Welcome Text Week Readers

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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

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What Would the Avas Have Us Do?

My middle school years marked the heyday of the What Would Jesus Do era.  WWJD made its way onto license plates, t-shirts, and of course, bracelets.  No self-respecting Manheim Township Middle School 7th grader who considered themselves a Christian was without a WWJD bracelet in every color that the Provident Bookstore had to offer.  Later in life, I was surprised to learn that those bracelets that were all the rage in the early 90s come from a theology that is based on a novel written in 1896 that sought to teach Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel.  Lost somewhere in the hype of being seen as properly Christian by wearing the right bracelet was the reality that What Would Jesus Do? is a shockingly countercultural question.

In the last few days, we’ve been reminded of what Jesus would do.  He would eat dinner with sinners and tax collectors.  He would turn the tables in the Temple and call to account a system of religion that was built upon on the backs of the faithful poor.  He would stand up against the challenges of the Pharisees and Scribes, unafraid that it might cost him his reputation.  He would challenge his followers to love one another.  He would get down on his hands and knees and wash their feet.  He would willingly be betrayed and handed over to be mocked, scourged, beaten, and ultimately killed in the name of love. And on this night, we are brought to mind, yet again, that Jesus would rise from the dead and in so doing defeat death forever.

As the Exsultet that Deacon Kellie sang so beautifully says so eloquently, “this is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”  That’s what Jesus would do.  That’s what Jesus did do.  And so, we gather on this most holy night to recall the events of salvation history throughout time.  We remember the covenant that God made with all of creation after the flood, that by the sign of the rainbow we would be reminded of God’s promise to bring us back into relationship by another way.  We remember the Exodus, and how on the banks of the Red Sea, God opened the waters so that God’s chosen people might begin their journey to the Promised Land.  We remember the testimony of the prophet Isaiah, and how every time a prophet proclaimed God’s judgement upon the people, it was followed by the promise of restoration and renewal.  We remember the vision of Zephaniah and the assurance that one day all people will be drawn into the loving embrace of God’s forgiveness.

This night isn’t simply about the events of the past, however.  If tonight was only about things that had already happened, we’d be stuck looking for the living among the dead.  No, what we are about on this night is what comes next.  Our question isn’t just “What did Jesus do?”, but “What would Jesus do in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2019?”  So, on a night in which we recall the various ways in which God has called us back into right relationship, it is also especially appropriate that we baptize new members into the household of God.  Through water and the Holy Spirit, we welcome two Avas into the ongoing story of God’s salvation history.  Alongside them, and with their sponsors, we recommit ourselves to what it means to follow the resurrected Jesus in world today, and we promise to seek God’s help as we work to take our place in the resurrected life.

It is interesting to me that both of our newly baptized members are named Ava.  Ava is a variant on the first name ever given, Eve, which is likely familiar to most of us.  Eve was the wife of Adam.  His name, Adam, wasn’t really a name, but is simply the generic word for humankind.  It is based on the world for dirt, from which God made humanity.  Eve, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for life.  It seems particularly appropriate tonight, as we seek to encounter the resurrected Jesus alongside the two Avas, that we might reframe that age-old question.  Not, what would Jesus do, but maybe tonight we ponder, what would Eve do?  What would these Avas have us do?  How will we live life differently as a result of the promises that we’ve made with them?  What brings life, true life, eternal life, the resurrected life into the world?  On this night in which we celebrate that Jesus Christ is risen, still, from the dead, to what kind of life does the resurrection call us?  Let’s not be about looking for the living among the dead, but rather, let’s be about looking for stories of the resurrection life among those who are living it.  So, while what would Jesus do is an important question to ask, this Easter, I invite you to carry with you our two Avas and instead ask, ‘What would Ava, life, real, abundant, resurrection life, have me do?  Amen.

A Pattern of Love – Maundy Thursday

One of the great gifts we have here at Christ Church is the front desk ministry.  In two-hour shifts, sixteen faithful volunteers and a handful of fill-ins, make sure that guests are welcomed, the phone is answered, and sundry administrative details are handled.  Having those things dealt with is nice, but the best part of it is the relationships.  I’ve learned so much about our front desk volunteers over the past few years.  I’ve heard stories of children and grandchildren.  I’ve listened to great tales of business trips and family vacations.  We’ve shared prayer concerns and laughs, all around the front desk in moments of brief exchange.  I’ve also learned of some of the neat hobbies that people have.  Richard Greer is a car guy.  Maryanne Ringo makes dog clothing.  Paula Maier is gifted in needlepoint.

I don’t have the skill nor the patience for needlepoint, but in watching Paula work meticulously on gifts months and months in advance, I’ve come to understand how important it is to work from a good pattern.  The pattern is always there, reminding you of the right path to follow in order to produce the finished product you desire.  It shows you where the outline turns.  It helps you to determine what to fill in with red and what is actually a lighter shade of pink.  The pattern is dependable.  Never failing.

On Maundy Thursday, the church gathers to mark an ending and a beginning.  The meal that Jesus and his disciples shared this night is commonly called the Last Supper.  It was the final opportunity for Jesus to share what was of utmost importance with his closest friends.  They engaged in the traditional Jewish practices of breaking bread and sharing from a common cup.  Jesus reminded them of what they would need to remember after the chaos of the 24 hours that were to come.  He gave them a new mandate for life in the Kingdom of Heaven – that they love one another.

Maundy Thursday is about the story of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper included more than just the bread and the cup.  Our liturgy isn’t simply another recitation of the Eucharist.  On this night we take part in one other activity that was modeled by Jesus on that most holy night.  We will wash on another’s feet.  You’ve just heard the story.  We know how in the middle of dinner, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and took on the dress of a table slave.  He bent down and did the most demeaning thing anyone could do, he washed the dirty, dusty, stinky feet of his disciples.

After he finished, he put his robe back on, symbolic of his role as a Rabbi, and began to teach them about what he had just done.  Almost every English translation of the Bible has Jesus telling his disciples, “I have set an example for you, that you should also do as I have done to you,” but that’s not the entirety of what he was saying to them.  No, the Greek word that gets translated as “example” can also mean “pattern.”  Whereas an example is a thing you do once to show somebody how to do a thing, a pattern is about an ongoing standard of behavior.  Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet as a one-off example that they too should wash feet, although once a year we brush off that example.  Rather, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to offer them a pattern of sacrificial love.  He established for them what he hoped would be a life-long commitment to loving service.  In so doing, Jesus assured them that he, and by extension the Holy Spirit, would be an ever-present pattern for them to follow, especially when the going got tough.

Tonight, you, like me, may want to having nothing to do with this whole foot washing exercise.  Or, you might be feeling a bit timid about it.  Perhaps you are giving thanks that the Church chose to repeat the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup rather than the foot washing thing each week.  Maybe this is your favorite service of whole church year.  I don’t know, you might be strange like that.  No matter if you are dying to wash someone’s feet or would rather die than do it, it isn’t the example of foot washing that is important.  Maundy Thursday, which comes from the Latin for Christ’s mandate to love, is about the pattern of love that the example foot washing enacts. It is about the reality that Jesus’ whole life can serve as a pattern for our lives as his disciples.  It is about the promise that the Holy Spirit is here among us to help us follow the pattern, to show us where the outline turns and where the red might need to fade to a lighter shade of pink.  It is about the patterns of behavior that bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Spy Wednesday Cliché

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When I was a freshman in college, instead of doing my homework, I watched all of the Bond movies back to back, as they playing on TNT, or some equivalent cable network.  I love spy movies.  I love the action.  I love the intrigue.  Above all, I love the tropes that one expects to see fulfilled in any good spy movie.  Perhaps the best cliché in a spy movie is the stupidity that surrounds the spy.  Usually taking the form of the villain that takes extra time to spell out the intricacies of his evil plan, giving the spy an opportunity to escape the trap in which she in snared, the comic relief in most spy movies is just how dumb the people around the story can act.

On this Spy Wednesday, all twelve disciples have the chance to fulfill their destiny as spy story clichés.  In Matthew, Judas has his starring role at the table.  Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him, and Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi,” which is, of course, the title used by Jesus’ adversaries in Matthew’s Gospel.  Our appointed lesson for Spy Wednesday comes from John’s Gospel, and it is the other eleven who get to look foolish in John’s account.

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After Jesus tells them that one of the group will betray him, Peter and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, undertake a clandestine mission to figure out who it will be.  John, who had the seat next to Jesus at their table for 26, point blank asks Jesus, “Who is it going to be?”  Jesus, in perhaps the only example we have of him actually answering a question, says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread.”  Then, when he hands Judas the piece of bread and says, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” nobody understands what is happening.

It is comedic gold, set amidst the intrigue that is Jesus’ final few days.  I love how, after three years of traveling with Jesus, listening to his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and even sharing in his ministry, the disciples can still prove to be so very dense.  It means there is hope for us all in the Kingdom of God.  The life of discipleship is, as the title of a great book by Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren says so perfectly, a series of Adventures in Missing the Point. We all tend to not quite understand what God is up to in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  We all fail to accurately interpret what the Spirit is calling us to do.  At any given moment, any one of us is the comedic foil in the ongoing saga of missio dei.  But God is full of compassion, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Jesus, despite the foolishness of the 11, went through with the difficult end game, knowing that the rain falls on the smart and the stupid alike.  The Spirit continues to gift us, knowing that we’ll likely misunderstand what those gifts are to be used for.  We are all, from time to time, a Spy Wednesday Cliché, but thanks be to God for the grace that overcomes our foolishness.

Drawn in in love – Tuesday in Holy Week

On my way to Meijer to purchase ice cream salt and rubbing alcohol for the new fire at the Great Vigil, I passed by one of our local Pentecostal churches.  Because it is a) Pentecostal and b) on the main thoroughfare, they have one of those fancy LED marquees that announces things like opening in their pre-school or special services.  As I passed by this morning, the first ad I saw on the screen was for their Good Friday service, which is a thing I’m noticing more and more in non-liturgical traditions, and something maybe for a later post.  The ad featured a black background with a silverish cross in foreground along with the service name and time.  As the image switched to announce the Easter services, the cross changed from silver to white.  The background from black to a bright blue sky hovering above an August National-type green grass hill.

In that moment, I realized something about myself.  I think there is a part of me, way back in the recesses of my soul, that thinks the tradition of veiling crosses in Lent is backwards.  Instead, I wonder if we shouldn’t remove all the crosses from our naves during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  I know that this is a dangerously triumphalist thought, but I think it stems from too many experiences in which the fast of Good Friday and the feast of Easter Day have been conflated into a cross with purple sashing sitting below a white banner the Alleluia in gold lettering.

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I can’t even with this

There is no Easter without Good Friday, and Good Friday isn’t good without Easter Day, but they are meant to be honored as separate events, or maybe better said, two distinct features of a greater whole.

One of my favorite prayers in the Daily Office was written by Charles Henry Brent, the late bishop of the Philippines and later, Western New York.  It goes like this,

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: so clothe us with your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week is a typically Johannine text, in which Jesus is clear that it is through his being lifted up [on a cross] that Jesus will draw all people to himself.  There is, as the old hymn says, power in the blood of Jesus.  There is redemption in Jesus stretching out his own arms in loving act of laying down his life.  This even is worth contemplating deeply during the week leading up to and including Good Friday.  In the act of laying down his life, Jesus draws us all in to himself in love.  And then, it seems to me, something different happens come Sunday morning.  Rather than shifting our focus from a gray cross on a dark background to an empty wooden cross on a happier background, our focus should turn entirely away from the hill called Golgotha to the stone that has been rolled away from the empty tomb.  There is a whole lot more to think and say about this than 600 words will allow, but suffice to say, I think it is important to consider how the events of Good Friday and Easter are different, even as together, they help to bring us all into the knowledge and love of Jesus.

It’s fixin’ to be a week – a sermon

Sermon begins at 28:30

 


On Thursday, Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I joined many of our sisters and brothers in ordained ministry at All Saint’s for the annual service commonly called the Chrism Mass, in which we renew our ordination vows and receive the specially blessed oil used at baptisms.  Kellie has a real job, so she had to drive herself back and forth from Leitchfield, but Becca and I rode together and enjoyed a couple of hours to touch base on life and our collective ministry here at Christ Episcopal Church.  One of the topics of our conversation was how the lives of associates and rectors are similar and different.  There are certain freedoms that are unique to each position, and there are certain limitations that come with each title as well.  That conversation got me thinking about how my life has changed in the two-plus years that I’ve been your rector.

One thing that quickly came to mind is how often I’ve uttered the phrase, “It’s been a week,” since leaving Alabama.  Sometimes, on only mildly crazy weeks, I’ll say it on Thursday.  Sometimes, like the week before Holy Week, it is quite possible to hear me say, “It’s been a week” at our Monday afternoon staff meeting. It’s a feeling I think we can all understand.  Whether you are a first-grade student, a tenth-grade teacher, lawyer, nurse, mechanic, priest, or full-time volunteer, some weeks just feel full – as if you’ll never stop running from one thing to the next.  Sometimes, the only way to describe what you’ve experienced is “It’s been a week.”

It’s been a week since we began the liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday fifteen minutes ago.  As we started this service, we recreated liturgically the experience of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon.  Over on the west side of the city, Pilate entered riding a war horse, surrounded by chariots and heavily armed soldiers, hearing shouts of “Hail Caesar, the son of god, the king of kings, and the source of peace”  Meanwhile, Jesus entered through the eastern gate, riding a donkey as a rag-tag group of disciples pulled palm branches out of the trees, laid their cloaks on the ground, and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  In that story, we heard clues that this is going to be a week; especially when Luke mentions that some Pharisees had come to see what all the commotion was about.  When the Pharisees realized that Jesus’ disciples were putting him on par with Caesar, and calling him the Son of God, they got really, really nervous.  “Tell them to hush,” they begged of Jesus.  “If these were silent, even the stones would cry out,” Jesus replied.  As they say in Lower Alabama, “It’s fixin’ to be a week.”

During the course of the next five days, Jesus went to the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers.  He called out the injustice of the Temple system that was built on the backs of the faithful poor.  He answered repeated attempts to challenge his authority.  He taught lessons and told parables that directly contradicted with what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes were trying to accomplish.  He lifted up the lowly widow and her two copper coins, while calling into question the large gifts given by those for whom it was less than a drop in the bucket.  As each day unfolded, the tension between Jesus and the powers-that-be grew, until finally, they conspired with Judas, one of the twelve, to betray him.  With all kinds of false accusations, they attempted to convince Pilate that Jesus needed to be killed, and when the crowd just wouldn’t relent, they finally succeeded in having Jesus put to death on a cross as a disgraced revolutionary.

It’s been a week.  Or, rather, we know it is about to be a week.  A full week.  A difficult week.  A Holy Week.  Every day this week, you will have the opportunity to walk the way of the cross with Jesus and one another.  It begins at noon, Monday through Thursday, where we will hear from different preachers in different contexts of how the pressure-filled relationship between Jesus and the powers-that-be bubbled and boiled, until it finally came to a head.  On Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus once again offer us the new mandate of the Kingdom of God, that we love one another.  Through the washing of feet, an act of profoundly humble service, we will re-enact the symbol of the self-sacrificial love that Jesus offered to his disciples, while we also remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of our devotion.  Overnight, members of the congregation will keep watch, like Peter at the charcoal fire, as we wait for Friday, when we will remember the deepest act of love anyone can offer – the laying down of one’s life for a friend.

As the lessons for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday show us, it’ll be a week – a long and challenging week, and yet, it is a week that we ought not skip through just to get to the joy of Easter.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  There is no Resurrection without the challenges of Holy Week.  And so, we pray that in walking the way of the sorrow, we might find it to be the way of life; that through walking with Jesus toward the cross, we might also share in the resurrection life.  It’ll be a week, dear friends, but I can’t wait to walk it with you.  Amen.

An Unsettling Story

The Sermon starts at about 6:45


As I’ve told you before, I love parables.  If I wasn’t tied to the assigned readings in the weekly lectionary, I would almost certainly preach a sermon on a parable every time I stepped into a pulpit.  I love how simple they are.  How Jesus relies on common images from his time and place to share deep truths.  I love how impossible they are.  How the simple message that we think we take away from Jesus is never what are actually meant to learn.  I love how they rattle around inside my head for days and weeks on end.  I love how, even two-thousand years later, I can still find ways to enter into many of the parables that Jesus told.

I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Peterson’s description of parables as narrative time bombs; only exploding with meaning sometime down the road.  Recently, I’ve found another way to describe them that while less grandiose, is certainly equally true.  Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, in his book A Resurrection Shaped Life, defines parables as “unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.”  Today’s Gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is meant to be just such an unsettling story.  The basic gist of it seems fairly straight forward.  The younger son tells his dad that he wishes his dad was dead.  He takes what would be his inheritance, leaves town, and wastes it on women and whiskey.  One day, while dreaming of eating the slop he was feeding to the pigs, he has something of a come to Jesus moment, repents, and returns to his father’s good graces, only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation.  In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the older brother serves as the lens through which Jesus seems to challenge our basic assumptions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, but in its most simplistic reading, I’m not sure that this parable is truly unsettling.  What’s really makes this story uncomfortable requires us to pay careful attention to three things: to whom Jesus is telling this parable, what really happened in that pig pen, and how the story ends.

The parable commonly called the Prodigal Son is the third of three parables Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back.  The lectionary skips over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but does give us the context for the stories.  Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and known sinners.  Not only that, but he was eating with them.  They would have dipped their bread into the same bowl of oil and smeared it across a common plate of hummus.  The clean and unclean didn’t share meals in that way, and the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it.  In response, Jesus told them three parables about things that had been lost being found.  One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it.  When he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  One silver coin out ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it.  When she did, she threw a massive party to celebrate.  One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home.  We he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  The first unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party in heaven for every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child.

In each of the first two parables, Jesus is quick to mention that the lavish parties are representative of the joy that is experienced by God and all the angels each time one sinner repents.  In our parable, however, the word repentance is never mentioned.  Here, when the lost one is actually a human being who has some agency in his own return, we hear nothing about repentance.  Instead, the unsettling truth of that pig pen is that the younger son might still be a gigantic jerk.  In fact, I think this is the most likely reading of the text.  Notice how it all plays out.  After squandering all of his inheritance on “dissolute” living, the foreign land to which he had moved fell into a famine.  Not only did his funds run out, but the bottom fell out on the economy at the same time.  Everybody was hungry, so begging didn’t do any good.  The best job he could find was working on a swine farm feeding the pigs.  Can you imagine how awful life must be when you are looking longingly at the food that pigs are eating?  Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented, but rather in that moment of desperation, the younger son “came to himself.”  He returned to his senses and remembered that back home there was a farm full of food and even the hired hands had more than enough to eat.  So, he concocted a plan in which he would return home, say all the right things, and even if his dad would only take him back as a slave, at least he’d have food in his belly.  This, to me, is where the story becomes truly unsettling.  Is it possible that what Jesus is saying here is that God will throw a party even for those whose return to relationship seems to come with questionable intentions?  Is it possible that God is perpetually scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their sinful ways simply because they’ve come searching for something more?  Given the crowd Jesus is accused of hanging out with, perhaps the second unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that God is always ready to welcome us home, whether or not we’re here for the right reasons.

As the party unfolds, the fatted calf is slaughtered and the finest wines are poured.  The older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field only to find that his good-for-nothing brother is back and his dad is wasting more money on a party for him.  You can feel his indignation as he stands outside, listening to the festivities inside, and sneering his complaint to the old man. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party.  But this son of yours.  He treated you as if you were dead.  He made you sell our land, lay off our workers, and lose our prestige in the community so that he could go off and waste your money, and for him you’ve killed the fatted calf?”  Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older son back into relationship.  He begged him to understand what it is like to lose something so valuable and find it again.  But, as the story ends, Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever relents and enters the party.  The parable fades to black with the older brother still outside, arms crossed, glaring into the house.  Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in?  Can we fathom a God who desires deep, real, perfect relationship who will also allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to forgive and be reconciled? The final unsettling lesson I think we can learn from this parable today is that God is desperate to be in right relationship with everyone, but it is our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace that can leave us on the outside, looking in.

The more comfortable reading makes the Prodigal Son a top-3 parable of all time, but when we let parables be unsettling, when we allow them the space to challenge some of our basic assumptions, we stand to learn a lot about the Kingdom of God.  The Prodigal Son story should make us wonder just how willing we are to enter the party God is throwing for all those who were lost but are now found.  The Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a party.  The older brother was indignant about it.  God’s grace is often surprising, upsetting, and even little unsettling, which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Jesus felt the need to use parables in the first place.  There are deep lessons to be learned, if only we have ears open to listen and hearts open to learn.  Amen.

He stretched out his arms – a sermon

You may not know it, but there is some rhyme and reason to the liturgical choices we make around here.  At 10 o’clock, the service music is carefully selected to match the mood of the season.  Now that we’ve survived the Great Litany, for the next four weeks, both services begin with the Penitential Order which is meant to draw our minds to the truth that we should only approach the altar of God having taken stock of our lives, recognizing our sins, and repenting of our unrighteousness.  At 8am, we have switched back to Eucharistic Prayer I, which deals more directly with the reality that sin – the corporate sin of the world and the sinfulness of each individual – ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, and that in the Eucharist, we are recreating not just his Last Supper with the disciples, but remembering the fullness of the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and yes, Easter Day as well.

The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers are a bit more challenging. None of them carry the clearly penitential tone of Rite I.  However, Prayer A does seem to be the prayer best suited for the season.  In it, as we recount the story of salvation history, there is this peculiar line in which we say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  As the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death unfold, it doesn’t always seem like this is an accurate reading of the situation.  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Judas offer him for 30 silver coins?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees offer him to maintain the status quo?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Herod offer him out of fear; did Pilate offer him to appease the crowd and raise his stock within the Roman Empire; or, as the prayer seems to suggest, did God the Father require the Son to die to appease some sort unrelenting anger?  While each of these could be perfectly reasonable explanations for what happened in those dreadful hours, it would seem that our Gospel lesson for today is expressly concerned with making us understand that Jesus’ death was his own choice and for the benefit of the whole world.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top.  It had been about a week since Peter finally confessed Jesus as the Messiah, when he, along with James and John were made privy to the full revelation of Jesus’ divinity.  There, with Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God booming from above, Jesus was fully empowered for the final stage of his ministry. Not long after this encounter, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  The last act of Jesus ministry was about to unfold.  Somewhat surprisingly, Luke then proceeds to spend 10 whole chapters, roughly 42% of his Gospel, sharing all kinds of experiences that happened along the way to the cross.  Jesus exorcised demons, healed the sick, preached the Good News, taught in the Synagogues, and even sent out 70 others to do the same.

Here, at not even the mid-point in that ten-chapter journey, in which Jesus is very intentional about his work and ministry, and just as he has taught that many who think they are in God’s good graces will find themselves on the outside, some Pharisees, the insiders’ insiders, came to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  This isn’t Herod the Great who had tried to use the Wise Men as spies in order to kill Jesus shortly after his birth.  This is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, who had married the ex-wife of his brother, who got drunk at his birthday party and ended up having John the Baptist beheaded at his step-daughter’s request.  Herod Antipas shared one fourth of his father’s territory with his brothers.  As the most competent heir, Herod lived in constant fear of revolution.  It was that fear that made him both dislike John the Baptist and yet fear the will of the people too much to want to have him killed.  It was that same fear that made him worry about the increasing power that Jesus of Nazareth had over the crowds.  One who could perform miracles, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and command such a following was one who was clearly a threat to the power and privilege that he had born into.

Luke doesn’t tell us why Herod wanted to kill Jesus at this point, and given that these words of warning come from the Pharisees, Luke’s favorite antagonists in his Gospel, we don’t even know if the warning is real.  Still, the response Jesus gives tells us that he is in no way worried about what the powers-that-be, religious or political, might want to do to him.  “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says, as if calling the puppet governor of the Roman Empire a fox was something people could do in the first century.  But Jesus has no fear.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is totally in control of the situation.  “Go and tell that fox that I’m doing what I’ve been sent here to do.  I’m not going to hide in fear.  No threat is going to keep me from the mission that God has for me.  Today and tomorrow, I’ll be busy healing the sick and casting out demons.  On the third day,” an obvious reference to his death and resurrection, “I’ll finish my work.”

It isn’t that Jesus was ignorant to the fact that his life and ministry would lead to his death.  He was quite aware that those who upset the way things have always been have always been mistreated, abused, and ultimately killed, whether it is in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Memphis.  It is just that Jesus knows that no matter how ready the Pharisees might be to get Jesus out of their hair or how anxious Herod might be about Jesus’ increasing popularity, this ministry is working on God’s time and to God’s good and perfect end – the gathering all of the faithful under God’s gracious and loving wings.  No matter how much Herod might believe that Jesus was out for political power and no matter how much Jesus’ own disciples might wish for that too, what God had planned to do through the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t to recreate the power structures of this world, but to replace them with structures of compassion, grace, and love.  Jesus is in full control of his message, his medium, and the timing such that in the end, even when it looks like any number of other powers and principalities had brought him to the cross, we can say with full confidence that it was Jesus who stretched out his own arms upon the cross, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

It is increasingly difficult in this world of the 24-hour news cycle to remember who is really in control of things.  Fear mongers make millions of dollars a day selling advertising on news channels that would have us believe any number of lies and half-truths.  We are enticed to buy this makeup, drink this beer, drive this car, and use this phone to be happy and healthy.  We are tricked into believing that our value is based only on what others can get from us.  It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the threat of Herod reminds us, however, that outside powers have been trying to rule by fear for thousands of years.  Jesus tells us that these perceived threats, even to our very way of living and our own lives, are hollow compared to the power of God and God’s dream to restore all of creation to right relationship.  Jesus will spend six more chapters walking toward Jerusalem and certain death.  Along the way, he will restore all kinds of people into community by offering them wholeness and peace.  Even now, Jesus is here offering us the peace that passes all understanding, peace that is more powerful than any fear the world can create. Our Lenten journey reminds us that Jesus stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone, even you and me, might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  Amen.