God's always "hooking us," pulling us back: back to the Word, back to the Meal, back to the Font...back to the community.

This blog is for the purpose of sharing around each Sunday's Bible readings & sermon at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

Get Sunday's readings here. We follow the Narrative Lectionary.
(In the summer, we return to the Revised Common Lectionary' epistle or Second Reading here.)

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, April 15, 2018

April 15 -- Paul's Conversion (Easter 3)

Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ, the one who knocks us off our horses (always a sign of war back then) and calls us back to him.  AMEN.

Can you imagine a mass murderer traveling around Syria?  
Can you imagine a man hunting down and killing his own people traveling on a road to the city of Damascus?  It hasn’t been hard to imagine this week, with Syria dominating the headlines.  Assad now and Saul way back then, both killing their own people.  Brutal, fearsome, monstrous.

Interesting to hear in this text about God’s response to a murderer.  We have this in-credible conversion story today of Saul, who was “still breathing threats and murder” — don’t you think an ancient version of an airstrike would have worked better on Saul?  Do you believe this conversion really happened?  Could a murderous monster become the greatest apostle the church has ever seen?  Saul, Acts tells us, was the guy who stood and watched St. Stephen, the first martyr, die at his feet!  A cold blooded killer.  He was literally hunting down Christians, dragging them out, and executing them.  How do you think someone like that ought to be handled?  
So Saul has this incredible experience on the road to Damascus.  He hears a voice, he’s blinded by the light…
But the real miracle, I believe, is what happens when he arrives in Damascus.  
* Reflect this week on your own conversion experiences.  On the ways you relate to Saul, the once-evil things you’ve done or said, but God helped you to see the light...

* But the real miracle, I think, is with the Christians in Damascus, starting — but not ending — with Ananias!

Ananias lays hands on this murderer...not because he wants to, but...because God has asked him to. 

That’s powerful.  How many of us would lay hands on our people’s murderer...because “God told us to”?  Such a person in our day in age would probably get ostracized, be called a traitor or a weakling...or who knows what bully names.  That person would be seen as a crazy person, hearing voices.  But Ananias had a vision.  He had his questions.  But God says I need this man.  So Ananias is faithful: “Here I am, Lord.” 

But there’s more.  It isn’t just about Ananias, here.  It’s about the Christians in Damascus.  It says that after Ananias’ prayer, Saul-who-is-renamed-Paul gets food, vision of his own, and strength.  The next verse (we don’t have it in our reading), says “he stayed in Damascus for a time.”  

Saul, i.e. Paul, is nurtured by the Christians there.  I’ve often envisioned this story as a snap — a holy flip of a switch — and suddenly the evil Saul becomes the Apostle Paul.  But it’s not!  It’s a process.  It’s a process that requires Christian community.  

The task of the church is, and always has been...to get more money.  To get more people in the pews so that we can brag at our synod assemblies to other Lutherans about how great our church is.  To huddle up and take care of just the ones we like the most.  

No, the task/call of the church is, and always has been...to love our enemies and nurture disciples on their journeys of faith.  Caring is a central part of this, but it doesn’t stop at just those we like.  We are called to care for our enemies too.  And not just because of this passage:  Jesus said it!  “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

And we, Christian communities, are called to walk along one another in our rehabilitation processes.  Nurturing each other in the faith.

This brings me to our dear Vern.  And Annie, too:

Now, Vern was never an evil, cruel character like Saul.  That’s become obvious to me.  Vern wasn’t perfect, but I believe he always had a good heart, even while it may not have been a healthy heart.  Vern always had a good heart.  

But he wandered/wondered for many years.  He was lost.  He hurt.  He struggled.  Like we all do at times.  And yet Annie was always praying for him, laying her hands on him.  “Annie-nias”, right?  Praying for him.  Loving him.  Taking care of him.  And Annie always hoped he’d come to church, and find the good things that are here: Christ at this table, Christ in this community, Christ in the baptismal waters.  And on September 23, 2012, I guess you could say Vern fell off the horse, heard a voice.  We welcomed him officially into this congregation.  

But that was only the beginning.  For 6 years, Vern has been with us here, not only faithfully worshiping, but also lovingly serving.  Vern rang the bell: calling people to worship, and telling this whole neighborhood that somewhere people are giving praise to God!  He was on Church Council for a time.  And whenever he spoke we listened...because he spoke from the heart.  Vern’s wisdom came from his heart.  (It’s ironic and so confusing that it was probably the same organ that failed him.)

Here’s what I’m trying to say:  Vern was nurtured by this Christian community.  And it takes that Holy Community.
“Annie-nias” couldn’t do it by herself with a fervent prayer and a laying on of hands, right?  She needed her brothers and sisters in the faith to gather around and walk along through the times, as Vern too got up, remembered his baptism, took some food (as the text says) and regained his strength.  
Like Saul with the Christians in Damascus, Vern stayed with us for a time.  And we were made better through him, and through our leader Annie’s faithfulness.   

And today we give thanks.  Today we remember that God’s got Vern, and all sinner-saints in the eternal embrace.  No need to worry about Vern now.  His heart is just fine.  Today we not only remember Vern, but we cling to the faith/words/prayers of the ages as we comfort one another in our grief.  We lean into God’s grace, in Jesus’ defeat of death through the Easter resurrection.  Because he lives, Vern’s gonna be just fine.  And so will we.

What we can receive from all of this joy and sorrow today are some blessed reminders…

*to be kind, good-hearted to one another, like Vern was to us.  
*to look for more conversions on our own roads.  God’s not done with us yet!
*to continue to be about the Christian work of nurturing disciples.  Whatever the future looks like, *whatever the church looks like, may our mission always be to nurture disciples.  
* and finally, to trust in God’s incarnational, resurrection presence with us.  We are not left here alone:  

God’s Holy Spirit is not just swirling around among us, 
Christ is in us, 
forgiving us, 
and calling us back, 
to stop it our ‘old’ ways, 
to take some food [altar], get up, and follow in Jesus’ way of peace and resurrection hope. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

April 8 -- Thomas (Easter 2)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Risen Christ.  AMEN.

“If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Verse 23.

In 2010, Sister Sandra Marie Schneiders, professor at the Jesuit School of Theology presented a fascinating insight to a group of scholars on this verse 23.  

The idea was that we’ve inserted and assumed a word into our  English translation of vs. 23, and it changes everything:  Schneiders points that in the Greek, there is no word “sins” the second half.  So an alternative, perhaps more accurate translation would be, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain any — or ‘hold any fast’, or even ‘embrace any‘ — they are held fast/embraced.”  The second half of verse 23 is about retaining/holding onto people...rather than sins.  The word “sins” is not there in the Greek!

This, she argues — along with Lutheran scholar, the Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore — that there is not only room for Thomas’ needing proof, it’s far more in line with Jesus’ actions and the over-arching theology of the entire Gospel of John.  “Retaining sins”, holding one’s sin over their head, doesn’t really fit with John’s Gospel, especially with all this peace-breathing that’s happening both before and namely after the resurrection.   
This text is John’s version of the Great Commission: (In Matthew, it’s “Go ye therefore…”).  But here, in John —  
“Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Then he breathes on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit... 

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and whoever you hold, they are held (whoever you embrace, they are embraced...whoever you love, they are loved).”  That’s Holy Spirit power!  That’s power that’s greater than Pilate and the Roman Empire.  That’s power that’s mightier than all the muscles and ammunition we can even imagine.  That’s Holy Spirit power.  Jesus breathes this on the disciples and on us too!  This is way more in line with John’s Gospel, than “retaining sins”?  Can’t you just hear the echoes of Jesus actions back through John?!!  

On Good Friday, Jesus offered community to his beloved disciple and his own mother from the cross.  And so Christ’s sermon there, was to go and care for one another from this day forth, to offer beloved community to everyone, love flowing outward, from the cross.  And in the foot washing, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus offers this intimate cleansing and tangible forgiveness to us, and now we’re called, to turn and offer that same cleansing and forgiveness to each other and beyond!  First we receive it from God — that’s our being commissioned — then we in turn, and go, and share with the whole world, both locally and globally.  And it’s all through John, the raising of Lazarus, the woman at the well, the blind man, the feeding of the 5000 (one church in our synod, this past Lent, offered huge loaves of bread, and the “rule” was, you had to share with someone)...all the way back to the beginning of John’s Gospel where “the light shines in the darkness,” and gives life to all people.  

Now post-resurrection — as we wade into this 50-day Easter season, basking in the peace that our Risen Savior breathes on us — here it is again:  first we receive from Christ forgiveness and embrace, then we turn and offer it to one another and to this whole world!  CHRIST IS RISEN!  He is risen indeed!!  

This is the “in-deed”!  Turning and offering both forgiveness and embrace.  

“Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and whoever you hold, they are held (whoever you embrace, they are embraced).” 

Who is it that you’re holding?  They are held in Christ.  I’m holding Annie (in this season of grief and chaos in her life), and so — in the resurrected Christ — if I’m holding her, then she is being held.  Do you see?  Whoever we hold, God holds.  Holy Spirit power.  (Remember when Jesus said to Pilate, you have no power over me.  Now Pilate has no power over us either.  We’ve received the Holy Spirit.)

Whoever we hold, they are held.  Whoever we embrace, they are embraced...  
And whoever we forgive, they receive the very forgiveness of God!  That’s embrace of the Risen Christ.  Holy Spirit power.

And how all of God’s children need that embrace and forgiveness!  How all of God’s children...in our neighborhoods, and workplaces, and schools and shopping malls, and sports arenas and on the roads, and in the hospitals, and the courthouses, and the banks, and the halls of power, and the back alleys, all of God’s children...in every nation and every language need that embrace and peace and forgiveness that the resurrected Jesus so abundantly breathes.  

He gives you that same breath this day, that same power to forgive and heal.  In a moment we’ll offer that peace of Christ to each other.  And the symbols are the same there too.  “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Today is John’s Pentecost. 

It isn’t just shaking hands or giving hugs to your favorite people around you:  it’s war ending, walls coming down, conflicts forgiven, creation restored, death itself is destroyed! Jesus’ resurrection offers true peace.

If you’re doubting that’s really happening when we shake hands every Sunday, when we share the peace of Christ with each other, then you’re not much different than the faithful Thomas, who just wanted to see more.  

Let’s not forget that it was Thomas, back in John 11:16, who urged the disciples to go on to Bethany, despite the danger: “Thomas said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” 

Maybe Thomas was already out there, doing the “Sent work,” when Jesus first appeared to the disciples on Easter evening.  I mean, why wasn’t he locked behind the doors in fear?  Maybe he just wanted to see more!  Often the most active are also the most cynical.  But there’s room for that in Jesus’ embrace.

It’s hard to believe that war ends with the [names…] shaking hands here at SVLC on Sunday morning.  It’s hard to believe walls are coming down as [names..] hug each other.  There’s no evidence that creation — the air and the water and the soil — is restored, as [name…] say to each other peace be with you.  “Unless I can see it and touch it, I will not believe that death has been destroyed!”  But there’s room for that in Christ’s embrace.  And now, in our embrace as well.  

And “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  AMEN.  

Sunday, April 1, 2018

April 1 -- Resurrection of our Lord (Easter Sunday)

The first time I ever presided over Holy Communion (big deal!) was on Easter morning.  It was during my internship in StL, MO.  I had to get a special letter of dispensation from the Bishop of the Central States Synod, Bp. Gerry Mansholt...because this was going to be “an extenuating circumstance”:  See, it was at 6am.  Sunrise service outside, IN A GARDEN actually...well sort of it was in St. Louis‘ Forest Park...at 6am! ;)  So there was no one else to do this.  And it was going to be pouring down rain!  Talk about April Fools’: rain and cold and wind on Easter Sunday at 6am.  Extenuating circumstance?  No pastor in their right mind would do this.  

I loved it! (about a dozen of us, very special memory)  I wish it was raining and cold today too..but that’s OK.  You can certainly imagine rain and wind and cold.  Rain and wind and cold on Easter reminds us to think twice about not romanticizing Easter.  I love all the lilies and trumpets and food and fancy outfits and being warm and dry and hunting for eggs and eating chocolate and clinking glasses and being with friends and family...but the first Easter morning was void of all the comforts and all the fanfare.  It was just another morning, it seemed.  Maybe it was even raining or cold or windy, when they approached the tomb?
Judy (CG) gave Katie a gift, a book with a quote on the cover:  “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  It’s especially perfect because she gave it to her after hearing about our big move to Virginia in a few months, and Katie, as you can imagine, was really feeling down about all this.
While Easter is a joyous time for us, I hope we don’t forget that Easter is also a scary time.  It’s scary because of what happened: Jesus has risen from the dead!  But its even scarier because of what it means:  Because Christ has died, and because Christ has risen indeed, it means that we have new life.  NEW LIFE!  And while that has celebration written all over it, it’s also absolutely terrifying...a downpour:  rain and cold and wind...  
Maybe it’s been too long for some of you, and it hasn’t happened yet for others, but I wonder if any of you had a similar experience as me around the time of high school graduation:  I remember this great mix of absolute ambiguity, excitement…and total fear.  It was a strange time.  I was thrilled that I was done with one thing...and absolutely terrified of the great unknown that was college, lurking out there on the near horizon.  I mean, I had only really ever lived in Houston...and now I was moving all by myself, not knowing anyone, all the way out to California to go to college!  My friends were going all over the country for college, too.  

So what did we do?  We went to parties. We went to our homes, and stayed out late, and clung to the relationships we knew.  I remember even making new friends with classmates I’d hardly hung around with in high school...probably because we shared the familiar, a common comfort zone.  It was like we were all huddling together even tighter the summer after graduation.  I really felt that.  It was a response to our fear — the rain, wind and cold that was the great unknown.  The NEW LIFE we now had.    
I laugh: “Then the disciples returned to their homes” (v.10).  They see Jesus’ body gone, one of them even “saw and believed” right there on the spot.  We hear “they don’t yet understand,” but it sounds like they’re starting to put the pieces together.  They are witnesses to none other than Jesus’ resurrection!  But they return to their homes?! What!? (contrast to shepherds at J’s birth)

The Gospel of John really does a good job of describing this fear that overwhelmed the disciples after the resurrection.  We’ll hear even more of that next Sunday when they literally lock themselves in the the upper room, they’re so afraid.  It’s like their fear builds the more they huddle.  Yes, the Easter story is filled with great joy (that’s Mary Magdalene’s story), but we’ve been in that joy, this year in the YEAR OF JOHN all week actually — Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday— I keep saying, in John, “it’s ALL good,” Jesus is all powerful and in control.  No need to be sad for Jesus.  Christ’s Passion is a “feast of love,” as we sang on Maundy Thursday.  “Jesus sacrifice bunted us home and now we’re free,” we celebrated on Good Friday.  Easter too is a story filled with joy.  

But it’s also terribly frightening…because of what it means.  Everything is new now!  In a way, Christ’s death is the good part — that’s why we call it Good Friday.  Why?  Because Christ’s death brings hope and comfort, it means that Christ identifies with our suffering in the deepest sense.  You know the old African American spiritual: “Nobody knows, the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows, but Jesus.”  Jesus takes on our pain and all the pain of this cosmos, he gets right down next to it, takes it on himself.  (Sacrifice bunting and getting called out: it’s the worst!)    

But he doesn’t just die, in all that love for us and for this whole world.  (That’s Good Friday.)  He also conquers death.  (That’s Easter.)  And that’s super scary!  That’s rain and wind and cold.  That’s April Fool’s.  That’s a mess.  That. Changes. Everything.

The fact that Jesus lives, and therefore we do too, despite all the cruelty and pain and suffering of this world and this life, that changes everything.  Our being freed from sin and death is not the end of the story, because now, post-resurrection, we live anew with Christ.  Everything’s different.  Christ didn’t just die, breaking the chains of sin and death, and then leave us. Christ came back-to-life to stay with us in our new and liberated state!  

We have been taken off of one path and placed onto another...far more drastic than moving ourselves off of a high school path and getting ourselves onto a new path.  The resurrected Jesus transplants us from one place to another.  

That’s scary.  That’s like suddenly being plopped into the dark, cold, wind and rain.  This new post-resurrection path we walk is muddy, friends in Christ!  It is challenging.  It makes me want to go back home too, huddle up with everyone and everything familiar, lock the doors, and go back to the life I knew before Jesus burst forth from the tomb.   But our NEW LIFE in Christ...what did Katie’s book cover say?  “...isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  Jesus resurrection comes amid a storm!  

Rome still rules!  The temple leaders are still seething...the rain keeps falling.  Pain will keep coming our way, violence will keep coming our way, sorrow will come our way, anger and greed and war and death will all come our way, more shootings will surely come our way, more arguments and more confrontation, more division and more suffering will all keep coming our way.  That’s the storm, that’s the mud.  That’s the rain, cold and wind.  That’s the April foolishness of this world, and that’s what drives us back behind closed doors...  
But because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are now different.  We are in the world but NOW we are not of the world.  That means we stay/abide too, like Jesus:  We engage the powerful forces of evil, the Devil himself, and laugh.  We unlock our doors and our hearts and our minds, we touch the wounds of Christ, we now touch all that pain.  And that means we might, we probably will, get hurt.  We touch the earth lightly, following the example of Jesus, but that’s not how the world works.  So we might get hurt.  We live in love and peace, but everyone else seems to worship violence.  We trust in God, but everyone else seems to trust in money and guns.  The evidence is everywhere.  Just trusting in God?  That’s April foolishness to the world!  And for Christians, it usually doesn’t end well...in this world.  [pause]  But that’s OK:  Everything has changed because Jesus conquered death.  And so we don’t have to be afraid:  In the final end, it all ends well.  

In the meantime, we remain faithful and loving.  We stay and engage the evil of this planet with a robust — that is with God’s very — mercy, justice, hope, joy and PEACE.  Everything has changed…because of LOVE.  That’s scary.  And that’s good.  It’s what this Gospel is all about: dancing in the rain...for Christ is risen!  

March 30 -- Good Friday

Friends in Christ.  Did you hear that?  They just laid Jesus in the tomb.  That means, it’s finished!  Christ gave up his Spirit, commending himself to God, commending himself to himself if we’re Trinitarians.  This happened, the scripture says, at 3pm.  No more Jesus on the cross this evening.  He was there for 3 hours this afternoon...and three whole worship services here at SVLC this week: on Sunday, last night and all afternoon today.  He’s down at last, and peacefully laying in the tomb!

So now, all we get to do is give thanks...in the garden.

Here’s what I’d call tonight: Tonight’s a “Passover garden party”.  It’s not a funeral reception after a death.  We’re not crying and telling stories about how great Jesus once was.  This is way different.  We know how this is going to turn out!  We know Jesus is going to rise from the dead.  Tonight we just get to linger around the empty cross.  Party in the garden… that is, give thanks and be together.  It is serious, yes, but it’s all good, here in the garden.  Welcome to the garden, friends!

The garden is important: It all started in a garden.  Way back in Genesis.  That’s where Christians understand the fall of humanity to have taken place.  So what better location to redeem humanity (on a cross) than in a garden?!  Lush green trees and plants and flowers everywhere.  (What a blessing that our SD hills are nice and green right now.)  Life, right there where the cross is. “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified,” John says.  Powerful imagery, huh...

...but it’s a party, so that means excess:  More images!  You don’t just have one food item at a party, one drink offering, one friend.  Parties are about lots of good things.  We already have one powerful image: “the garden cross”.  But let’s pile another powerful image on!
Jesus is the Passover lamb!  This is unique to John’s Gospel.  In the other Gospels Jesus is celebrating the Passover himself.  [pause]  He’s around for it...in fact he completely re-defines it!  But he’s there, on Thursday evening in the upper room, right!

In John, Friday is the day of Preparation for the Passover (or Passover Eve) — the paschal feast/passover feast hasn’t happened yet...until Friday night.  The Day of Preparation — Friday/today in John’s Gospel — in the light of day, the priest would literally lead a lamb to the slaughter, and the priest would actually slaughter the lamb...in “preparation” for the Passover feast that night.  Here, Jesus is the lamb, the saving symbol — remember the Exodus story? — so that Death “passes over” the homes where the slaughterd lambs’ blood is painted on the doorposts.  Remember that back in Exodus?

It’s strange, kind of gory stuff for us today, I think.  But it’s the symbol that’s so powerful: here, Jesus himself is the lamb that saves us from death, and then (there’s more!) frees us all from slavery to the oppression of our sin.  Remember the Israelites safely passing through the Sea, escaping the murderous grip of the Egyptians?  That’s sin and death for us, through Jesus!  Because of Jesus we get safely past the jaws of death, and the grip of sin!

So theological!  Is your head spinning?

Here’s a modern image:  from baseball, of course.  Opening Day yesterday!  Perfectly timed for Holy Week illustrations.

You know what image I’m going to use from baseball for this Good Friday in the Gospel of John?

The sacrifice bunt!  Jesus gives himself up to get us home safe.  It’s like we’re on third base, and Jesus squeeze bunts us in!

Jesus brings us home this evening!  And ask any ball player: crossing that plate is the best feeling in the world.  That’s why Good Friday is so good: We’re safe!  We’re free.  We’re alive.  And Jesus, while he just got called “out” isn’t out for good.

This is Love Divine.  Divine sacrificial love.  Baseballs just an image to help us.  Jesus is love divine gushing out for you and for me and for this whole world this night.  Jesus love us — what’s not to love — but Jesus loves everyone.  Even all those people we fail to love!  

Now, having encountered this love — all we can do is give thanks, and turn outward and share it.  First we share our prayers for everyone in the world...

We have this longer prayer tonight, called the Bidding Prayer, because God’s love is so overwhelming, we can’t HELP but turn outward now and pray for every single person and thing in the whole world.  And that’s just the start of our love for them.  We’re not stopping with “thoughts and prayers.”  Jesus washed the feet of his betrayers and told us to do likewise…
We pray too for our enemies and then we wash their feet.  That’s the kind of Divine Love we follow and try to model our lives after.  

So we pray for everyone because God’s love is so overwhelming.  And finally, because God’s love is so overwhelming, we can’t HELP but come bask in the glory of the rough-hewn cross this evening.  Just linger and sing and pray and sit together and give thanks.
To the world, this cross is ugly foolishness.  But to we who are being saved, to we who have been saved, it is the beautiful power and wisdom of God!

This is a GOOD FRIDAY.  THIS IS A GREAT FRIDAY!  Jesus just bunted us home safe.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

March 29 -- Maundy Thursday

Grace to you and peace in Jesus, our crucified King’s name.  AMEN. 

So each of these words of Jesus bear so much meaning and harken back to previous events in the Gospel of John.  This is the grand finale, sisters and brothers in Christ.  And when Jesus says, “It is finished,” one scholar suggests, don’t you dare imagine it as Christ hanging his head in defeat; no, this is like Michelangelo looking up at the completed Cistene Chapel.  This is Jesus’ masterpiece!

But this is a little different this year: to be reading about and considering Jesus’ final words from the cross here on Maundy Thursday.  Traditionally, we remember the Last Supper tonight, and Jesus washing the disciples feet, right?  

But with our Narrative Lectionary readings we’ve been making our way through John’s Gospel, and Jesus’ action of foot washing was actually how we started Lent way back in February in Chapter 13.  So much has happened since then.  And yet the lesson of the foot washing, which is really what Maundy Thursday is all about, is exactly the same in our text here, as Jesus addresses his beloved disciple and his beloved mother:  Love one another.  

Maundy Thursday — that word “maundy”, you may or may not know, comes from the same Latin word that gives us “mandate”.  May as well call this day “Mandate Thursday”.  And what’s the mandate?  To love one another.  These are Jesus’ last words to his disciples around the table...with the wash basin, and the towel; and also now, hanging from the holy tree, the cross.  This is the King reigning down from his throne.  

One commentator called his final words here Jesus’ “cross sermons.”  No need to cry for Jesus here.  He’s busy preaching and teaching from his thrown!  Makes no sense to the world!…
...that celebrates the power of Rome, that celebrates the power and brute force of any mighty nation (including ours, for that matter).  Makes no sense to this world; it’s laughable even.  Jesus seems so insignificant to Empire: “Foolishness to the world,” writes Paul to the Corinthians (love Easter is on April FOOL’s day), “Foolishness to the world, but this One crucified is the very wisdom of God.”  

And we get pointed to what that wisdom (sophia) of God looks like in this slightly different “Mandate” Thursday scene, this year:  God’s wisdom (foolishness to the world) looks like this:  it looks like two former strangers become family members — “Woman, behold your son...Behold your mother.”

Jesus is using his dying breath to connect people, to build community.  Biblical scholars note that in we often talk about Pentecost as the birthday of the church...  But this scene of two strangers-become-family at the foot of the cross is really the birthday of the church as Jesus’ first worshipers are joined together in a mandate, and then sent out to love.  
Pretty powerful mandate.
And what is Christ’s mandate for you, as you meet one another at the foot of the cross again this year? 

What does “love one another” mean for you this year?  What stranger are you being told by Jesus to take care of from this day on?  What new community-in-Christ is being born this evening in you, at the foot of this cross?  Forgiven of our sin, (in a moment) filled with the sweetest bread and the finest wine, the body and blood of our preacher-teacher-Savior-and-friend Jesus: what now for you?  Who is Jesus connecting you to, who is your new family in Christ?  Who have you been missing all this time, but right there next to you is your mother, or your father, or your sister, or your brother, or your child?  

This is a feast of love, God’s masterpiece and wisdom, being offered here by Jesus.  

Jesus offers us one another.  Whoever is beside us...is our family, and we are commanded to love them:  

Whatever mailbox we’re next to back home, we are commanded to love them as family.  Whatever locker we’re next to, we are commanded to love them as family.  Whatever cubicle we work next to, we are commanded to love them as family.  Whatever nation we’re next to, we are commended to love them as family.  Whatever creature we share this planet with, we are commanded to love them as family.  Jesus offers us to each other — it’s like we never saw it until now!  And from this day on, from the foot of the cross, we care for each other anew.  

Friends in Christ, we are free, we are forgiven and we are fed...TO LOVE.  Thanks be to God, who pours out Divine Love for us this holy evening...and forevermore.  AMEN.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

March 25 -- Crucified Messiah (Palm Sunday)

Grace to you and peace,

The palms of Palm Sunday are significant especially in John’s Gospel.  Last year, I unofficially called this day “Garment Sunday”, because we were in the Gospel of Luke, where they only spread garments on the ground.  Lots of social justice symbolism there, and we gathered coats last year to donate and give thanks for Jesus coming into our lives and our towns.  The other gospels do mention “leafy branches” being spread on this day, but only in John is the actual word “palm” used.  Interesting, huh?

In the ancient world, across all the cultures of the ancient world, everyone knew what the symbol of palm branches meant.  So much diversity then, as we have now, but everyone knew that when the palm branches came out, it was a universal symbol for...VICTORY. 

The Gospel of John makes it very clear for the readers (all the way back in Chapter 12) that victory is at hand.  

Only not the victory that everyone imagines: When we think of victory, even today, when we shout, “Victory!”  What kinds of images come to your mind?  Winners and losers.  Conquering, heroic generals and soldiers marching in the streets, having just violently, crushed the opponent.  Trumpets and loud sounds.  Horses, parades, flags flying high.  In the ancient days, they’d actually spray a perfume in the air, so it literally smelled like victory.  The loser is humiliated, and heartbroken — head hung low, like March Madness.  The winner, on the other hand, is crowned with trophies and flowers and medals...and palm branches wave high as a signal of all of this, as a sign of victory.

Only Jesus’ victory is different.  The victory is in the cross.  
The victory is a victory of love.  That’s very different.  

It almost seems to take the wind out of our parades and crushing opponents, and certainly out of our violence that we — like ancient Rome — can certainly employ to dominate.

This victory of Jesus, signaled in the palms, is a victory of love.  And we segue now from the palms way back in Chapter 12 to the cross and the place we’ve been for the last 3 weeks in Chapter 19.  Last Sunday, violence won the day — begetting more violence — and the angry crowd, the cruel Jewish leaders, and Pilate-under-pressure all seemed to result in Jesus being sent to Golgotha...only Jesus was actually in control of it all, unlike the way it looked on the surface.  Jesus was actually the one who put Pilate on trial.  Jesus, way back in the garden, actually turned himself in to the Jewish authorities. (18:4) “Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’… ‘I am he.’”  Totally calm and in control.  

[Ever annoy you?  There’s just not the feeling of Good Friday chaos and hopelessness in John’s Gospel!  Jesus is totally all-knowing and in-control.  And today already, he is “lifted up”.  This is the moment of his glorification...TODAY!  The crucifixion is Jesus’ glorification in John.  We get to glory and give thanks in Good Friday this year for weeks!  (Since March 7 we’ve been reading things that happened in John’s Gospel on Good Friday!  It’s a month of Good Friday!)  And it’s ALL GOOD.]

So a victory of love — what does that look like?  If it’s not about winners and losers, and humiliation, and military violence and crushing the opposition, then what could those palms possibly be about?  OK, so Jesus being lifted on the cross is a victory...but how do we understand that?  
We have a clue today: in the sign hanging over Jesus’ head.  Pilate unknowingly proclaims the Gospel by arrogantly refusing to change the sign.  The Jewish leaders were quibbling, wanting it to say something else, but Pilate says what I have written, I have written.  And here’s the thing:  Jesus is the king.  Jesus is the Messiah.  It seems a mockery of a king in the world eyes.  But in the eyes of Jesus-believers, this is an absolute and total victory of love...  

See, Pilate has the sign written in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek.  That’s basically every single language in the world...in their context.  In other words: [slowly] Jesus is for everyone.

In Hebrew, Latin and Greek.  For the insider Jews, for the persecuting Romans, and for everyone else in the Greek world.  Jesus sign was written in Spanish, in English and in Chaldean...if we think about our more common languages here in our neck of the woods.  But fill in every language you can think of: “It was written in Portuguese, Indian and Russian, in Swahili, German and Japanese, in Arabic, Hawaiian and Norwegian…” Jesus is for everyone.  That’s a victory of love! 

This crucified Messiah is not just for any one group, he is for all.  He loves all.  He loves the powerful Romans who think they’re in control of the world.  He loves the back-stabbing religious leaders.  He loves the crowd with all their baggage — all their self-centeredness, all their addictions, all their obsessions, all their pain.  He loves the outsiders who haven’t even heard about all this yet!  He loves the those who have died; he loves those not yet born.  He loves you and me, he loves our pets and he loves that last white rhino that is going extinct.  He loves the oceans and the deserts, he loves the mountains and the prairies, he loves the little toddler and the 96-year-old widow.  He loves the gay man and the bisexual teenager and the soccer mom and the divorced dad.  He loves the stars and moons and planets.  He loves the scientists and the atheists and the fundamentalists.  He loves the Fox News followers and the MSNBC loyalists.  He loves Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton and Steve Bannon.  He loves the members of the NRA and he loves all the children who protested yesterday!  He loves the East Coast and the West Coast.  And everywhere in between!    

As Jesus stretches out his arms on the cross, do you see how this is a victory of love?  It’s all right here on the cross.  This is actually THE moment of ultimate glorification, of being lifted up — you could say the “highest” moment in the Gospel of John!  We ought to sing “Lift High the Cross”!  There’s no ascension up to heaven in John.  Jesus abides/stays with us, it says over and over, and breathes the Holy Spirit of peace upon us.  The cross is as “up” as Jesus gets, thank God!  Jesus stays.

Yes, we know how the Gospel ends, that Easter is the celebration of life eternal, Jesus rising from the dead.  Yes, Easter next Sunday is the Great Day of Resurrection...  

But it’s not going to be a surprise at all to us!  Looking at this Jesus of victory on the cross even today!  It’s not going to be a surprise at all to us who look to and worship this cool, in-control God of universal, unconditional love, which has been pouring out, all the way through the Gospel of John!  

Once again, all we can do is give thanks, give our awe and our worship (that is, make sacrifices), and follow.  If Jesus‘ love is for all, then all are invited to come and see, to come and follow this one who goes to the cross in Divine Love.  You are invited into God’s love, and into Christ’s services anew this day.  Now that’s worth waving palm branches for!  AMEN.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

March 18 -- Jesus "Condemned" (Lent 5)

Grace to you and peace in Jesus’ (not Caesar’s) name.  AMEN.

Friends in Christ, this is a painful text about violence.  

Violence begets more violence.  The Word Made Flesh chooses to enter into a violent world and is coming face to face with it again — from Pilate, from the Jewish leaders, from the crowd.  All succumbing to violence.  This is the way of the world.  It is the way of the state.  It is the way of our hearts.  

Whenever you see violence, know that it is the way of this world.  Violence is what happens when no other options can be imagined.  It starts with our children.  When we can’t figure out how to get our kids to do what we need them to do, even if that’s something good for them, what do we do?  When we’re all out of creativity and options?  We hit them.  Many of us were brought up this way.  We were taught and we teach them, hitting is the answer, when other methods don’t work.  

That early message, even gets affirmed later on.  When a bully is doing what bullies do on the playground, how many of us received the message, “Well, hit him back!”  The answer to violence is more violence.  And everyone cheers when the smaller kid hits the bully back.  Hitting back is always the answer, this world tells us. 

When we get older (although not too much older these days) weapons, beyond words and fists, which are already great weapons — heavier weapons get involved: knives and guns eventually fighter jets and bombs.  It’s a very natural progression.  When a bully hits you, hit back.  And you feel affirmed and powerful when you do.  Violence always begets more violence.  You hit me, well, I’ve been taught to hit you right back.  It’s no wonder this world this nation has been in wars since our inception.  It’s part of growing up.  It’s no wonder we individually have been in fights since our inception.  It’s part of growing up…in this world.  
Friends, we live in a violent world.  Let me notch it up:  this world = violence.  That’s the truth.  Some of us are disgusted by that.  Some of us are OK with that.  Some of us are even more than OK with it: some of us are teaching our children to affirm it and promote this violence that we’ve all inherited.

Violence begets more violence.  That is the way of this world.  And it’s all playing out here in Pilate’s palace, the current setting of violence in our scripture text for today.  

The story of Jesus’ has intensified here in Chapter 20 to unmask the violence that’s been there all along.  Often violence works under the radar — words: social back-stabbing, betrayal and slander.  Today, Jesus and Pilate face-to-face in front of the seething crowd, and this-world’s violence comes out even more, into the open.

And look what happens: Jesus actually is showing Pilate a different way!  Just has Jesus has shown so many in this Gospel — Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Nathaniel, the blind man, Mary and Martha, even and especially Lazarus was shown that violence and death don’t rule the day.  Jesus, one might argue, is starting to get through to the powerful Pilate.  I don’t know if you agree with that, but I’m reading that.  At the least, he gives Pilate pause.  “Who are you?  Where are you from?” Pilate asks, both curiously and even reverently.  

It’s like things slowed down for a moment, and Pilate gets this almost ecstatic (out of body) experience, where he leaves the ways of this world for a second and starts to see Jesus, who is not of this world…I wonder what he saw in those moments?  
But almost immediately, violence wins the earthly day, and the crowd snaps Pilate out of his Jesus with a dig at his loyalties.  

If you ever want to upset someone, anyone in this room, question their patriotism.  
Question their loyalties.  How many of us, if I called you un-American, would feel the hair on our neck go up?  Our blood starting to boil.  [Here comes the violence, right?]

How many of us would start to want to list all the ways, if you’re going to come at me — with insults and accusations around my loyalties — all the ways that not only am I a good American, I’m actually a better American than you are?  What do we call them?  Fighting words.

If you’re going to hit me, I’m going to hit back.  

That’s exactly what the crowd does to Pilate.  Violence snaps him out of his other-worldly experience of Jesus.  And violence then continues.  It’s been violent up to this point.  Flogging, mocking, crown of thorns.  And that’s not even enough for this crowd (of which we’re a part, if we’re honest).  And apparently it’s not enough for Pilate either, who gets snapped out of looking at Jesus.  

Violence begets more violence.  And our text today concludes with, “Crucify him!”  We cannot be surprised at this.  This is the way of the this world.  In fact, if you opt out of violence, what are you called? (All kinds of names, right?)  

One of our prayers of the people today: The cries of “crucify” still ring in our ears every time an innocent is punished, every time a guilty one goes unquestioned, every time your creation suffers from abuse and misuse. Forgive us and show us the way that leads to life…

All this violence talk is setting us up.  Friends, we’re so immersed in violence, I don’t think we can even see it.  We’ve been “attacking” children this week in our country walking out of school in order to stand up to violence.  That’s how saturated in violence we’ve become!  We’re entertaining, suggesting and in some cases demanding our teachers to carry guns as they teach our children about peace.  

Do you see?!  Maybe you do?  Maybe you don’t.      

Here’s where all this is going.  This text couldn’t be more timely:  

Jesus’ way is not the world’s way.  Jesus brings peace.  Jesus’ condemnation is not that at all.  There is this flip that the world cannot see.  The world sees the cross and Jesus’ sentence to crucifixion as a victory of violence.  

But we know that this condemnation is rather a reflection on ourselves.  Pilate is on trial before Jesus.  The crowd is condemning themselves.  The nation being judged, not doling out the judgement.  

Jesus is the king.  Everyone laughs at this, then and now: 

“No, he’s not!  Look at him, in that silly purple cloth and crown of thorns!”  

But Jesus is the king, and the scene is about to get even ore ironic: he is about to place on his thrown, that is, the cross.  Foolishness to this world, St. Paul says, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom of God.

The opposite of violence is peace.  The opposite of this world’s violence is Divine Peace.  

We don’t sing about God as a warrior; we sing about God as a shepherd.  

This is Jesus, and he loves you.  He loves this whole, violent world. 

This peaceful shepherd invites you now — just as he invited Pilate — to stop the violence, and come and follow and see.  AMEN.