Welcome Text Week Readers

I am honored to have earned a spot on the regular roster of The Text This Week resources.  If you’ve landed here from there, thank you for clicking over.  This blog is mostly about the Revised Common Lectionary texts for any given week.  My goal is to blog Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so if you’re here early in the week, check back.  This blog started back in 2006, so there are several cycles of thought here as well, though my use of categories wasn’t great in the old days.  Be sure to comment if you have thoughts, and sign up for email updates.  Thanks again for stopping by.

–The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Question of Authority – a homily

My Tuesday in Holy Week homily is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

The question of authority has always been an important one
in the realm of religion. When one, charismatic person claims
authority that hasn’t been rightfully given, we end up with cults
like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and David Koresh’s Branch
Dividians. Because religion deals with emotions and
convictions, lifestyles and salvation, it is important to check
credentials and make sure that rising stars aren’t just in it for
themselves. This is fairly easy to do in the 21st century
denominational structure because we have discernment
processes, psychiatric evaluations, seminary assessments, and
ordination examinations. Of course, the time in which Jesus
lived was much, much different: first century Palestine was
teeming with “teachers” and “gurus,” “miracle men,” and
“zealots.” It was hard to know the true credentials of any of
these guys who were running around gaining disciples. It is no wonder then that the Chief Priests, Scribes, and
Elders are questioning just where Jesus’ authority might have
come from, especially after the recent unpleasantness of
yesterday where he flipped out and flipped tables in the Temple
courtyard. They take Jesus to task, “Who do you think you are,
riding into town like some sort of king, coming to our Temple
and disrupting five centuries worth of religious practice? You
cost us thousands of shekels yesterday! By whose authority are
you doing all of these crazy things?” They ask questions, but of
course, they already know the answers.
Three years earlier, in a little hamlet called Bethany Across
the Jordan, a man named John was preaching about the coming
of the Messiah. He called on people to repent and seek God’s
forgiveness before the Christ came to bring about new life in the
Kingdom. John the Baptist created such a stir that people came
from all over to hear him teach and to be washed clean in the Jordan River. Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean
countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to
him.” Certainly, “all the people of Jerusalem” included the
religious leaders who would have needed to see for themselves
what was going on out in the sticks – hoping to figure out where
this John the Baptist got his authority. Surely then, they had also
heard the amazing story of Jesus’ own baptism what with the
heavens being torn apart, the Spirit descending, and a voice from
the sky proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved…” You
don’t keep a scene like that a secret for very long.
Jesus’ authority didn’t come from the usual sources. He
hadn’t studied under a famous Rabbi. He didn’t go to the best
Hebrew School. His background wasn’t in Greek philosophy or
Hebrew theology. Jesus’ authority came directly from his
Father, THE Father. The religious leaders knew this, and it
terrified them, but they also knew that the source of Jesus’ authority was also their best chance to trap him in the crime of
blasphemy, a crime punishable by death. It is one thing for the
crowds to say that Jesus was the Son of God, but it was quite
another for Jesus to claim it for himself. If he would even
suggest it, in the middle of Temple, teeming with pilgrims in
town for the Passover, while standing right in front of the
religious powers-that-be, then they could easily arrest him
without fear of the crowd.
When you are the Messiah and your authority comes
directly from God, and let’s be clear, only the Son of God gets to
claim that kind of authority, you don’t have to play those sorts of
games. Jesus refuses to give them what they are looking for.
Instead, he shows them the foolishness of their system by
catching them in their own fear of losing their power and
control. The authority of the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders
comes from the very crowd that they fear: the same crowd that they, in turn, try to control through fear and taxes. It is this very
broken system that Jesus confronted violently yesterday and
continues to antagonize today.
The question of authority is an important one in religion.
As the week wears on, the type of authority that Jesus can claim,
authority that comes directly from the Father, will prove too
threatening for the powers-that-be. Eventually, their fear of
Jesus will outweigh even their fear of the crowd and it will lead
to the cross, but not yet. Tonight, the Chief Priests, Scribes and
Elders walk away with their tails between their legs, no doubt
certain that Jesus has true authority, unlike anything they’ve ever
seen before, unlike anything they hope to ever see again.

God sends servant after servant after servant – Tuesday in Holy Week

Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  Today’s reading is from Mark 11:27-12:12 (NRSV).

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” -they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.


Today is the penultimate face-off for Lent Madness 2014.  If you’ve never heard of Lent Madness, well, shame on me for not having highlighted it earlier, but it is a bracket style tournament between 32 saints of the Church to win the coveted Golden Halo on Spy Wednesday.  The brain child of The Rev. Mess’rs Tim Schenk and Scott Gunn, Lent Madness is a great way to learn about the varied ways in which the Gospel message has been proclaimed over the course of the last 2,000+ years.  Enough back-story, today’s match-up is between two powerful voices for reform within the Anglican/Episcopal Church: Charles Wesley (1707-1788_, the more reluctant of the brothers who are credited with starting Methodism, and Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), Bishop of Massachusetts and general ne’er-do-well clergyman.

Phillips Brooks claim to fame is his preaching, said to be able to preach 200 words a minute (I preach about 115), Brooks complained bitterly about his time at Virginia Theological Seminary and then spent his career calling Episcopalians to be active in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.  For example, he was a staunch supporter of the North during the Civil War: one of his chief complaints about VTS dealt with its history of slavery.  The Wesley brothers gained the name “Methodists” as a pejorative: it seems folks weren’t too keen on their strict adherence to religion and practical piety, but their call to take seriously the Gospel message of Jesus, to preach it to the ends of the earth, and to allow it to change one’s life was nothing new.  The saints of the Church have been calling us to this higher calling of life in the Kingdom from the very beginning.

Brooks and Wesley were two in a long line of servants that the Lord has sent to “collect his produce,” that is to say, to bring forth his Kingdom.  In today’s lesson from Mark, we hear Jesus tell the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  It is perhaps his most difficult parable to unpack as it is filled with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures and dripping with the socio-religio-political tensions of the early 1st century in Jerusalem, but as we remember Wesley and Brooks today, I’m aware that the parable lives on in the life of the Church.  We continue to struggle to be faithful to the will of God.  Institutions, by their very nature, are neither good nor evil, but they do have a tendency toward self-preservation, and the Gospel of Jesus can be downright dangerous.  I’m thankful for servant after servant after servant who has come to call to Kingdom living, and I pray that when we are so called, our response will be one of faithfulness and trust in the goodness of God’s will for creation.

Oh, and while we’re at it, go over to Lent Madness and vote for Phillips Brooks!

Top 10 Signs of Resurrection in The Episcopal Church

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE challenge is a timely one.  In the midst of Holy Week, as we’re harried, frazzled, and surrounded by conflict and death, what signs of resurrection are there in The Episcopal Church?

Top 10 Signs of Resurrection in The Episcopal Church (In somewhat no particular order)

1. Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Foley, Alabama

2. Forward Movement is growing, hiring staff, and generally rocking the pamphlet publishing world

3. The Reverend Canon John Newton

4. Embracing Generous Orthodoxy at, among other places, Virginia Theological Seminary

5. The School of Theology at Sewanee approved my thesis proposal on William Reed Huntington and Brian McLaren

6. Susan Brown Snook’s voice on Executive Council

7. Nativity Church brings Dothan their first ever Mardi Gras parade.

8. The Crusty Old Dean

9. People are engaging with The Task Force for Re-Imagining The Episcopal Church and they seem to be listening

10. The Right Reverend Sean Rowe


Jesus was hungry

Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  Today’s reading is from Mark 11:12-19 (NRSV).

Jesus Clears the Temple 
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.  15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:”‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’ But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”  18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.  19 When evening came, they went out of the city.

Biblical scholarship suggests that Mark’s gospel was the first to be put to parchment, somewhere in the late 60s CE.  While the christological debates heated up after the first generation of Christians had died, it is clear from some of Paul’s writing that even by the mid-first century, leaders of The Way were struggling to balance the competing ideas that Jesus was God and Jesus was human.   So, it seems to make sense that Mark’s account of Jesus’ final week would be interspersed with details that highlight both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity.  Here on “Fig Monday” most of the attention is paid to Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, but this year, I’m struck more by the simple fact that Jesus was hungry.

Mark isn’t just the earliest Gospel, but it is also the shortest.  It carries very few of the details that Matthew and Luke seem to have found in their shared Q source.  So, when details do show up in Mark, they are worth paying attention to.  Here, just before Jesus shows his power even over the trees of the earth, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” Mark highlights Jesus humanity in sharing with us that Jesus was hungry.

I come from a long line of men who get cranky when we’re hungry, so I appreciate this short story from Mark.  I can’t tell you how many restaurants I’ve cursed for not having what I was hungry for on their menu.  I’m reminded of the time I had a 6am flight and arrived at a 24 hour fast food establishment before!!! they began serving breakfast.  My own grouchiness aside, I’m thankful for Mark’s attention to detail this Monday in Holy Week.  Jesus’ humanity and divinity will be at odds with each other several times this week, just as I struggle with letting go of my will and seeking after God’s.  May Christ’s ultimate example of submission to the will of God guide each of us this week and in the months and years to come.

Jesus Christ is Lord – a sermon

UPDATE: the audio is available on the Saint Paul’s Website.

There were some technical difficulties this morning, and I’m still not sure I’ll have audio to post. This week will be full of posts, so rather than wait and inundate my dear readers, I’ll go ahead and post the text of the sermon now, and hopefully update with audio tomorrow.

I’ve always had trouble with Palm Sunday, or as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer actually calls it, “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.” It is such a disjointed day, trying to capture in about an hour of liturgy, two of the major highlights in a week filled with non-stop action. Some of you remember when it wasn’t such a hodge-podge. Back when the 1928 Prayer Book was in use, the day may have been “commonly called Palm Sunday,” but following the long tradition of Cranmer’s 1549 Book, there was nothing Palm-y about it, unless you were the rare soul who spent two-and-a-half-hours attending both Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, and even then, you only heard the Triumphal Entry Gospel lesson. By the 1970s, people had stopped giving up their entire Sunday morning to attend interminably long church services. For most, the Sunday before Easter was like any other, only with a slightly longer Gospel lesson: The Passion was read, a sermon was preached, bread was broken, and everybody went home ready to take a few days off before returning on Wednesday for the Stations of the Cross. Meanwhile, liturgical historians had stumbled across fourth century evidence of ancient parades on the Sunday before Easter, in which people waved Palm Branches and remembered Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Thinking that we should do the cool things people did in the early Church, they added the Liturgy of the Palms to a service that was really about the Passion Gospel, and voila, we’ve got the disjointed mess that is “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.”
In an attempt to ease the messiness, several years ago Keith and I decided to take Holy Week seriously as a whole week. We fudged this service just a bit by pushing the Passion Gospel to the very end, making it the transition moment from our shouts of “Hosanna,” to the week-long struggle that will end with shouts of “crucify him!” No matter how much fudging we do, however, the liturgy for Palm Sunday is still, in my opinion, a disjointed mess. Like Jesus riding two donkeys at the same time in Matthew’s Palm Sunday account, we attempt to straddle the majesty of the King of kings parading into Jerusalem and the “so-called” King of the Jews being whipped, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross. As I once again struggled with this awkward balancing act, I went back the lectionary and found myself drawn to the Philippians lesson for two compelling reasons. First, it reminded me of the hymn, “He is Lord,” which we sang every Sunday after communion in the somewhat charismatic parish of my youth. I can still see Father Bill standing behind the altar, arms raised high in the air as we sang, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Second, and more importantly, this beautiful mid-first century hymn about Jesus the Christ can help us embrace today’s weird mix of joy and sorrow.
We hear this lesson from Philippians 2 fresh off the high of rustling palm branches and “all glory, laud, and honor.” Jesus is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In other Gospel accounts, he’s named the King of Israel. On Palm Sunday, Jesus had everything he needed to take over the Temple, overthrow the Chief Priests and mount a battle against the Romans. He was at the height of his power and authority, but he knew that military might was not his calling.
“Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” Despite his followers’ claims, the Pharisees’ fears, and Bible sub-headings to the contrary, Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is really anything but. Imagine the scene as Jesus clumsily rides into town on a too small, still nursing female donkey with her foal in tow while a mish-mash of country-folk shout out “hosannas” as they throw their dusty coats and some broken down palm branches on the ground. This parade has nothing on the one happening across town as Pilate enters on his warhorse, surrounded by chariots and pomp. Especially during Passover Season, the Roman’s exploited their power through taxation, coercion, and military might. On the contrary, Jesus “emptied himself,” giving up all worldly authority he could rightfully claim in order to fulfill his destiny.
“… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Here’s our moment of transition into Holy Week. In a world where humility is seen as a sign of weakness, even here in what seems to be his most glorious moment, Jesus submits himself to God’s plan for salvation, preparing himself for the ultimate act of humiliation on Good Friday. Jesus won’t just die, he’ll be spit upon, dressed in purple robes and openly mocked; he’ll be scourged, whipped, and beaten; he’ll be dragged through town with a heavy wooden beam across his shoulders, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, and raised high up in the air for the whole world to see. His death is one of the cruelest and most degrading in the history of public executions, but it is there, in the depths of his humiliation, not at the height of his triumphal entry, that God lifts Jesus up to his rightful place of honor and glory.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Deep within one of the oldest hymns of the Church, we find the most ancient creed that Christians have, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not Lord as the Romans used it, as in master and slave, but Lord, as in God. Jesus Christ is God. In his crucifixion, Jesus proves his obedience to the will of the Father and is granted the very name of God, YHWH, which a devout Jew like Paul would never utter, choosing instead to call him Lord. Jesus Christ, who alone is both fully God and fully human, through torture, humiliation, and death is raised up to the very throne of God so that we too might one day gain our inheritance as beloved children.
As we embark on this week, this Holy Week, it is helpful for us to remember that Jesus’ place as King of kings and Lord of lords didn’t come in some fancy parade, but through a most gruesome one. As the days go by this week, as the controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leadership becomes more and more intense, I encourage you to ponder Jesus’ unwavering devotion to his Father’s will. In a world that is not that unlike first century Jerusalem, where humility is eschewed for power and authority, I hope you’ll recall Christ’s example of self-emptying love. Whether you are here with us at every service this week, or reading along through the morning emails, my prayer is that you will take a few moments each day to consider Jesus’ mighty acts of humility, and on bended knee, confess and give thanks that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The whole city was in turmoil

More literally, the entire city quaked as Jesus entered.  Given my proclivity to believe (with some reservations) the Palm Sunday narrative of John Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book, The Last Week – that there were dueling parades between Pilate and Jesus happening on Palm Sunday – I’m reading this line with great interest this week.

Matthew is clear that the turmoil isn’t about Roman oppression or the fact that Passover is coming, but rather it is because of Jesus.  Jesus enters town on a donkey and the whole city trembles.  Matthew only uses this word three times in his Gospel, all within the last week of Jesus’ life.  In fact, he is the only Gospel writer to use this word.

  • Matthew 21:10 – our lesson for this Sunday – “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”
  • Matthew 27:51 – just as Jesus gives up his spirit – “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
  • Matthew 28:4 – when the guards see the angel at the moment of Christ’s resurrection – “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

Clearly, Matthew saves this term for only the most holy of moments.  This quaking, shaking, turmoil is sign and symbol of the supernatural work that God is up to in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It is unsettling, this Jesus stuff.  It causes people to be in turmoil, even the ground the shake, because it changes the fundamental relationship between God and humanity.  God is invested in us.  In the person of Jesus Christ, he has made himself fully aware of the plight of humanity, and redeems it.  He removes us from our bondage to sin and death, he shakes the foundations of our lives, and calls us to new life, resurrected life, in him.  If that doesn’t put you into turmoil, I don’t know what will.



Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality: through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(The Collect for The Liturgy of the Palms, BCP p. 270)

Proof I was once a contemplative (c. 1996) Photo Credit - Kim Logan

Proof I was once a contemplative (c. 1996) Photo Credit – Kim Logan

I Googled the word “contemplation” this morning and found an unexpected definition.  “Contemplation, noun, the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time.”  I’ve always associated contemplation with the mind rather than the eyes, assuming that contemplation was simply a fancy way of saying deep thought or even meditation.  As I contemplated this definition (I literally stared at it), I began to realize that this word choice for the Collect for the Liturgy of the Palms was very profound.  I can’t find proof that it was done with any real intent, but Hatchett does point out that when this prayer moved from the Wednesday before Easter in the 1928 BCP to the Liturgy of the Palms in 1979, the word was changed from “meditation” to “contemplation.”  I like the change.

Holy Week is meant to be experienced rather than pondered, meditated on, or theologized about.  The Special Liturgies for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are each filled with visual images that can and should be contemplated.  The waving of the palm branches recalls for us the stark contrast between the military might of Pax Romana and the humble donkey that Jesus awkwardly rode into town.  The washing of feet reminds of the suffering servanthood of Christ.  The adoration of the cross on Good Friday invites us to contemplate on how God took a symbol of torture and shame and redeemed it into the sign of our salvation.

I hope you will take time for real contemplation in the coming days by being a part of a faith community that is walking the way of the cross with sacrament, sign, and symbol this Holy Week, for it truly is the way of life and peace.

The Problem with Biblical Literalism

Every three years, preachers get the chance to chuckle at poor Matthew’s interpretation of the prophet Zechariah.  We laugh because we’ve all been there before.  In attempting to interpret and understand texts written by people who lived long ago in vastly different cultures and contexts than our own, we are bound to make mistakes every once in a while.  Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday is our cautionary tale.

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me…’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

Tradition tells us that Matthew was a tax collector.  Hebrew by birth, his education and working environment were distinctly Roman and his preferred language was probably Greek.  Whether or not you actually believe that Matthew the Apostle was also Matthew the Evangelist, the attribution of Matthew to this Gospel tells us somethings about the community in which it was used.  It was most likely a Greek speaking, Gentile church.  Their understanding of the Hebrew scriptures would have been limited and certainly come from the Septuagint.  Like many Christians today, they would have had little ability to understand the nuances of Hebrew prophetic poetry.

So when “Matthew” took Mark’s version of Palm Sunday and tried to spell out for his community why these details were important, he misunderstood Zechariah’s parallelism and read the prophecy literally, which meant that in order to fulfill this prophecy, Jesus had to enter Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal.

A rare photograph, taken by Matthew, of Jesus’ triumphal entry

In order for an evangelist to make sense of the Biblical narrative for his/her hearer, it is imperative that (s)he work hard to understand the original context.  It opens the text and allows it to come alive for modern hearers.  By seeing how our particular context differs from that of the original biblical story, we can begin to see how these stories can continue to speak to our lives even thousands of years later.  Of course, it takes time and energy to do that research, and preachers tend to have very little of both by the time Lent 5 rolls around.  I’m praying for my preaching readers especially this week, that they might have the time to look deep into the text and make the story of Jesus alive for their congregations this week.

*This post isn’t possible without the work of Carl Gregg on Patheos.

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – So Which is It?

For regular readers of this blog, this post will be nothing new, but the truth of the matter is that I’m not a big fan of the mash-up of Palm and Passion Sundays.  I’ve written about this ad nauseam: having posted on this issue in at least 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013.  My liturgy professors last summer, The Very Right Reverend Doctor Alexander (is that the title of a PhD retired bishop who is now dean of a seminary?) and The Reverend Canon Doctor Turrell, were adamant that the disjointed nature of the Palm Sunday liturgy, that we move from waving palms and shouting “hosanna!” to crying out “crucify him!” in a matter of minutes is the only proper way to celebrate this particular special day, but to be honest, I still don’t buy it.  Here’s why.

The Church has become fatalistic.  Because we don’t believe that people will come during Holy Week, we make provisions to enable them to not miss anything.  In so doing we perpetuate the problem by a) assuming they won’t come, b) enabling that behavior, c) skip a bunch of holy and good stuff in the name of “they would have missed it anyway.”  I’ve decided recently, however, that I’m not concerned with those who, for various reasons both good and contrived, won’t make it to services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  My level of discomfort with them missing the Passion Narratives is waning as I become more and more interested in the experience of 25+/- disciples who will walk the way of the cross, the way of life and peace, with us every day from Palm Sunday until Easter Day.  I’m excited about offering those who desire it a full immersion into Jesus’ final week.  I want to be with them at about 12:30 on Good Friday when we stand at those haunting words, “when they reached the place called ‘the skull.’”

To me, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is simple.  It is Palm Sunday, the first day of a Holy Week, the Holy Week.  It is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Pilate is making his royal entrance across town.  It is about cries of “hosanna” which means “Lord save us,” from a crowd of people who desire God’s real presence in their lives.  It is about the whole city of Jerusalem boiling over with turmoil at the sight of Jesus riding on the foal of a donkey.

This isn’t to say we won’t read the Passion this Sunday.  I’m coming around the truth that as an ordained clergyman in The Episcopal church, I can’t just skip it because I don’t like it, but I’ll be darned if you’re going to hear about it on this blog or in my sermon this week.  Nope, this week is about Palms, the Passion is important enough to have its own day.

Leave your graves and be set free – a sermon

You can listen to my Lent 5A sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it below.

“Jesus tarried.” That’s how my preaching mentor, David Lose, says we should read Jesus’ two-day delay after hearing that Lazarus had taken ill. “Jesus wasn’t just held up, he intentionally waited, delayed, dragged his feet, tarried. Why? Because he saw in Lazarus’ death the in-breaking of God’s glory and he wanted to make sure no one missed it. And so he tarried two more days so that by the time he arrived Lazarus would have been in the tomb four days…”1 The story of the resurrection of Lazarus is perhaps the most carefully orchestrated event in all of Jesus’ ministry. Every thing Jesus does and says is carefully crafted for maximum impact.
It begins with a message from two dear friends, Mary and Martha. Their brother was apparently very sick and they wanted to Jesus to know about it. There is no indication that they expected Jesus to drop everything to be with them, but as the story unfolds, we learn that is clearly what they hoped for. Jesus has other plans. “This illness does not lead to death,” he says, knowing full well that that isn’t true, “but rather it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So Jesus tarried, waiting two days to even begin journey from Bethany-across-the-Jordan to the Town of Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. I really struggled with Jesus waiting, this week. I had a hard time with Jesus intentionally letting Lazarus die just so that he can resurrect him. I couldn’t understand why God would do something like that just to teach the world a lesson. To me, it made God feel arbitrary and capricious, until I read a commentary by Alyce McKenzie and the bigger picture opened up. “Jesus responds to Lazarus’ illness with [level-headedness]… He is not expressing his hope that, because of the miracle he is about to perform, he will be admired and praised. “God’s glory” is a reference to Jesus’ own resurrection. His raising of Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death, which will lead to his resurrection…”2 Just past our interminably long gospel lesson (the third in three weeks), we find that the resurrection of Lazarus is the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Pharisees. Jesus had the power to bring people back from the dead and even some of the Jewish leadership was starting to believe in him. That was it for the Pharisees, Jesus had to die. Jesus has to die, for us, so that his resurrection can once and for all bring about victory over death.
Jesus knows all of this, and so he tarries for two days, so that by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus would have been dead for four days. First century Jewish belief said that the soul of the deceased lingered near the body for three days, but by day four it was certain that Lazarus was dead. Very dead. Really, super, duper dead. No one would be able to argue that a mistake had been made and that Lazarus hadn’t really kicked the bucket. Lazarus was dead and gone and everybody knew it by the time Jesus approached the city. Did I mention Lazarus was dead?
Martha got wind that Jesus was nearing town and she ran out to meet him. Clearly, she’s upset. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus already knows what is fixing to happen, and in a rare move, he lays it out there plainly, telling her, “Your brother will rise again.” The grieving Martha believes in the resurrection of the dead at the final judgment, but she doesn’t quite get what Jesus is saying to her, so he spells it out for her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Still confused, Martha returned home and sent Mary out to see him.
Mary runs to the feet of Jesus and cries out to him the same welcome that her sister gave, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This time, however, a crowd of mourners has followed her, and there is no time for Jesus to teach her about the resurrection, he’ll just have to show her. Deeply disturbed, knowing full well that he is about to raise a man from the dead and sign his own death warrant, Jesus makes his way to the stone hewn tomb where Lazarus’ body has been laid. After some debate, the stone is finally rolled away, and Jesus calls out to his friend, “Lazarus, come out!”
Here’s where the story gets really interesting. The once-dead man hops forth from the tomb, still wrapped in his burial cloths and Jesus says to the shocked crowd gathered around, “unbind him, and let him go home.” The obvious thing here is that Lazarus, still bound in his burial clothes, needs to be untied from those bonds in order to return to normal life, but given the conversation that happened earlier between Jesus and Martha and knowing that everything in this story is about Jesus doing something deeper, it seems clear that this is about more than some bands of cloth. Jesus didn’t resuscitate Lazarus, he raised Lazarus from the dead. Even though Lazarus will one day die again, he is already resurrected to eternal life while still bound to life here on earth. Jesus calls for Lazarus to be unbound, to be set free from the bonds of sin and death, and to be raised up to the Kingdom right then and there. Here’s the Good News for us, if it was possible for Lazarus, then resurrection is possible for all of us right here and right now. We too can be set free from the things that bind us: depression, illness, addiction, fear, disability, pride, hypocrisy. Even as we continue to live with them and struggle with them, as adopted heirs of the Kingdom, we are able to live beyond them and into the fullness of God’s dream for us.
In order to be unbound, however, we must first be willing to step out of the relative comforts of the graves that we know. Just outside the city of Bethany, Jesus told Martha that he was the resurrection and the life, and he still is, even right here in Foley today. He calls us to leave the comfort of the graves we have built for ourselves: the graves of addiction, guilt, and selfishness; the graves of materialism, workaholism, and fear of being left behind; the graves of depression, victimhood, and self-abasement. Jesus invites us to leave all that behind and live with him in the resurrected life, this very moment. Living the resurrected life while we are still living, breathing, feeling people isn’t easy. It means you might get your heart broken. It means you will have to craft a whole new identity. It means your focus will no longer be on you, but on the world around you. It means leaving what you’ve known and embracing the unknown. It means that among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts must be fixed where true joy is to be found, the Kingdom of God. Maybe this is what this season of Lent is all about. The word “Lent” comes from the lengthening days of spring. The days are getting longer and the sun is getting brighter. Even as we prepare for the empty tomb on Easter Day, the stone has been rolled away from our own tombs and Jesus is inviting us out into the light. Leave the comfort of your grave, be unbound, and enjoy the life of the Kingdom.
Every detail in this really long story is orchestrated by Jesus to help us see that he is the resurrection and the life: yesterday, today, and forever. The question remains, Do you believe it?

1 Dear Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1545 (accessed 3/31/14)
2 Edgy Exegesis, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Lazarus-Is-Us-Alcye-McKenzie-04-04-2011.html?print=1 (accessed 3/31/14)