God’s Kind of King

April 13, 2014 1 comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Palm/Passion Sunday, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 12.12-28; Jn 19.14-22

Today is ironic. It’s meant to be ironic. Today began with the shouts of jubilant crowds, welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as they waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”—which means, “Lord, save us!” They rejoiced because when they saw Jesus, they saw Jesus the miracle worker who fed the 5000 on the lakeshore, who raised Lazarus from the dead. They saw Jesus the revolutionary, come to confront the religious leaders who were trying to kill him. They saw Jesus the king, the one who would finally liberate them from the Romans and inaugurate God’s reign on earth. It’s ironic because even as we join in their celebration, we know that when Jesus entered that city, he was not the messiah they expected. He came to Jerusalem not to work miracles or thwart Pharisees or defeat armies, but to die.

When it became clear that he was going to do none of these things, the crowds deserted him, even turned on him. The shouts of “Hosanna” on Sunday became shouts of “Crucify” on Friday. Jesus let all those people down, because he wasn’t there to fulfill their expectations of him, but God’s; and that expectation led him to the cross. And when he was at his lowest and looked least like a king, who was it that dressed him in a robe and crowned him and hailed him as “King of the Jews?” Not his own people, but the Romans.

Even knowing all this, we still proclaim Jesus our king. We welcome him today with the same palm branches, those same shouts of “Lord, save us!” But do we really know what that means? Are we really ready to declare Jesus our king? If we do, then we must follow where he leads.

This is perhaps the most important reason why we celebrate this day. Like those crowds outside Jerusalem, we too have expectations of Jesus. I know from talking to all of you that what we want and hope for this place is a return to the glory we once knew. We expect to see a sanctuary filled with people, a Sunday School as bright and bustling as it used to be. We expect people to come here and to give their time and money because it’s what they ought to do. We want our children to come and be acolytes and line up in white gowns for confirmation because that’s the way it should be done. We hope to see a day again when we can have two pastors of our very own who will both be up here every week leading worship. And so, we too shout, “Lord, save us!” Save us from irrelevance, save us from being forgotten, save us from a slow death.

But if this is what we are waiting for, we are going to be disappointed just like those crowds. We too will be disgusted with a Jesus who doesn’t seem to care about us at all, or who seems powerless to do anything at all to help us. We too will turn on him, we too may even call out “Crucify!”

Jesus doesn’t come to fit our idea of what a messiah should be. He doesn’t come to save us from death, but rather to lead us to it, because that is the kind of king God knows we need. Jesus came willingly to Jerusalem and allowed himself to be betrayed, arrested, tried and put to death because that was what he knew had to be done. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” he tells us. “No one takes it from me,” not Judas, not the chief priests or Pharisees, not the Romans, “but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10.17-18) This is where our king is leading us; do you still want to follow?

Even now, the Church is dying. Congregations are shrinking as more and more people leave out of distrust for organized religion. This congregation is dying, too. There will come a day when we will no longer exist as Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church. We will merge with Trinity, or with Pilgrim, or with First E-Free. This building will be sold off or torn down or simply abandoned, along with all the churches in town. Our congregations, even our denominations may cease to exist. On that day, all the things over which we fight so hard and on which expend so much energy will seem very distant indeed.

This is the path down which Christ leads us. It is into this death that we have been baptized. When we follow him, we are always walking towards the cross.  However, even as we walk down this path, we remember that it was for us that Jesus laid down his life. It was for us that he faced the humiliation and pain of the cross, and it is for us that he leads us down the same path.

I absolutely believe that there will come a day when the Church as we know it will cease to exist. I also believe that on that day, the remnant of the faithful will remember what it is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what it means to be claimed as God’s children apart from all the magnificent buildings and congregational programs and sacred music.

As Jesus entered the city that day, he knew that he had to die. All the expectations, all the hopes, all the dreams that those people placed on him were keeping them from seeing what God was really up to. It would not be until they gave up hope for miracles, for food, for revolution or for freedom that they would be able to understand that God had something even better in mind. And so, he went to the cross so that all those expectations and hopes and dreams could be crucified with him. He died for us to show us how it’s done.

Like our king, we also need to die to ourselves. We hear that a lot, but if we are going follow this Christ, we need to take it seriously and understand what it means. If we are ever to figure out where God is calling us, if we are ever to become the kind of congregation in the kind of Church that God is calling us to be, we have allow all those dreams of our own glory, our own power, our own safety, even our own survival to die with Jesus. He brings us to the cross so that we can die with him. He brings us to the cross to save us.

If there is no death, there can be no resurrection. In order for the Church to rise up and become the Church God intends us to be, we must first die. We must give up all hope that we will ever be the biggest and best congregation in all of Benson; we must let go of the idea that we deserve our own building; we must put to death those memories of our past greatness.

Jesus our king leads us to the cross for our own good. Unless we first die to ourselves, unless all those hangups and expectations and rose-colored memories die with us, we will fade away into irrelevance; like a single grain of wheat, we will remain alone. But when we die, when all those distractions are laid to rest, then, like a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, we will bear fruit. Then we will become a servant church, a church that doesn’t exist to serve its own needs and desires, but instead serves the community around us and makes God’s world a better place by our presence.

The Church as we know it be gone, but there will remain is faith in God’s goodness; there will remain the ongoing story of Jesus’ love. Those things, and those things alone—not our traditions, nor our expectations, nor anything of ours—will raise up for God a new Church, a resurrected Church, a servant Church that will love and proclaim Christ through to the end of time.

Today on Palm Sunday, we hail our king as he enters into Jerusalem, knowing that his death is imminent.  We sing “Hosanna”— “Lord, save us!”— and Jesus does indeed come to save us, but not how we would expect. Jesus our king saves us by leading us to the cross to die.

 

Radioactive

April 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Lent 5, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 19.1-16a

Today the confirmation class led our worship service. This sermon was written and delivered by a confirmation student, based on the scripture reading and the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. I worked with him on pulling out some connecting themes and then put our thoughts together into this sermon. This is, by and large, his work; I merely put it together.

Today’s story is pretty dark. It tells about how badly Jesus’ own people wanted to kill him. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, wanted to set Jesus free, but chief priests wouldn’t let him. It seems Pilate didn’t have as much power as he thought he did.

This story made us think of the song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. We’ll play it now. Listen to the words of the song and pay attention to the images it creates in your minds.

 

 

I’m waking up to ash and dust
I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust
I’m breathing in the chemicals

I’m breaking in, shaping up,
then checking out on the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse
Whoa

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive

I raise my flags, don my clothes
It’s a revolution, I suppose
We’re painted red to fit right in
Whoa

I’m breaking in, shaping up,
then checking out on the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse
Whoa

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive

All systems go, the sun hasn’t died
Deep in my bones, straight from inside

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive

The words and the music of this song are dark, like our story today. The singer seems to be telling about how he is a prisoner to a bad choice he made, or something he did wrong. The first verse talks about ash and dust, chemicals and rust. It sounds like a very hard and painful life. He’s checking out on the prison bus, because this is it, the apocalypse.

But then, something else happens. He gets a new start, a new life. A new age is coming, he can feel it in his bones. This is what Jesus does for us: he cures us of the things that make us sick and guides us through tough times. Because of Jesus, hope is still alive, even when the world around us seems lost and hopeless.

The chief priests in the story made a bad choice. They chose to have Jesus crucified. They wanted to kill God’s son. When Jesus was put to death, it was like the end of the world—the apocalypse. Everything was over, God was dead.

In the song, the singer says that the apocalypse brings a new age. Jesus’ death was no different. Because of God’s love, we are not captive to the bad choices we make when we reject Jesus. Thanks to him, even when everything seems wrecked and ruined, “the sun isn’t dead.” Each new day brings a new chance.

Because Jesus lives, like the singer we can raise our flags and don our clothes and get ready for the revolution. God is changing things, and those changes start with us. We are radioactive for Jesus!

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age!

Exonerating Pilate

March 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Lent 4, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 18.28-40

Now that the high priest has finished questioning Jesus, he is sent to Pilate. Pilate is an interesting character in the bible, but not because of what he does. He’s interesting because of what he doesn’t do. Pilate was pretty infamous for being cruel. “His administration was characterized by corruption, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people, and continuous executions without even the form of a trial.” (from the Jewish Encyclopedia) Pilate cared little for the sanctity of Jewish religious practices. He displayed Roman idols and used money from the temple treasury for public works, things which nearly caused revolt. He also massacred a group of Samaritans who had assembled on Mt. Gerizim to dig for holy relics.

Jesus was presented to Pilate as a revolutionary, somebody attempting to start a revolt against the Roman occupation. Pilate was quick and merciless to put down any hit of insurrection; so why did such a cold and cruel Roman prefect try so hard to acquit Jesus? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe when the priests and Pharisees brought Jesus to Pilate, he ordered Jesus’ execution without batting an eye; we don’t know. What we do know is that all four of the gospel writers work very hard to convince us that Pilate is not the one who wanted Jesus dead. Jesus’ real enemy was not the foreign occupying army, but his own people.

John quotes Pilate as saying, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.” It is the Pharisees, the priests, the good, religious folks among Jesus’ own countrymen who worked so hard to get Jesus killed. Regardless of how willing or reluctant Pilate may have been to kill Jesus, the truth is that his death can’t be blamed on overzealous Romans or even on a particularly bloodthirsty governor. The blame for Jesus’ death lays squarely on his own people.

John calls these people “the Jews.” Of all the gospels, John comes across as the most hostile to the Jewish people. Throughout the gospel, Jesus’ main opponents are called “the Jews.” However, as we read John’s gospel, we must remember that Jesus and his disciples were also Jews. His followers were all Jews. John tells us that as Jesus preaches, many of “the Jews” came to believe in him. When John says that “the Jews” killed Jesus, we can’t simply place the blame on Jewish people, either then or now.

This is an important thing to remember. For centuries, during Holy Week, as Christians in their churches read the Passion narrative of Jesus’ death from the gospels, angry mobs would form that would burn Jewish homes and shops, beat Jews in the streets, and even kill them. Christian anger has persisted towards Jews throughout history as “the killers of Christ.”

I would like to think that this is a thing of the past, that we have since come to our senses and put away this tired hatred, but just last week, somebody said to me, “You know, every year about this time I can’t help but get a little angry at the Jews for killing Jesus.” Not only is this kind of thinking harmful and pointless, it is also wrong.

“Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me,” Pilate says. The people to whom Jesus was sent—God’s people—rejected him. As readers of the bible and people who profess faith in God, we must admit that we are God’s people; we are the ones who betray Christ. We tell this story over and over again not because it happened once, but because it happens every day.

Theologian Karl Rahner said, “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths and deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” We hear it all the time in the media. Christians are portrayed as ignorant, bigoted, closed-minded and hypocritical, because lots of us are. Of course, we are! We’re human! How could we be anything but? But what the world finds so hard to believe is that we adhere to the teachings of a man who calls us to rise above all that, and yet we do the same as everybody else. We talk about love and then hate homosexuals. We talk about justice, then oppress the poor. We talk about acceptance, and then discriminate against immigrants, whether they have the proper papers or not. Every day through our small-mindedness we crucify Christ.

That’s what this story is about today. Here you have the good, religious folks, the “Jews,” who are so anal about observing their rules that they won’t even enter Pilate’s house so they won’t be rendered “unclean.” What is ironic is that the whole reason they have come there to begin with is to seek a death sentence for Jesus—their hatred has already made them unclean, not whether or not they step into Pilate’s house.

The only people these Jews hate more than Jesus is the Romans; yet they are all too quick to go ask for the Roman’s help in getting Jesus sentenced to death. They preach against the heresies and abominations of the Romans constantly, but when they want something from them, they cozy right up to Pilate.

That’s exactly what the Christians did in the Middle Ages. They preached about loving ones’ neighbor as oneself and turning the other cheek, but then they would gather in murderous hordes to attack innocent Jews. Even today, we talk a good game about love and acceptance and mercy and gentleness, but when we get angry or feel threatened, we’re just as apt to use violence, dishonesty, gossip or shame to get what we want. We condemn the world for its injustice, but when the shoe’s on the other foot, we can play just as dirty.

Pilate and the Romans represent everything that’s wrong with the world: injustice, elitism, ruling through violence and fear, oppression… all the things we denounce. But think about how you react when somebody attacks you verbally or insults your character, when somebody makes you angry enough to want to get even, when somebody reneges on a promise or stabs you in the back. We may criticize the Roman’s, but we’re happy to play their game when it suits us.

After all, we’re only human. It’s in our nature. That’s how we’ve been treated, and its the way we’ve learned to treat one another. It’s the only model we have, save one. There is one other way of being that we have learned, one other response to the world’s evil. Many have practiced it—King, Ghandi, Parks, Chavez—but there is one source.

Jesus came to show us another way. He came to teach us that we need not fear attacks on our body or on our character, that whatever the world does to us is nothing when compared against the life and love that is ours through relationship with him. This is the real reason he died; not because he angered some religious authorities or was accused before some callous Roman governor. John makes it clear that Jesus died because he chose to, in order to prove to us that death is nothing to fear. What did he say to us on Ash Wednesday? “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18)

“No one takes it from me,” not Pilate, not “the Jews,” not injustice or a misunderstanding or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a hard example to follow, but what Jesus asks of us is to flock to him, listen to his voice. When we want to respond with anger or violence, when we want to hurt the one who hurt us, Jesus invites us to lay down our life, to respond instead with patience, love, kindness and peace. Whatever others may take from us—whether honor or happiness, wealth or property, or even our very life—there is so much more available in Christ.

Even if Pilate signed the warrant, he is not to blame for Jesus’ death. Neither are “the Jews.” It is our very own desire for control, power and vengeance that sentenced him to die; our prejudice, our fear, our mistrust that crucify him again day after day. Ultimately it was Jesus himself who chose to die, so that he could free us from those same desires.

We are always looking for somebody to blame, somebody to must pay for the wrong that’s been done. For Jesus’ death, we blame Pilate, or the “Jews,” or whoever, but Jesus came to free us from that. Thanks to him, we can quit looking for who is to blame, and start looking for who we can love.

When the Cock Crows

March 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Lent 3, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 18.12-27

This week as I sat down to study this story with several of my colleagues, one of the other pastors shared this story from his childhood in Japan where his father was a Lutheran missionary. Dan was in high school at the time, and he was riding the bus to school with a friend of his. On this particular day, Dan’s friend introduced him to another girl she knew. They both knew that Dan was the son of a missionary, and so this new girl, curious to know more about his faith, asked Dan, “Can you tell me about Jesus?”

How would you react in that situation? Would you be confident? Uncomfortable? Excited? Scared? Dan recalled that he became extremely uncomfortable. He had a strong faith, a deep relationship with God, but he told us how he became embarrassed and tense; he began to blush, and finally mumbled that he was not a good person to ask, that perhaps she should talk to his father.

Now, Dan knew as much as anybody about Jesus and the Christian faith. He had been raised in a religious household, and brought up in an environment that was intentionally centered around the idea of telling people who knew nothing of Jesus or the Christian Church about God’s saving grace; and yet he had no response when somebody asked him about this very thing. Would you have reacted differently in his shoes? Have you ever been asked by someone about your faith, why it is important to you, why you believe what you believe?

Peter was the disciple’s disciple. In all the gospels, he is the example of faithfulness. It was he who first confessed Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son. It was Peter who, as some would say, was chosen by Jesus to be the first Pope. If Peter had a fault, it was that he was a little too zealous for Jesus. He is the one who, at the transfiguration, suggests that they should build a three houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountaintop so they can stay there and he can bask in the glory of their presence. In the garden, John tells us, it is Peter who takes the sword and attacks the slave of the high priest in Jesus’ defense, cutting off his ear.

The story we read today is told in all four gospels, one of the few events all the gospel writers record. It is the story of how this same Peter—arrogant, self-confident, zealous Peter—denies his relationship with Jesus.

I began with Dan’s story today because when we consider Peter and his denials of Jesus, we often imagine what we would do in his place. Specifically, I think we often imagine what we would do if we were being threatened for our lives. There is a story that has become a kind of myth or legend in our society about a student at Columbine High School in Colorado. When the infamous massacre happened there in the late ‘90s, she was held at gunpoint by one of the shooters and asked if she was a Christian; and when she replied in the affirmative, the young man took her life. This is the sort of scenario we consider: if our lives were at stake, would we have the confidence to confess our faith?

In reality, Peter was probably not in any danger. John tells us that he was there with another disciple, a man known to the high priest. This other disciple got Peter into the courtyard. He was not arrested or interrogated, even though he was known to be a disciple of the man who was then being questioned by the authorities. Peter was not being interrogated by soldiers or priests, simply asked by some slaves, “Hey you’re not one of that guys disciples, too, are you?”

Earlier this week, I was with a group of people and we were using the FaithTalk cards from Vibrant Faith Ministries. These cards have questions on them to spur conversation. One of the group drew this question: “With whom do you have the most difficulty talking about your faith? Why?” He replied that it was most difficult for him to talk about his faith with a pastor, because he was afraid of sounding stupid and unsophisticated. Many of us, with a gun to our heads, might be able to confidently proclaim, “Yes, I am a disciple of Christ,” but what about when we are asked by a schoolgirl, “Can you tell me about Jesus?”

One thing that’s different between John’s account of this event and Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s is that in the other gospels, Peter is asked if he is “with” Jesus, if he is a Galilean like him. In other words, he is asked if he associates with Jesus, if he hangs out with him. But in John, Peter is asked if he is Jesus’ disciple, if his identity is defined by his relationship to Jesus.

Remember that this is the same Peter who confessed Jesus as the Messiah, who mustered the courage to speak on the mountaintop of the transfiguration, who refused to let Jesus humiliate himself by washing his feet, who pulled out his sword in the garden, ready to defend Jesus or die trying. Yet, when he was asked, “Are you this man’s disciple,” he responded, “I am not.”

I don’t necessarily think Peter was lying to save his skin. I don’t think he was trying hide who he was. I think that even though he followed Jesus all over Galilee and Judea, all the way from the garden to the courtyard, when he was faced with the question of who he truly was, maybe he had to finally admit that he was not person he thought he was. He realized he was not the kind of disciple that Jesus deserved.

It’s good for us to read this story during Lent for two reasons. The first is that Lent is a time for us to examine ourselves, to recognize that we are not as faithful, not as devoted, not as bright, not as committed as we would like to be—we are not the kind of disciples that Jesus deserves. Lent is a time for us to understand this about ourselves and admit it to God and to one another. Even though we remain faithful while the Church around us shrinks, even though we take pride in our church membership and attendance, we are sometimes ashamed to share our faith because we don’t believe we have enough of it.

And if even if we are not ashamed, even if we are comfortable sharing our faith and talking to others about what God has done in our lives, we are painfully aware that we do not always practice what we preach. We are just as likely to be selfish, short-sighted, mean and hypocritical as anybody else out there. Being Jesus’ disciple does not always mean that we have become better people through him, and so we still fall short of deserving the love that Jesus gives us.

The second reason it is good for us to read this story during Lent is that Lent is a time for us to remember and reflect upon our limits. A few weeks ago, we put ashes on our foreheads and remembered that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We will someday be gone; this congregation may someday be gone. We will do things that may hasten or slow those events, but in the end, we all pass away. God, on the other hand, does not.

Remember last week when we read John’s introduction to Jesus’ act of love? John writes, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I hinted last week at the double-meaning of that word “end;” it could mean to the end of Jesus’ life or the end of his time with them, but it could also be understood as the “utmost,” as in he loved them to the end of his ability, to the utmost of his strength and power—“he loved them for all he was worth.”

As is the case with all of John’s gospel, this story of Peter’s denials is not about Peter; it is about Jesus. While Peter is in the courtyard denying Jesus, Jesus is in the house denying nothing. While Peter is responding in pain and fear, Jesus responds with boldness and love. In the courtyard, Peter responds, “I am not,” but in the garden, Jesus responds with “I AM.”

This story reminds us that for all of our faithlessness, for all of our shame and fear and doubt and pettiness, Jesus loves us “to the end,” for all he’s worth. What’s important is not our faithlessness, but Jesus’ faithfulness. It is his love, his devotion, his steadfastness—not ours—that accomplish God’s will. Peter fails, but that’s unimportant because Jesus does not.

There is one more word of hope. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them what is about to happen: that he will be betrayed and must go where they cannot. Peter will have none of this and boldly states that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, and even lay down his life. You may remember that at this point, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him; today we learn that everything came about just as he said. However, Jesus also told Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”

Jesus saw Peter’s denial coming and called it. If he got that right, we trust that he is also right that Peter will follow later. It’s Jesus’ reliability—his faithfulness—that is the good news here. Though he may not be able to count on Peter (or us), we can always count on him. Peter fails, and we fail, but that’s unimportant, because Jesus does not. Even if we can’t muster the courage to tell about his faithfulness to us, that faithfulness will remain.

To Wash a Foot

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Lent 2, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 13:1-17

The hour has finally come. Normally, we hear this text on Maundy Thursday, but like I said last week, during Lent we will be journeying with Jesus to the cross. Our journey started last week with the 7th and final sign of Jesus’ ministry: the raising of Lazarus. If you remember way back to Jesus’ first sign—changing the water into wine at the wedding in Cana—Jesus’ mother asked him to help out the host of the party, and Jesus replied, “My hour has not yet come,” meaning that it wasn’t yet time for him to reveal his glory. And yet, at that wedding, he changed water into wine. Now his hour has come.

Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus performed 6 other signs: healing the officials’ son, also in Cana; healing the lame man at the pool of Beth-Zatha; feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish; walking on water to his disciples in the boat; healing the man born blind; and bringing Lazarus back from the dead. Seven signs of the kingdom of God. All that, and his hour had not yet come. Now that the hour has come, we can bet we will see something greater than all these signs put together.

You may also remember a few weeks ago, when Jesus was making noise, preaching about living water at the feast of Tabernacles. Right before that story, John tells us that nobody tried to arrest Jesus while he preached because his hour had not yet come. (John 8.20) Now that his hour has come, he will be arrested; he knows this, and he also knows that he has come from God and is going to God.

After Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowd threw palm branches before him, he told his disciples that the hour was coming when he would be glorified. We know, though his disciples did not, that the hour of his glorification is the hour of his crucifixion. We also know that it was not his death that glorified him, but his love for us and his obedience to God. Now that his hour has come, we know that his death is just around the corner.

With all that in mind, knowing that his hour has come, what does Jesus choose to do? He strips down to his undershirt and washes his disciples’ feet. You may already know that footwashing is a lowly act of service, but you may not know how much. One free person never, ever washed the feet of another. When a host had guests over, the guests would wash their own feet. If the host wanted to show off his wealth or to deeply honor his guests, he would provide slaves to wash their feet. There are only three stories in the entire bible of free people washing the feet of another.

The first is from 1 Samuel (25:2-42). A man named Nabal insulted and angered David (soon to be King David), and David had vowed to destroy Nabal and his whole house. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, heard of this and immediately went out with a great gift to David and apologized for her husband, so David spared Nabal and his household. When Abigail told her husband what had happened and how close he had come to destruction, he fell sick and died. Afterwards, David came to marry Abigail, and in her gratitude and love for David, both for saving her husband’s house and for acting with kindness towards her, she washed his feet.

The second story occurs just before today’s reading in John’s gospel, when Mary, overcome with love and gratitude to Jesus for bringing her brother Lazarus back to life, came out in the middle of a dinner celebration and washed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and her own tears, and dried them with her hair.

The final story is the one we read today.

Washing another’s feet is a show of abject love and absolute devotion; it is a way of saying that there is no possible way you can love this person any less. It is also a sign of utter humility: there is nothing you will not do for this person. This is what Jesus does for his disciples when his hour arrives. At this point, it is important for us to remember for whom the Word of God made flesh is abasing himself.

In the room with him are 10 cowards, men who will flee at the first sign of danger. Then there is Peter, who will act plenty brave and brash, but who will ultimately deny three times that he even knows Jesus. Finally: Judas, a traitor, who is even now as Jesus’ washes his feet preparing to hand him over to his death.

It is for these men—cowards, liars, traitors—that he performs this incredible act of love and service. He truly loves them, as John says, “to the end;” both to the end of his life, but also to the utmost of his strength and ability.

What is happening here is more than a teacher washing his students’ feet. John reminds us again and again that now that Jesus’ hour has arrived, Judas is in the room for this. Jesus is the Word of God, and Judas is a pawn of Satan. What is happening in this room is nothing less than a show-down between the forces of good and evil. Judas represents the hatred, the violence, the death that awaits Jesus. And what does Jesus do?

He washes Judas’ feet. In the face of evil, Jesus does not react with force or violence, but with love and humility. The hatred of the Pharisees brings death for Jesus, but the love that Jesus shows brings life; and right now, in this moment, the love that Jesus shows outweighs the hatred of those who hired Judas to betray him: Jesus’ life outweighs Judas’ death. This event is foreshadowing what is to happen shortly on the cross.

Then, he tells his disciples (and us) to do the same. We (the servants) are not greater than the master (Jesus); so if this is not beneath him to love and serve even those who hate him, neither is it beneath us. But just what does this mean for us? Few if any of us will ever be asked to wash the feet of one who is about to hand us over to be arrested and killed. How do we ‘go and do likewise?’

We do this every day in small acts: by showing courtesy when we are impatient, by forgiving those who accidentally harm us, by offering kindness in return for insult. However, we are called to do more than this. When Jesus’ hour arrived, he didn’t just shake Judas’ hand and say, “No hard feelings.” He got down on his knees and washed his feet.

We, too, are called to love and serve our neighbors, even those we hate and fear, with all our being. Sometimes this means humbling ourselves and swallowing our pride to react with kindness when we would rather lash out with anger. Sometimes it means “making a scene” by demanding fair treatment for others who are being demeaned or oppressed. It always means following the example of Jesus to love all people. As the Church, it certainly means welcoming and caring for the sinners we would rather shun, people who “clearly” disregard the words of scripture.

When Jesus’ hour came, he did not act out of his own self interest, but acted out of love for his friends, even though they were all about to turn on him. When our hour comes, what will we do so that God may be glorified?

 

God’s Presence in Absence

March 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Lent 1, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 11.1-44

Did you notice that when Jesus first gets the message that Lazarus is ill, Lazarus’ name is not mentioned? He simply learns, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” I think that’s intentional. This story is about Martha and Mary and their plea for Jesus to help their brother Lazarus, but it’s a story that’s meant for us, as we plead with Jesus to help those about whom we care.

I’ve known far too many people in my life who have lost their faith when their prayers have gone unanswered. For them, too, when they have cried out, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill,” Jesus has tarried. He’s shown up too late. They are left thinking: “If God really loved me, if God really existed, then this wouldn’t have happened. Why would a loving God allow something like this to happen to me?”

And why shouldn’t they think that? After all, that is what we believe isn’t it? It’s what we tell one another and teach our children: that God loves you and will protect you from all harm. I do it as much as anyone; when kids come up for communion, as I hand them their grapes I often say something like, “Remember that Jesus will give you everything you need.” If you take those words at face value, what happens when they need something important, life-saving even, and don’t get it?

This is the thought on the sisters’ lips in Bethany. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If Jesus had been on the ball, if Jesus hadn’t been sleeping or playing solitaire, if Jesus hadn’t sat on his keister for two extra days across the Jordan when he received that message, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened. If Jesus really cared, he would have hustled over to Bethany and made Lazarus better. The words on Martha’s lips are a veiled accusation: “Lord, you did nothing, and now my brother is dead.” We read this story (or parts of it) a lot, but only ever at funerals. When we read it at funerals, all we really focus on is the fact that Martha has faith in the resurrection on the last day, and that Lazarus gets up and walks out of the tomb. At funerals, we want to be reminded that death is not the end, that we will be reunited again with our loved ones, just like Mary and Martha were reunited with Lazarus. This is an important take-away, but it’s only half the story.

When Martha meets Jesus outside of town and says these words to him, almost in the same breath, she expresses her trust that she will see her brother again at the resurrection on the last day. This is a given. This also does little to comfort her now. Sure, after she herself dies and lies waiting in the grave, in the long-distant future she’ll see her brother again when they are both brought back to life on the day of the Lord, but that doesn’t change the fact that on this day, he is dead and she is not, and that destroys her.

“I know that he will rise again at the resurrection,” Martha tells Jesus, but Jesus replies to her, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” Jesus takes Martha’s faith in the future and pulls it into the present. The resurrection that Jesus offers is as much for Martha and her sister as it is for Lazarus. To make his point and show what God is capable of, Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave, but we know that Mary and Martha and Lazarus all died eventually. Jesus is not saying that the resurrection was on that day, but that it is today. He himself is the resurrection; he himself gives new life, both to the living and the dead.

Jesus’ role in this story is not to make one dead person or legions of dead people live again; his purpose is to remind us that death is no more than a temporary inconvenience, like getting the flu or stubbing your toe. We see death as this great divider: it separates us from the people we love, it takes away something that we cannot get back. We look and we see these ones whom Jesus loves deprived in this way, and we wonder why God allows this to happen.

Jesus’ point is that death may separate us from one another, but it cannot separate us from God. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He’s not talking about the resurrection Martha is talking about, the one at the end of time when all the graves are opened; he’s talking about himself—through Jesus Christ, the dead and the living both are forever connected to God.

The difference this story makes is not to assure us that even after we die we will someday live again, but that even when we are surrounded by death—even when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death—the good shepherd is still with us. In Martha’s time, people believed that if bad things happened to them, it was because they had done something wrong and were being punished, or that God had abandoned them. Even now, with all our advancements in science and technology, when it comes to faith, we are in the same place. We still believe on some level that bad things are God’s way of punishing us, or testing us, or perhaps evidence that God doesn’t exist at all.

For Martha and for us, the presence of death in all its forms—illness, bad luck, hardship, doubt and all the rest—are proof of God’s absence. In Jesus, death is proof of God’s presence. At the end of this story, we learn that this act of raising Lazarus is the first step for Jesus on the road to Calvary. His disciples spoke truly when they said that if he returned to Judea that he would be killed; it just took longer than they imagined. This story and the journey that follows is proof to us that God is present even in the times of darkness and death—even at the tomb, even on the cross.

The ash we smeared on our foreheads on Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. It reminds us that we all die, but more than that, that bad things still happen to us, with no more or less frequency than before we came to know Christ. Sometimes very bad things will happen to us: we will lose people dear to us, the odds will seem stacked against us, we will feel pain we will be unsure if we can endure. And yet, those ashes on our foreheads form the shape of a cross, and they cover another cross that was there before them, inscribed on our foreheads at our baptism.

Those ashes, this story of Lazarus, the cross itself—they all remind us that there is nowhere we can go that Christ has not already been before. When we weep at the grave of a loved one, we remember that Jesus, too, has wept at the grave of one he loves. When we face our own death, we remember that Jesus has died, too.

Far from being absent in our pain, those times of darkness and death are where God is most strongly present with us. It doesn’t always mean that Jesus will be there calling a dead man from his tomb, but it does mean that even in death, even when we feel spent and abandoned, the God of the Universe is there with us, weeping, but with the power to bring us to new life, life that we would not be able to muster ourselves.

Flocking with the good shepherd doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen; it does mean that even the bad can show us God’s glory, if we know where to look. I think this is one of the most dangerous things about not being connected to a community of faith. When we are on our own, when the darkness gets too thick, we can lose our way, believe that God has abandoned us or that God simply never existed, and our faith melts away; but when we gather together, it’s a different story. Together as a congregation, we remind one another that when things are bad for me, they may not be for you. Together, we are able to hear the stories of resurrection in the midst of death. Together, we reveal Jesus to one another when we cannot see him for ourselves. Together, we follow the shepherd even when we cannot see him or even hear his voice.

And so we set forth on our journey today together, a journey which leads through the cross, through the tomb, but ultimately to Easter morning. We journey together so that we will not get lost along the way. We journey with ashes on our foreheads to remind us of the death that lies ahead, but also to remember the life that comes through Christ. We journey together secure in the knowledge that, come life or death, the journey continues, and Christ is with us still.

 

 

Shepherding

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Ash Wednesday, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 10.1-18

250px-Flock_of_sheep

Friday, July 8, 2005. Istanbul, Turkey.
First one sheep jumped to its death. Then, stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the heard to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1500 others followed, each jumping off the same cliff, Turkish media reported.
In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the Aksam reporter said. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned, Aksam reported.
“There’s nothing we can do. They’re all wasted, Nevzat Bayhan, a member of one of the 26 families whose sheep were grazing together in the herd, was quoted as saying by Aksam…
“Every family had an average of 20 sheep.” Aksam quoted another villager, Abdullah Hazar as saying. “But now only a few families have sheep left. It’s going to be a hard year for us.”

 

 

Let’s not kid ourselves: sheep are dumb. They are also smelly and vulnerable to predators. It’s not very flattering when we are compared to sheep. We like to think of ourselves as independent and strong. We don’t need anybody else to take care of us, we take care of ourselves. That is, after all, the American way.

Humans are, however, social creatures. We naturally band together in groups for safety and convenience; that’s the way it’s worked for tens of thousands of years. Like it or not, we are a lot more like sheep than we like to admit. We may fancy ourselves independent and self-reliant, but when it comes right down to it, we still need the company of other people, if only to make sure that we have access to the things we need to survive. We are sheep, and that is why a good shepherd is so important to us.

Recall that on Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. At the end of that story, some of the Pharisees asked Jesus, “We are not blind, are we?” to which Jesus responded: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” This speech about the sheep and the fold and the shepherd are the continuation of Jesus’ response to those Pharisees. Like that story on Sunday, this story is about the fundamental question raised at the beginning of chapter 9: Why is it that some people see and others do not?

Jesus is making the point here that whether or not we can see depends largely on who our shepherd is. Are we following those thieves and bandits he talked about? Or are we following the good shepherd? On the surface, it might be hard to tell, but Jesus reminds us that we can tell the shepherd by his voice, and Jesus voice speaks to us of love, of service, and of compassion.

Thieves and bandits are in it to serve themselves. They grasp at what is not theirs and clutch tightly what they have. They seek only to gain wealth or power, prestige or comfort. We can be sure we are following a thief or a bandit if we are being taught to put our own desires or needs ahead of others, if we are looking out only for ourselves.

The good shepherd, on the other hand, lays down his life for the sheep. We often understand “laying down one’s life” as dying, because that is what Jesus did, but that’s not necessarily what it means. The ultimate act of laying down one’s life for another might be dying so that the other can live, but it might just as easily be living a life of service to others.

Consider Paul’s Christ-hymn is Philippians 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Laying down his life for us meant setting aside his own comfort and glory so that he might love and serve us, and he loved and served us so completely as to even die as a criminal, though he was innocent.

In contrast to the thieves and bandits, who come to grasp and clutch, Jesus comes to us to give: what he gives is abundant life. He teaches us that we should not grasp and clutch our lives to ourselves, because that is what thieves and bandits do; rather, we ought to voluntarily lay down our lives, offer them willingly as gifts to the world around us, because if we have life abundantly, it’s easy to be generous with it.

Take money for example; if I am broke, I’m not inclined to go drive to St. Cloud and spend money on a fancy dinner at Red Lobster. Likewise, if somebody asks me for a loan, I’m not going to want to give them one. However, if I’ve just one the lottery, I’m going to go buy lots of stuff and be very generous with my winnings. I’m going to tip well and if somebody asks for a loan, I’m more likely to just give them the money as a gift.

That’s the kind of abundance Jesus offers; but this is not an abundance of anything so trivial as money, but of life itself. That’s why he lay down his life of his own accord: because he knew that he always had more to give—he knew that he could always take it up again. Jesus offers us that same abundant life so that we might freely share what we have with others, always knowing that there’s more where this came from. This is why he is the good shepherd. Rather than teaching us to grasp and clutch and hoard, he teaches us to give and offer and lay down. We can trust in his promise of abundance because he himself is the source of all life: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1.3-4)

Like it or not, we are sheep, and sheep need a good shepherd. That is why we congregate here tonight. “Congregate” comes from a Latin word which literally means “flock together.” Sheep flock together, or congregate, for safety from predators and to share food and water. They need a good shepherd to lead that flock, one who will care for them and bring them to good pasture with plenty of water and drive off the wolves and protect from the thieves and bandits.

We need to flock together because we can’t always follow the shepherd on our own. The instinct that drove those stupid sheep off the cliff in Turkey is the same one that makes them able to follow the shepherd. Even if only one sheep hears the shepherd’s voice, the rest of the flock follows because they know to stick together. Obviously, we need to know which shepherd we are following so we don’t end up racing off a cliff.

That’s what Lent is about. We take this time before the feast of Easter to devote ourselves to renewing and refreshing our relationship with God so that we can better hear our shepherd’s voice and follow. This is time for us to discipline ourselves, to cut out those things in our lives that distract us and lead us away from God and to refocus ourselves on the voice of the one who lays down his life for us. During Lent, we give thanks for the abundant life of Jesus, freely given for us, and that as the Church we share in that abundant life. We also pray that we might follow faithfully as our shepherd teaches us, giving of ourselves, laying down our lives for one another.

 

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