

But the necessity of Lazarus’s death is based not on permanence of physical death, but the temporary and subjective nature of true death. Jesus’s power is found not in preventing death, but in bringing life. It is not in intervening in Lazarus’s death, but giving him new life.

All those people Jesus heals in the gospels are given new life: restored to community and given a true life. It is a symbol of restoration, not prevention.

Protecting Ourselves

Clearly we confuse the nature of restoration. We talk as if Jesus would turn back time and return us to those greatest hits of our lives. Honor roll, graduation, wedding day, birth of children, whatever highlights flood back to us. Or when we could stand up straight, play tennis, sing, hear! That a God of reconciliation and restoration is in the business of preventing pain.

That our savior keeps us from dying—rather than saving us from the death we already possess.

We’re all bright enough to know that this isn’t literally true. Friends, spouses, children have died and we know that they knew the love of Christ.

So our blindness and unbelief comes out in other ways. That our families and churches and communities must be protected. That if Jesus truly loved us like we love Him, we would never die. Never suffer. Jesus wouldn’t sit there and wait, only to raise us from the dead later.

So wasteful. Painful. Intercede, Jesus! Keep me from feeling pain. Keep me from doubting you. We may be tempted to leave our family and friends because of grief. Go somewhere else. We might be happy there. Maybe.

We are promised a true life, not a permanent one. We are given gifts to share, not squander. We are saved, not protected. We are offered mission and certain death.

Restoring the Afflicted

Jesus arrives in Bethany, which means “House of the afflicted.” It is just two miles from Jerusalem. His death is immanent, days away. Like Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night in chapter 3 and the woman at the well running into Jesus at noon in chapter 4, the death and return of Lazarus is literarily bonded to Jesus’s death and restoration. No room for prevention. As Jesus says elsewhere to Peter when the disciple vows to prevent Jesus’s death: “Get behind me, Satan!” Lazarus is to die and be restored.

It isn’t about family or life or death. It isn’t about how much Martha and Mary love their brother or convince Jesus to perform a magic trick. It is about the glory of GOD being revealed. Lazarus is no prop. The stone is rolled away, Jesus calls Lazarus by name, and a risen man is revealed.

The man shuffles out, feet and hands bound by cloth. He needs to be freed. So Jesus calls for his freedom. “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus, held captive to death, to the ritual of binding the dead to permanent rest, prevented by the living to live again.

The people are told to unbind him and let him go. Perhaps still bound by their obsession with permanence; forced to remain shackled by expectations, even in death.

Jesus reveals what GOD does: unbind and restore. And what is to happen next will reveal that truth to everyone. After Jesus dies He will be unbound, then let go.

Unbinding

Lent invites us to an annual reminder of our regular need to learn and be restored. That the Christian purpose is to restore the world. A world fractured by division, bitterness, and greed, long before us. A world bound by human rituals of death and imprisonment. Jesus returns to remind us “Unbind him and let him go.” Like Elsa in Frozen, we are told to “let it go.”

The hang ups and the hurt. Let it go.
The judgment and criticism. Let it go.
The need to control everything and make it the way we want. Let it go.

We aren’t saved, we are being saved.
The GOD mission isn’t done until we complete it.
No one retires from ministry as long as Lazarus is bound. As long as Jesus is bound. Stuck in that tomb. Where we can blame one another for our problems. When we do that, the tomb is still full of the dead. The buried.

Let Jesus go. Unbind Him and let Him go.

The funny thing is that Jesus cannot be bound. Jesus is fulfilling the mission whether we’re here to do it or not. If St. Paul’s won’t do it, Jesus will find others to do it. Because Jesus isn’t bound by us (He can’t be).

Our work is not to preserve St. Paul’s. It is to restore the world.

We must let Him go. For next we follow Him to Jerusalem.