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.

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The Power of a Direct Antecedent

Studying homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary in the early aughts was a distinct challenge.  As middlers, we were required to take three-quarters of a year of homiletics, split between a semester with one professor and a third quarter class with another.  At that time, the two different professors were nearly diametrically opposed in their understanding of the task of preaching.  One was focused on argument and rhetoric, giving a list of preaching rules which shall not be violated and assigning a book suggesting a hard and fast way to organize a sermon.  The other was interested in the art of preaching, focusing on presentation and at times, bordering on theatrical.  The preaching gods smiled upon my type-a personality, and gave me a semester with the former.  I can’t say I remember all the rules, and I certainly don’t organize my sermon in “Four Pages,” but I am keenly aware of the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel’s deep dislike of pronouns.  If there wasn’t a direct and very obvious antecedent, you had better just repeat the noun because “this” and “that” just weren’t going to cut it.

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I wish Paul had taken a class from Judith McDaniel because, like Meatloaf in his classic rock anthem “I would do anything for love,” Paul was pretty bad at having a direct antecedent for every pronoun.  Couple that with a real hack job by the RCL, and we have a lesson from the Philippians on Sunday that ends with a powerful line that makes little, if any, real sense.  Paul completes his thoughts on the goal of discipleship with these words “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”  To which, many who hear the lesson read and don’t know the larger framework of Philippians will ask “in what way?”

If we take into account the whole section from 3:12 to 4:1, which would make sense and one has to wonder why the RCL decided to skip the first six verses, then we find two occurrences of the same word I wrote about on Mondayteleios, to be made perfect.  The goal, the “in this way,” then is striving after God’s will for our lives, the perfection of our creation, which, if we go back just few verses further, is summed up in 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  The teleios of the Christian life, at least according to Paul in his letter to the Philippians, is to share in Christ’s suffering so that we might share in his resurrection.  It is taking up our cross by choosing to care for the poor, the lost, and the hopeless more than we care about our own comforts and desires.  In so doing, by standing firm and living lives of agape love, we share in the resurrection of Jesus in the joy of abundant life and the peace that passes all understanding not in some far off time and place after we die, but right here and right now as the Kingdom comes to earth.

When the version makes a difference

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Aside from those who worship in King James only churches, the vast majority of Christians choose their Bibles based on no real preference other than maybe taste, ease of reading, and price point.  I have, from time to time, had parishioners who wished to buy a Bible as a gift ask me for my suggestions, and my choices are based on similar criteria, with the addition that I will always choose a translation over a paraphrase, ex. the Contemporary English Version is far superior for Biblical study to the Message.  The reality is that it doesn’t much matter which Bible you choose to read, so long as you are actually reading your Bible.

Note that I said “it doesn’t much matter.”  This morning, I found a case in which it might matter as our congregations listen to and we preach from Luke 13:31-35.  Towards the end of Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem, he speaks these words, which I found intriguing, “See, your house is left to you.”  I went in search on commentary on that text, assuming that Jesus was borrowing from an Old Testament source or maybe Luke had inserted a common Greek saying, but it seems nobody cares much about that phrase, except that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, a word was removed from it.  The Revised Standard Version, predecessor to the NRSV which is common in Episcopal congregations, reads “Behold, your house is forsaken.”

There seems to be a considerable difference between “Your house is left to you” and “Your house is forsaken” or as other translations like the King James Version read, “Your house is left desolate.”  Digging into the Greek, the 1968 Interlinear of the RSV does not include eremos, the Greek word for “desolation,” and yet the English translation does.  In Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., he notes that “The Committee judged that the presence of eremos in [several Greek manuscripts] is the result of assimilation to the text of Jeremiah* 22.5 or to the prevailing text of Matthew 23.28; its absence is strongly supported by [several other Greek manuscripts].” (pg 138).

This probably isn’t something the preacher would want to dive into from the pulpit, yet I find it an interesting example of those rare moments when the version we read really does make a difference.  In the NRSV, strongly supported by the Greek sources available from the second half of the 20th century, we find Jesus suggesting, in a very pre-destruction-of-the-temple-in-AD70 way, that God has left Jerusalem to its own devices; that if they want to find their way to the Kingdom, having rejected his long-standing invitation, they will have to do so on their own.  In most other texts authorized under Canon II.2, we find Jesus suggesting, in a very post-destruction-of-the-temple-in-AD70 way that because of their infidelity, Jerusalem has once again been laid waste.  Their desolation is the result of their rejection of Jesus and they are in many ways standing in exile yet again.

What version you read this Sunday might make a difference in your preaching, dear reader.  I hope you’ll do your homework, consider your sources, and proclaim the Good News of God’s love not matter which translation you choose.


 

*Thank you to  the Rev. Robert Black for helping me navigate the intricacies of the abbreviation system in the UBS Greek New Testament

 

On the third day

One of the most powerful words in the Greek New Testament is teleios.  Often translated as “finished” in the NRSV, this word carries a much deeper meaning than having completed a meal or turned in a paper.  In his commentary on Philippians, William Barclay describes teleios as having “a variety of interrelated meanings.  In the vast majority of them, it signifies not what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose.”  Teleios, then, is God’s will for each of us in our lives.  Generically, for all Christians the teleios is is to love God and love neighbor, but each of us has a particular way in which that will be lived out depending on where we are in the course of our lives.

This word is important because it serves as the centerpiece of a theological double entendre from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel lesson for Lent 2C.  We’ve skipped ahead from the Temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry to a post-Transfiguration encounter en route to Jerusalem.  Herod, still fearful that Jesus might be the second coming of John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, has decided that things would be a whole lot easier if Jesus was dead too.  Some Pharisees, sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, offer him warning and counsel that he should stay clear of the area surrounding Jerusalem.  Jesus will not be dissuaded, however, and he responds with a harsh word of Herod and a deep theological truth for those with ears to hear.

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work (teleios).'”

Other translations render this as “reach my goal” (NIV), “accomplish my purpose” (NLT), and “I shall be perfected” (KJV).  In these versions, the theological double meaning is much clearer to to the modern reader who knows the larger story.  For Jesus’ disciples, who have already heard him predict his death and resurrection twice, the meaning should be clear, but they don’t seem to get it as even on that third day, when their resurrected Lord enters a locked room, even in their joy, they are disbelieving and still wondering.  We get the reference to the third day, and, with a little help that the NRSV doesn’t really give us, we can come to understand that Jesus is certain that he will be allowed to fulfill his purpose in due time.  There is no reason to fear Herod in this moment because the time and the place are all wrong.  Jesus’ work will be perfected only on the Feast of the Passover and only in the city of Jerusalem.