Friday is Good, all on its own

For many years, I’ve loved a story told by theologian Tony Campolo.  It takes place in his church, during a revival where preachers from several local congregations were invited to speak.  While the goal was always to bring people closer to Jesus, secondarily, each preacher hoped to out preach the rest.  Tony remembers that he was on his game that particular morning, and when he sat down, he looked over at the preacher sitting next to him and whispered, “good luck.”  His counterpart simply responded, “Son, sit back.  The old man is going to do you in.”  For the next half hour, that preacher did him in with basically one line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

       For many years, I’ve loved this idea of “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” but after thirteen months of Lent, I’m beginning to understand that what makes this Friday Good really has nothing to do with what will happen on Sunday morning.  Instead, Good Friday, I believe, is good all on its own.  It would be good even if Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead on Easter morning.  Holy Saturday and Easter Day are good on their own merit as well, but this Friday is Good because of what Jesus Christ did on that Friday two thousand some-odd years ago.  This Friday is Good because of the prophetic words Jesus spoke from the cross as he gave up his spirit.

       In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are, “It is finished.”  What Jesus came to earth to do wasn’t almost done through his death on the cross, but it was finished, accomplished, complete.  Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation was made complete through his entering fully into the suffering of humankind.  As we’ve heard several times during this Lenten Season, Christ was lifted up to glory, not upon a throne, but upon the Cross.  Through what theologians call Christus Victor, Jesus’ death is the moment of God’s victory over sin and death.  By way of an act of divine love, God entered fully into the bondage of death and turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, liberating all of humanity from the fear of death in order to live lives marked by the Way of Love.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that Christ took away the sting of death forever.

Alternatively, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 for his last words.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  These seem like words that are as far from good as one can imagine.  Jesus, whom we believe to be God, feeling forsaken by God is very, very, not good.  Yet, even these pain-wracked words of Jesus can be seen as good if we understand that part of what God came to do in the Incarnation was to fully enter into and redeem the human experience.  All of us, at some time in our lives, will feel separated from God.  Whether it is bound in grief, fear, or doubt, at some point, each of us knows the deep feeling of lostness when God feels far away.  In Jesus’ final act in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity temporarily relinquished godship in the ultimate act of solidarity with humanity.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that God experienced and redeemed godforsakenness.

It is Friday, and Sunday is coming.  It’s Friday after thirteen months of deprivation, anxiety, and separation, and Sunday is coming.  Sunday will be Good, but this Friday doesn’t need Sunday in order to be Good all on its own.  Jesus Christ died that we might have life, that the sting of death might not have victory over us, that we might know that even God experienced what it means to feel separated from God’s unending love.  It is Friday, and it is Good.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

       Over the past year, I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls, text messages, and emails asking, wondering, and sometimes even pleading for in-person church to restart.  I’ve felt each one of those encounters.  I’ve carried them with me every day since this pandemic began because I know these requests weren’t being made out of selfishness or the thought that this virus isn’t a real threat.  To a person, each one who reached out, and I’m sure all of you who didn’t, wanted to be back in church because, like the Greeks in our Gospel lesson this morning, you want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus in the face of our friends.  We want to see Jesus in the beauty of our sacred space.  We want to see Jesus in the Eucharist.  Part of what has made this year so difficult for all of us has been how disconnected we’ve felt, not just from one another, but at times, even from Christ Jesus.

       Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus’ last public teaching before his death.  It is the Passover Feast, and pilgrims from all over have come to Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews from across the Diaspora came to offer sacrifices, say prayers, and give thanks for God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish converts came as well, eager to say their prayers and to engage in the rituals of their newfound faith.  Of course, there were tourists in town too; interested onlookers who wondered what it was all about.  We don’t know if these Greeks were converts or tourists, but nevertheless, they wanted to see Jesus.  They’d no doubt heard about him.  Whether it was because he had raised Lazarus from the dead a week earlier or some other miracle, it seems news of the faith-healing Rabbi had spread far and wide.

       As Jesus is wont to do, he doesn’t seem to directly give anybody what they want.  Instead of heading over to take a selfie with the Greeks who came to see him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples, the Greeks, and anyone who would listen that his death was imminent and that his death would be the first seed of many that would produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus took the chance to remind those who would seek to follow him that discipleship means a life of sacrificial love.  As Deacon Kellie told us last week, in John’s Gospel, Jesus being lifted up wasn’t high on a throne of glory, but upon a cross, where his death would be the beginning of eternal life for the whole world.  If we are to follow Jesus, we must learn to see him in his fullness – in his ministry of teaching and healing, in his being lifted up on the cross, in his rising again at the Resurrection, and in his ascending into heaven.  In this final public discourse and in the private farewell discourse that was just for his disciples; Jesus sought to prepare all who would follow him for what life would look like when he was gone; when, one day, it would be impossible to see Jesus, face to face.

Not being able to come to church has us all longing to see Jesus, but on the other side of that coin, I think, are the many ways we’ve seen the face of Christ in the world around us.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, over the last year, we’ve seen Jesus in the many sacrifices we’ve made to keep our neighbors safe.  I see Christ in every pair of smiling eyes peeking over a mask covered face at the grocery store.  I see Jesus in the phone calls, text messages, and emails of encouragement and support.  I’ve seen Jesus in teachers caring for their students, students navigating NTI snow days, and on every one of the hundreds of Zoom meetings I’ve attended this year.

In teaching those Greeks that discipleship means sacrifice, Jesus affirms for all of us that what we’ve done over the last year is important.  In every sacrifice we’ve made in the name of the greater good, we’ve placed another piece of beautifully dyed thread into the gorgeous tapestry God is weaving into the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  As we think about how we will begin to return to some of the familiar practices of past, we would do well to remember that call to sacrificial love.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t going to be anywhere near normal.  Even as we come back into the Nave for Sunday worship, you might not be able to sit in “your pew.”  The space will look, feel, and sound different.  The season of sacrifice isn’t over just because we’ve announced a return to Church in the Pews beginning on April 11.  Instead, as I think we’re all experiencing, each time I do something I used to do pre-pandemic, I’m keenly aware of how different it is.  Going to a restaurant, waiting in my car for a table, seeing half the place empty, and my server wearing a mask is different.  Getting my temperature taken at the door of my doctor’s office and trying to fill out paperwork through fogged up glasses is different.  Helping Lainey find her mask before we head out to school each morning is different.  For me, the starkness of our year-long sacrifice is more apparent in the way things are different now than in the things that still aren’t happening.  As excited as I am to see folks back in these pews, I know that it’ll hurt to not give hugs and handshakes, to see you behind masks, and to not share a blueberry donut after the 10 o’clock service.  Those things will come, in time, I’m sure, but it’ll be helpful to remember that Jesus is present in every physically distanced wave, every masked smile, and, yes, even in every donut not eaten.

We want to see Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, even in our disconnection, Jesus has still been present among us.  The key is to look.  With God’s help, we can have our eyes opened to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  With God’s help, we can fix our hearts on true joy in a world of swift and varied changes.  With God’s help, the sacrifices we have made and will continue to make over the coming months will be the opportunity to shine the light of Christ into the world so that others might come to see Jesus for themselves.  To see Christ, we must follow Christ in a life of sacrificial love.  To see Christ, we must serve Christ in everyone we meet.  To see Christ, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  We wish to see Jesus, O God, open our eyes that we might see.  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.

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.

The Power of Lazarus – Monday in Holy Week

There are any number of reasons why the religious powers-that-be wanted, and felt they needed, to get rid of Jesus.  He was preaching an apocalyptic message that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Given the political pressure cooker that was Roman occupied Jerusalem during the Passover Festival at the start of the Common Era, the Pharisees were certainly not thrilled to have an apocalyptic messianic figure roaming around town.  He was challenging the status quo by healing on the sabbath, preaching a stringent ethic, and suggesting the Temple system was corrupt.  Nobody likes having their authority questioned, no least, religious leaders.  Perhaps most importantly, Jesus was drawing huge crowds – larger even than John the Baptist had – and popularity is a dangerous thing.

John tells us that despite all of these yellow flags, it wasn’t until a fateful day in Bethany that the Pharisees ultimately decided that Jesus had to go.  Lazarus, who had been dead four days, was brought back to life.  Not with laying on of hands or even really through prayer, but simply by way of three words, “Lazarus, come out.”  As a result of this miracle, many put their faith in Jesus.  Suddenly, all the yellow flags became red.  In their distress, the Pharisees exclaimed, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

Thus was the power of Lazarus’ healing, which is why it is so important that in John, Holy Week begins at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary.  This family, with whom Jesus had a long and beloved relationship, which had likely bank rolled much of his ministry, and which was often home base during his trips to Jerusalem, was so powerful that the raising of Lazarus from the dead couldn’t be explained away like Jesus’ other life-giving miracles.  No, this one was different.  This one required the death of not just Jesus, but of Lazarus [again], as well.

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It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead that makes Mary’s anointing of Jesus so powerful.  All of the love that had been shared between Jesus and this family was poured out in 300 denarii worth of pure nard.  )If you’ve ever smelled spike nard, you’ll know that its aroma is strong, and not very pleasant to the modern olfactory senses, so that I feel comfortable saying the following.)  Not only that, but all the fear, misunderstanding, and anger that existed between the Pharisees and Jesus was poured out as well.

The Gospel lesson for today ends with these ominous words, “So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”  By way of Lazarus’ resurrection, the tide had turned.  There was no going back to Jesus being a small-time Rabbi from a sleepy little fishing village.  He was the it thing – and it was out of fear of his popularity that the final plans went into motion.

Choosing to Walk the Way of the Cross

Our website is mad at us, so today’s sermon can’t be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.


There is a bumper sticker on my car that pokes fun at those 26.2 marathon stickers.  It reads “0.0, I don’t run.”  That sticker used to be true.  It is still true that I don’t like running, but because of some behind-the-scenes-finagling by my wife, I now run for thirty minutes a few days a week with my friend Tony Smith.  Running is a choice that I have to make.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when my alarm goes off at 5am, I have to choose to get out of bed.  Having an accountability partner helps me make that choice.  I don’t want to let Tony down.  I don’t want him to have to run in the cold all by himself.  So, I choose to get out of bed, get bundled up, and go.  On any given day, it would be so much easier just to stay in bed, but in the long term, choosing to run is the better choice.

Running is good for my physical health, and so, by choosing to engage in the practice of jogging, I am making strides toward a better me.  The same is true for the life of faith as well.  We have to choose to engage in the practices of Christian formation.  We choose to get up on Sunday and come to church.  We choose to open a two-thousand-year-old book and try to understand it.  We choose to take time to pray.  We choose to take part in works of service for the betterment of our neighbor.  The motivation, more often than not, doesn’t come from within, but depends on accountability partners with whom we commit to take part in these practices that will help us grow in our relationship with God.  At any given moment, it might seem easier to skip saying grace or to sleep in on Sunday morning or to not bother with the Bible, but in the long run, choosing an active faith is the better choice.

As we heard in both the Gospel at the Liturgy of the Palms and in the Passion Gospel, during the final week of Jesus’ life, he had several opportunities to choose a different, seemingly easier path.  As the week began, the crowd was whipped up into a frenzy.  With shouts of “hosanna,” they threw down palm branches as a symbol of their honor and respect for Jesus and they proclaimed their hope that he might be the long-awaited King who would come to overthrow their Roman oppressors and restore the throne of David.  In that moment, Jesus had a choice to make.  It would have been easy to pull together a rag-tag army that, alongside his ability to perform miracles and raise the dead, could have easily marched into the heart of the city and thrown Pilate and his soldiers out on their tails.  With one, short sermon, he could have stirred the crowd into an emotional whirlwind and sent an angry mob to ransack the court of the Pharisees, stripping them of their religious power and authority.  At that moment, it might have seemed like using the might of his arm was the easier option, but in the long run, Jesus chose the better course.  It wasn’t that Jesus wasn’t tempted.  Mark tells us that he entered the Temple and took a good long look at all his options, but thankfully, he chose to return to Bethany and retire for the evening.

Our second Gospel lesson for today opens a few days of intense debate with the religious powers-that-be later.  As the final days of Holy Week unfold before our eyes, we see Jesus making almost constant choices to walk toward the cross, toward his death, toward our redemption.  Still basking in the royal parade from a few days earlier, Jesus had a choice to make in the house of Simon the leper.  Kings were anointed at their coronation.  As the crowd grumbled about the woman’s wasteful gift, Jesus could have affirmed his kingship and unleashed the revolution, but instead, he chose to see it as a precursor of his death that would usher in the good news of God’s salvation.

Again and again, Jesus made the choice to walk toward the cross.  On the night before he died, Jesus and his disciples made their way to a garden called Gethsemane.  There, he prayed that he might be able to choose a different path.  “Abba, Father, take this cup from me; yet, not what is my will, but yours.”  As Judas and a crowd of thugs approached and the crowds begin to scatter, Jesus didn’t shy away from what was coming.  Despite his prayer moments earlier, he chose to walk toward the mob and offer himself for arrest.   When the Council couldn’t find two stories that match, Jesus could have chosen to continue to remain silent, but in the end, it was his own confession of “I am,” that sealed his fate.  As Pilate peppered him with questions, Jesus could have chosen any number of ways to get out of the situation he was in, but he chose to remain silent, much to Pilate’s amazement.  Even on the cross, Jesus had a choice.  As the crowds mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe,” Jesus could have come down from the cross and walked away unscathed, but instead he chose to stay there, to suffer, and to die.  There were dozens of opportunities for him to choose an easier path, but again and again, Jesus chose to walk the way of the cross.

As Holy Week begins for us, we too have to choose.  We can leave this place, having heard the Passion Gospel, comfortable that we’ve experienced all we need to in preparation for Easter.  We could, very easily, sit comfortably amidst another busy week and not engage in the work of spiritual disciple and formation.  But that is not what we prayed for today.  Instead, our prayer for this Palm Sunday is that God might grant us grace to walk the way of the cross with Jesus.  Ultimately, it is a choice that each of us will have to make.  Each day, about noon, we will have to decide if we want to give up our lunch hour to hear the story of Jesus’ walk toward the cross.  On Thursday, each of us will have to decide if we want to engage in the uncomfortable practice of foot washing, our annual reminder that Jesus’ commandment to love one another requires us to get up and do something.  Several of you will make the choice to lose a few hours of sleep, keeping watch in the chapel and giving thanks for the choice that Jesus made on our behalf.  This is a week all about making choices for an active, engaged faith.  It may seem like the easier option is to just stay home, but in the long run, as we choose to walk the way of the cross together, we will be blessed to find it none other than the way of life and of peace.  Amen.

By what authority?

For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew.  Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week.  In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.

Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week.  Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse.  On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”

The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?”  In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?”  I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before.  Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection.  I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.

authority-link-buuilding

My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well.  After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers.  The leaders are indignant.  How could this rabble-rouser still have followability?  Who gave him such authority?  One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.

We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following.  By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection.  Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is.  In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us.  Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”

It is finished…

One of my spiritual disciplines during Holy Week each year is to read John’s Passion narrative out loud at least once.  There is something about reading a text out loud that makes it real in a way that isn’t possible when it just rattles around in your head.  As I prepare for that reading, I take time to slowly and carefully study the text, looking for words or phrases that might be taking on new meaning this year; words or phrases that might need special attention.  This year, that phrase was “It is finished.”  While meditating on those words, I began to see them as a crystal, that as I turned, took on vastly different characteristics.  I began to see how, depending on where one stood in proximity to the cross, the words, “It is finished,” took on very different meanings.

For the soldiers who crucified Jesus, “it is finished” meant their day’s work was nearly over.  Surely, it hadn’t been an easy day, but it was work.  They had crucified thousands in a day before, so today wasn’t all that bad.  Still, this day was a little crazier than most.  The crowds were larger.  The angst seemed greater.  It all revolved around this guy in the middle, who had “the King of the Jews” on a sign nailed above his head.  They probably hadn’t killed a king before, but he couldn’t possibly be that anyway.  Nah, surely, he was just another in the long line of Messiah figures who had met their inevitable doom.  “It is finished” meant that life would go on as normal tomorrow.

For the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees, “it is finished” meant that yet again victory was theirs.  Jesus had been meddling in their affairs for entirely too long.  His following had grown way too large.  His teaching had challenged them to the core, and as a result, they had to get rid of him.  He was a Messiah figure.  They had seen plenty of them before, and they knew how to handle them.  Still, this Jesus character was a little different.  He spoke with such conviction.  He taught with such authority.  Even some in their midst had started to wonder if Jesus was who he said he was.  Now, their anxiety could ease.  Jesus was dead.  The only thing left to worry about was if his disciples would try to steal his body and fake his resurrection.  They had one last task: to make sure the tomb was guarded.  They hoped “it is finished” was actually true.

For the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by a week of confrontation between Jesus and the powers-that-be, “it is finished” meant it was time to make their way to the Passover Feast.  Some of them had toyed with the idea of following Jesus.  Others might have listened to his teaching for a while.  A few might have even been healed by him.  Like it did every year, the Passover week brought with it expectation and hope.  Sure, it would have been nice if Jesus had really been the Messiah, but they’d been burned too many times to really care.  Was the next Moses going to rise up and save them from the oppressive rule of Caesar?  “It is finished” meant the answer was no, not this year.

For John, James, Peter, and the rest of the disciples, most of whom had long since fled in fear, “it is finished” were words of frustration.  For three years, they had given their life to this man.  For three years, they had put their hope in him.  For three years, they had followed him around the countryside, studied at his feet, and watched in awe as he performed miracle after miracle.  For three years, they had expected that Jesus was going to bring them to Jerusalem, not to die on a cross, but to restore the hope of all Israel, and today, after all that anticipation, their hopes were frustrated when he didn’t come down from the cross, he didn’t stand up for himself before Pilate, and he didn’t call his followers to fight.  Instead, he willfully handed himself over to death.  “It is finished” meant that everything they had thought was true for the last three years was ultimately a lie.

For Mary, standing near her son, having endured the trauma of that dreadful day, “it is finished” were words of hopelessness.  Her son, her first born, her beloved child had been wrongfully convicted, hastily executed, and now hung lifeless on a cross between two common criminals.  These words were the culmination of a prophecy some thirty-three years earlier.  When Jesus was just eight days old, the devout and righteous Simeon blessed the child and his parents, but warned Mary, that one day a sword would pierce her own heart.  Today, it came to be.  “It is finished” meant that her heart was not just pierced, but cut in two by the sharp knife of hate, violence, and misunderstanding.

For Jesus, however, “it is finished” came with an ellipsis.  The physical suffering was indeed over, but his work had just really begun.  Over the next three days, hell was to be vanquished and the power of death would come to an end.  “It is finished” is a cry of victory, a statement of mission, and a call to action.  It is finished, but it is not over.[1]  Amen.

[1] I struggled with this sentence for quite a while and am grateful to Stanley Hauerwas for his article on ChristianityToday.com  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/marchweb-only/42.0c.html