Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sermon for April 20, 2014 / Easter Sunday

Giving Up Death

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed—for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. Then they went home.

Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her. Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?” She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

“Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message. John 20:1-18
They have lost everything -- deep in the valley of despair. They grieve, all of them.

Nothing can compare with it . . . the sense of hopelessness that floods over you like a tidal wave when death rips someone from your life. Tired days and sleepless nights steal your energy. A fog of sorrow leaves you feeling like you live in some kind of twilight zone. No one can prepare you for it.  You can’t know ahead of time what it is like to be on the receiving end of the words, "I'm very sorry, we did all we could." Your world simply caves in. The emptiness that follows is a gaping void in your soul. Will it ever stop hurting?

I’m sure that’s how the followers of Jesus feel on the first Easter morning. The illusion of their spiritual potency is shattered. Their power as a spiritual community -- gone. Their status as disciples has come to an end. They gather to hide and to suffer the weight of grief. Oh, they’re probably scared out of their wits, too, worried that the authorities will hunt them down and kill them. That’s how Mary Magdalene finds the men who followed Jesus -- stuck deep in the emotional gloom. And with one sentence, she begins a work of healing. She gives them the great, “What-if.”

What if there was someone you loved who died? You were there when it happened.  You planned and endured the funeral. You went with the procession to the graveside and watched the burial. It was final. Nothing in all of God's creation could change it. What if two days later you came home and your buried loved one was standing there right before your eyes? Would you consider that, oh I don’t know, an important event?

What if? What if Mary Magdalene saw Jesus die and then two days later went to visit his grave, only the grave was open and Jesus was not there? What if it’s true that she saw and talked with the Jesus who had died two days before? What if the words she spoke to those grieving and aching, lost and afraid followers of Jesus are true? "I have seen the Lord!"

Because that’s what she says. “I have seen the Lord.” With those words, the disciples resurrect their journey of becoming the church -- a mighty fragile beginning for a religion that has lasted almost 2000 years now.

Many of us still focus our energy on that tomb, on that morning, on what did or did not happen there and how to explain it to people who don’t happen to believe it. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life on earth. No one has ever seen one take place, which is why it helps me to remember that no one saw it happen on Easter morning either. It’s still a bunch of what ifs.
What if death does not get the last word? What if we could give up the idea of death as finality? What if, in the depths of despair, we could know the promise of life?

Because we can use some of that promise right now. I know my heartaches and fears. And I know what I hear from others. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. We’re afraid of economic hardship. We’re afraid of rising debt. We’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We’re afraid of the hurt between men and women, and between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We’re afraid of a Church that seems more aligned with the power of Empire than the love of our peasant Christ.

Like those first disciples, we can be insecure, frightened by our emotions, not sure who we can trust. We feel the vulnerability of our broken places. And I think, more than anything else, many of us fear pain, suffering and death.

The influence of death is not going to stop threatening us. There will always be a thousand little losses of spirit, the criticisms we carry with us, the discouragements and sorrows that weigh us down, the sense of frustration or futility when we lose hope that the world can change.

Death threatens us when people work night and day in thankless jobs and still find themselves deeper in debt.

Death threatens us when a child gets caught in an ugly cycle of drugs and alcohol dependency and we watch them slip away.         

Death threatens us when after working forty years we realize we're about to lose our home or don’t have enough money to retire.

Death threatens us when we wake up one morning and realize nothing matters to us anymore.

Death threatens us when at the end of life, our family and friends are all gone and we are left alone to negotiate a world that does not honor its older members.

What if we are like those first disciples, stuck deep in the emotional gloom? What if we are the ones hiding behind locked doors, afraid to come out? What if we are the people who need someone to burst in the barricaded doors of our lives and shake us up with a word of hope? What if we are the followers who need someone to draw us back to life by saying, “I have seen the Lord”?

What if the living, resurrected Christ stands before us? What if he knows our heartaches and fears? For everyone here today who feels that you dreams have been destroyed, your hopes dashed, your spirits crushed, Easter has some good news for you. Death threatens us, but it never gets the last word. Easter is the promise that we can be reborn. Easter is the promise of new life. Easter is the assurance that in the midst of heartache and fear, life wins!

For me, Easter is not about whether a resurrection actually happened or not. Whatever went on in the tomb is entirely between Jesus and God. You and I will never know. For me, Easter is not about truth. It’s about meaning. Easter’s meaning begins the moment Mary Magdalene recognizes the Risen Christ and declares, “I have seen the Lord.” That’s where the miracle happened and goes on happening -- not in the tomb but in an encounter with the living Christ. Whether we view resurrection as a physical reality or as a spiritual symbol doesn’t really matter. What matters is the meaning. The risen Christ says, “Today is not time to hide in fear. Today is the day to believe! Today is the day to arise! Life wins!”

What if Easter is an impossible story written for everyone who has ever felt the sting of death and wishes for something more?

What if Easter is a story for anyone who loves life so much that they pray for more life to follow?

What if Easter is a story for people who can envision a loving divinity who will not be conquered by evil?
What if Easter is a story of immoveable objects that get tossed aside?
What if Easter is a story of happy endings in a tragic world?
What if Easter is a story of faith rewarded and vision restored and hope justified?

Because that’s what Easter is for me!

May you have joy this Easter, a joy born of life well lived.
May you have love this Easter, a love stronger than death, -- a love that brings healing and new growth to your life, a love that brings light where it feels dark;
And may you have peace this Easter, peace which allows you to be open to newness and gives you reason to sing.

O Spirit of Life and Renewal, we have wintered enough, mourned enough, oppressed ourselves enough. Our souls are too long cold and buried, our dreams all but forgotten, our hopes unheard. We are waiting to rise from the dead. In this season of steady rebirth, we awaken to the power so abundant, so holy, that returns each year through earth and sky. We will find our hearts again, and our good spirits. We will love, and believe, and give and wonder, and feel again the eternal powers. The flow of life moves ever onward through one faithful spring, and another, and now another. May we be forever grateful.  Alleluia. Amen.


A Good Friday Meditation, April 18, 2014

Jesus Breathed His Last: Active and Passive Suffering
 People's Congregational Church, UCC, Washington D.C.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:44-46

I want us to be aware of two movements in this text -- two messages that can feel contradictory. They have to do with active suffering and passive suffering. To get there, let’s visit first Matthew and John’s Gospels quickly.

In Matthew’s version of the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew uses a Greek phrase we translate as, “He yielded up His spirit” or “He released his spirit” (27:50). John uses a similar phrase: “He gave up His spirit” (19:30). These descriptions of Jesus’ last breath are bold and active. They emphasize the voluntary nature of Jesus’ death. Jesus is in control up to the very last breath. It fits in well with John’s theology. He’s the one who has Jesus say, “I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again (Jn. 10:17–18, emphasis added). For Matthew and John, It ain’t’ over ‘till Jesus says it’s over. Jesus is on top of the whole salvation process up to the very end of life . . . and beyond.

Mark and Luke use a different Greek phrase to describe Christ’s last breath. According to Luke, “Jesus cried in a loud voice, “Abba (Daddy), into your hands I entrust my spirit.” It still sounds like Jesus has some self-determination. It feels like Jesus is in control. He actively commits his spirit to God. Then Mark and Luke add this phrase: “With those words he breathed his last.” He just . . . expired. It’s one of those polite phrases we use when someone dies, similar to saying, “He passed on. He passed over. He was taken home. He’s lost.” It’s what we say when you don’t want to be blunt about death. It is also passive. In Matthew and John, Jesus’ last breath has some intentionality to it. For Mark and Luke, Jesus simply stops breathing. He’s had it. He’s done. He cannot suffer any longer. He takes one last gasp and he’s dead as a hushed world looks on in horrified disbelief.

Did Jesus die on the cross an active, intentional, voluntary act, becoming obedient unto death and securing eternal life for all who believe? Or, did Jesus die as a passive victim, exposing the human tendency to evil and corrupt systems? It’s a question theologians have fun arguing about: Was Jesus’ suffering on the cross was active or passive?

The answer is yes. I want to suggest that our journey to Easter involves both the active and the passive. We need to hold them together to experience the fullness of God’s promise.

On one hand, transformation requires active, untiring effort to face the love of God. God puts us face-to-face with the reality of sin, suffering and death in order to heal us. Facing God’s love is painful for us. It means we need to face our own death-dealing ways actively. Because salvation has already taken place. The presence of God is already in and around us.  To grow in our awareness takes some activism. We have to give up our idolatries and biases. We need to reunite our dualistic perceptions. Our active role consists of reminding ourselves, day and night, at home and on the road, at work and at play, that we can entrust ourselves, that we can commit our spirits, to God’s mercy, just as we are. So, transformation is active.

After all, the Apostle Paul tells says, “Transform yourself by the renewing of your minds,” right? 

No way. He says, “Be transformed.” I other words, transformation is also passive. I need to be open for something vital happen to me. I not only actively contemplate God, I allow God to contemplate me. Spiritual practices allow for passive receptivity to God in all situations of life.

And so, we are transformed by a mutual loving encounter in two dimensions: Active effort and passive receptivity. Works of compassionate justice balanced by open accessibility. Insistent love tempered by the capacity to be loved in return.

Scripture gives us another way to think of this balance. Paul says, “Love is patient. Love is kind.” The literal phrase actually has more flair: “Love does patience,” or as the KJV puts it. “Love suffers long.
Love suffers long when your friends and co-workers drive you crazy or your kids and grandkids wake you too early in the morning when you were planning to sleep in.  Long-suffering is a survival strategy we use to put up with people who make us nuts, because at the end of the day, we love them more than they grate on our nerves.

That’s what God shows to us, isn’t it? Long-suffering is the passive side of God’s love. Even when we have actively defied, God is patient. God suffers long for us.

But God’s love is also kind. It’s the active side of love. God’s love forgives. God’s love restores. God’s love makes us whole.

Active and passive.
We give and God receives.
God gives and we receive.
God’s insistent love is tempered by our need to be loved in return.
Our growing love is balanced by God’s desire to be loved with all of our heart, mind, and strength.

In my congregation, we talk about this dynamic as spiritual activism.  Spiritual Activism is like a breath . . . a heartbeat . . . a rhythm. It means we breathe out and go out and do the works of compassionate justice in the world that God calls us to do.  But we know we don’t get it right the first time around. So we gather together and breathe in. We pray. We listen. We receive. We refine our approach. And we realize we can’t stay in the pray circle forever. So we go back out. We exhale and reach out activley in our communities with God’s love. We feed and house the poor. We clothe the naked. We visit the prisoners. We include those who live on the margins of our communities. Then we breathe in again. We come back together to talk, pray some more and listen to for the wisdom of the Spirit.. Then, with another exhalation, we reach out to our families to make them healthier and more loving. Then we gather our families together to pray, and feel God, and listen to how we can be a better family. Then comes the hardest work of all. I breathe out and work on myself, doing whatever it takes to grow in spiritual maturity and wholeness. And I also receive what God wants to do in my life. It’s a breathe. A heat beat. A rhythm. And it’s what I wish for all of us as we approach the miracle of Easter resurrection.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sermon for April 17, 2014 / Maundy Thursday

The Path of Least Resistance: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

If you want to make a difference in society, here’s what to do: step off that path of least resistance. It’s that simple. And it’s that difficult. Stop following the crowd. Stop doing what the dominant culture says you should do. Don’t let fear keep you in place. Face the pain that will come when society tries to stuff you back into its mold. If you want to make a difference in society, step off that path of least resistance.

Let me give you an example, as written about by sociologist Allan Johnson. In 1960, most public accommodations were racially segregated throughout the U.S. South. One day, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four young African-American college students walked into a Woolworth’s lunch counter and bought school supplies for their first term in college and then sat down at the lunch counter and asked for menus. The waitress, however, refused to serve them. She told them to leave, saying, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

They were furious at being treated this way. They were from Northern cities where racism and segregation were not so blatant. They argued among themselves about what to do. Finally they decided to return to the lunch counter and refuse to leave until they were served like everyone else. As they sat on the stools that day, they were threatened, verbally abused, and physically pushed and shoved. They had food and drink thrown on them, yet they refused to leave. Finally, the manager announced that the lunch counter was closed. As the students rose to leave, they said they’d be back tomorrow. They returned the next day, along with others who had heard of their sit-in. They came back the day after that with more people. And again the day after that with even more people. They kept coming back until every seat was occupied by a person of color, willing to defy the unconcealed racial segregation that had been a trademark of Southern White culture for hundreds of years.

Within a matter of weeks, news of what happened in Greensboro spread. Similar sit-ins occurred across North Carolina and then, within a few months, throughout the South in all kinds of public accommodations. The eventual result was an end to this form of segregation.

Maybe you remember that event. Allan Johnson suggests that we notice what these young protesters did and did not do. They did not try to change anyone’s mind. They did not speak, much less argue, with anyone. They did not hand out written statements. They knew that every social system organizes through the participation of individuals. And any individual in any system has the potential to change how the system works. How? By stepping off the path of least resistance. When a person changes how he or she participates in the system, that person can begin to transform how the system shapes people’s experiences and behaviors. In other words, changing the way a system works is far more powerful – and potentially more dangerous –than trying to change any particular individual, one at a time.

When we step off the paths of least resistance, we can change the structures. Just by sitting at a lunch counter, the Greensboro Four changed the essence of segregation by rearranging the physical space. They challenged the distribution of power that kept segregation in place as the cornerstone of white privilege. The act of stepping off the path of least resistance created consequences that rippled out from that small lunch counter to much larger systems.

This kind of interplay both between systems and the people who participate in them is how social life happens. When someone steps off the path of least resistance, we pay attention. We make choices and decisions. We support or oppose. We choose to ignore it or we choose to show compassion.

Let’s use another example from our biblical stories. You might remember the story about the Good Samaritan. He literally steps off the path of least resistance to show compassion to a wounded traveler. The wounded man’s fellow citizens wouldn’t step off the path to help. The religious leaders of the day wouldn’t do it. Only the least likely character in the story, a despised, un-kosher Samaritan, steps off the path to help. When the original listeners heard that story, they paid attention. They selected their allegiance. They knew that Luke, the Gospel writer, wasn’t just talking about how we treat individuals. He also offered a commentary on the corruption of a religious system that valued right belief over right actions.

A system affects how we think, how we feel, and how behave as participants. That’s why I don’t like to play games like Monopoly or Risk anymore. I don’t like how I behave when I’m part of what I'm going to call the"Monopoly/Risk Domination System." When I play these board games, I try to win, even against children. Usually, when I do something to make my kids cry, I feel bad – unless it’s a game of Monopoly or Risk. Crying is part of the game system. I can’t resist feeling good about crushing my opponents. Then I feel bad about feeling good about crushing my opponents. Why do I act and feel this way? I know I do not have a greedy, mercenary personality in any other social situation.

When I participate in the Monopoly/Risk Domination System, greedy behavior is the path of least resistance. It’s what I’m supposed to do if I want to belong, because everyone else is encouraged to act the same way. So when I play the game, I go by its rules and pursue the values it promotes. The rules of these games have authority over the people who play them. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Try changing the rules of Monopoly so that all players get to share the wealth. Everyone can pool their rent money, and whenever a player lands on free parking, that player gets a share of the pot. Just try it and see what happens. One time, during a game of Risk, I suggested we change the scenario. Instead of taking over territory through warfare, I said, “Hey, let’s imagine these armies represent the power of love to overtake the world. Instead of armies, these will be spiritual forces for good.” I was laughed out of the room. Why? In the context of the game, dominance is the path of least resistance. When we step off the path of least resistance, we change the structure. 

Tonight, when we rehearse our most holy of stories, we will experience Jesus stepping off the path of least resistance.

Jesus prays in the Garden as his closest followers sleep. They will fail to keep their vigil. They will leave Jesus alone in his soul-agony. Jesus will pray that the cup of suffering might be taken away. We realize that at any moment, Jesus can walk away. He can say sorry for being a political rabble-rouser and probably keep his life. Instead, Jesus will take another step off the path of least resistance.

Jesus will go to the cross. Not with a fight. Not with weapons. Not with retaliatory violence. Jesus will step off the path of least resistance, which, ironically, will mean going willingly to death on the cross.

Tonight, we will also hear stories of those who follow the path of least resistance. Peter will follow the path of least resistance when, in fear, he denies Jesus Christ three times. He will realize that if he admits to being a follower of Jesus, he will be killed, too.

Rather than ruin his political career, Pontius Pilate will follow the path of least resistance when he washes his hands, both symbolically and literally, of Jesus’ fate and allows an angry mob to crucify him.

We are always participating in something larger than ourselves. If we want to understand how to transform our lives as communities, we have to understand what it is that we’re participating in and how we participate in it. There is no moment of greater awareness for anyone than when one steps off the path of least resistance.

As we listen, as we remember, as we approach the stories of Jesus dying because of human sin, perhaps we will think of the easy paths we follow without question, and the ways we might take different paths in order to change unjust systems.

How can we change direction on the path of retributive violence, and what might happen when we do?

Are we willing to walk off narrow paths of prejudice and intolerance? What might the consequences be?

Might we veer off the path of least resistance to befriend the lonely?
To give a drink to the suffering?
To stay awake with those in agony?
To pray with those who don’t know how to go on?

Can we step off the path of least resistance to help carry the crosses of those who are weak?
To affirm our friendships when it will mean certain discrimination?

Can we step off the path of least resistance to offer a word of hope – to insist that everyone belongs at the lunch counter?
That people in ditches are to be cared for and not ignored?
That love can triumph over domination?
That suffering does not save anyone?

Because when we step off the paths off least resistance, we can change the structures.  And that’s when some real transformation can begin to flourish.


Sermon for April 13, 2014 / Palm Sunday

Lent: Letting Go of Acclaim

With great hope and celebration
we join the procession of life
en route to Jerusalem,
honouring the Christ,
in Jesus,
as alpha and omega.

The palm branches we throw down -
the royal carpet for His passing -
are our own lives,
offered as hallelujahs
that it has all come to this:

Fourteen billion years it has taken
to come to this One,
arriving as servant, though honoured as King;
as peasant, though Lord of Compassion;
no formal education, though born as Wisdom;
dormant in the stars, gestating in the pregnant Earth;
and through Mary, Mother of God.

What joy is ours as we take our place
in the great procession of life,
heralding and blessing
this One who comes in your name,
and all who are coming
with a song of holiness on their lips
and a yearning for wholeness in their hearts.

is the one who comes in your name!
by Bruce Sanguin from If Darwin Prayed

A parade enters Jerusalem. People cheer as the Ruler rides into the City majestically from the West. The King rides on as a symbolic presence at the Passover Feast. Who is leading this parade? None other than Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate rides in an impressive and lavish procession, designed to astonish people with a visual display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.

Another parade begins at the same time as Pilate’s. From the other side of Jerusalem, from the East, Jesus rides a borrowed donkey down to the city gate from the Mount of Olives.  Jesus produces a fringe festival to Pilate’s pomp; a counter-demonstration. Jesus and his parade goers might be able to hear the procession in the West; the sounds of marching feet, beating of drums, creaking of leather and cracking whips, which drown out all other sound from the markets and streets. From the East, if we draw close enough, we might hear a band Jerusalem’s marginalized citizens singing, “Hosanna! Save Us! Blessed is the one who comes!” as they throw palms on the road and Jesus rides into town. Jesus rides in a procession that he stages as satire.

All parades use symbols. The Silver Spring Thanksgiving Parade has every civic organization in the county marching down the street, complete with flags, scouts and soccer teams, dance troupes, armored police enforcement trucks, and street venders overcharging for balloons. When I lived in Western New York, the parades were all fire trucks and farm equipment . . .  and street venders overcharging for balloons — perfect for a small agriculturally-based village. Pilate’s parade has banners, armor, weapons, and gold eagles mounted on standards (no balloons) — perfect symbolism for the power, authority, and wealth of the Roman Empire — a fitting tribute to the Roman Emperor who likes his subject to flatter him with titles like “Son of God”, “Lord” and “Savior”.  No one on the street has to ask what Pilate’s parade means. Pilate is not marching to Jerusalem out of respect for the religious devotion of his Jewish subjects. He rides to make sure that no trouble breaks out on this holiday when pilgrims swell the city and the Jews remember the story of their liberation from another empire in Egypt. He rides to remind rioters and revolutionaries that they dare not challenge or defy the power of Rome.

In the East, a few people stop, point, and ask, “Who is that?” And someone says, “It’s Jesus, whom they call a prophet. He comes from up north in Nazareth in the region of Galilee.” They shake some palm branches and throw them on the ground as Jesus rides to suffer at the hands of the worst that Rome represents.

If you were there on the streets of Jerusalem, which parade would you be drawn to?

Pilate’s parade has huge appeal. It’s noisy. It’s big. It stands for all the things that citizens value in society. It has power and strength, authority and riches. It’s a brawny and dominant symbol of the Empire’s potency. Pilate’s parade offers control. Leadership. Security. It leaves us with our mouths gaping wide. Pilate’s parade is not mentioned in any of the scriptures, but his spectacle probably forms the background of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade. Jesus’ parade makes more sense when we know that Pilate had another parade going at the same time. Jesus’ parade is clearly a caricature of Pilate’s parade. Jesus’ parade is laughable. It’s ridiculous. A grand leader decked in gold on horseback versus a peasant riding a borrowed donkey? Jesus’ parade wants to make us wake up, to pay attention, to laugh at the Empire, to think about who really is in charge of the land of Israel and the nations of the world.

Much in my life draws me to Pilate’s parade. Big and powerful things have allure. I want to be around people who can make me feel strong and influential. Many of us are drawn to that which makes us feel important and admired in the hopes that it might rub off on us. But something keeps calling me back to Jesus’ parade. The past couple of weeks I have been puzzling over what it is. Why do I feel so anxious when I take part in Pilate’s parade? What is so enticing and, at the same time so scary, about the pomp and splendor?  Sometimes I want to be part of the spectacle, even when I know in my head that Pilate’s parade does not represent my values.
Pilate’s parade may attract us. It may inspire feelings of importance and status. But there’s a cost. We have to give up something to be in Pilate’s parade. 

  • Pilate wants our strength, but only if we give up our need.
  • Pilate wants our obedient devotion, but only if we give up our longing to understand our doubts.
  • Pilate wants fear and admiration, but only if we are willing to sacrifice our self-determination.
  • Pilate’s parade offers us status, but we have to be willing to march in time with Pilate’s relentless, marching beat to earn it. We must become who Pilate wants us to be.

Jesus’ parade draws me in a different way. His parade actually scares me more, because it asks more of me. Jesus offers an opportunity to laugh at the greed and hubris around us. It’s a call to find freedom by doing some of the most counter-intuitive actions, like:

  • giving up the self-superiority that fools us into thinking we are better than others,
  • giving up fear-driven control tactics that make us grasp for counterfeit security,
  • giving up the expectation that God promises prosperity,
  • giving up on hopelessness that keeps us entombed in life’s shadows,
  • giving up on acclaim that tempts us to lulls us into pretentious pomposity.

What a welcome Jesus got as he entered Jerusalem from the East. “Hosanna!” the people cried, pitting him against Rome and hailing him as a real King. The crowds loved Jesus on Palm Sunday. But just remember, a few days later a different crowd will call for his death and the release of a murderer. Popularity and acclaim are fleeting. If we put all our faith in the applause of others, we will be very disappointed. Instead, God calls us to put our faith in a steadfast love that sustains us through the times when others abandon us.

Jesus’ parade invites us to hold all parts of our life together. The bliss and the sorrow. The promise and the pain. In his parade, we do not march in time with one stringent beat. We walk with Jesus in a humanizing and unassuming march of humility — a pageant that proclaims a power that comes from following God, not pomp and privilege.

Can we do it? Can we give ride with Jesus to the Temple where he will topple the money changers’ tables? Can he hear him naming the practices we take part in without thinking? Can we follow him as he leads us back from corruption, consumption, and consumerism? Can we give up some acclaim so that we can get back to our true humanity?

Here is Jesus, riding to on Good Friday and the cross. In a world that avoids suffering and denies death, here is Jesus riding on to embrace life’s pain. Can we give up some acclaim and allow ourselves to face pain and suffering?

Holy Week is our week to reflect prayerfully and passionately on our faith. It is our time to ask which way of life we will follow. We decide and then we bring all of our heart and soul to living that way.

There were two processions that day. And the people had to decide in which one they would participate. That’s still the decision we all must make. Which world order will we help to bring forth: The domination of empire that uses violence, coercion or the steps of the Peacemaker who leads us to wholeness? Those who take advantage of the poor and marginalized to maintain control and order, or the One who has heals and blesses all? Economic and political systems that benefit a few at the cost of the masses, or a non-coercive, non-hierarchical  public square where all each person is responsible for shaping the common good? Can we help bring forth a world that embraces each life, that values the power of community in relationship, that trusts in the authority of love and the possibility of peace— the one where we can be truly free. Which procession will we participate in?

Sources: “All This Joy, All this Sorrow,” A Sermon Preached by Peter Ilgenfritz ,‎
 “Which way will be our way?” A sermon by Joe Hoffman
“Palm Sunday 2012 – Which Procession Will We Join?”
The Last Week, by Marcus Bord and John Dominic Crossan

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sermon for April 6, 2014

Lent: Giving Up Hopelessness

Can you remember a time when you gave up hope? A time when you thought that life cannot get better — will not get better? A time when you chose to run rather than weep because you did not want to get involved?

As a minister, I get to attend the bedsides of those die slowly of debilitating illnesses. Sometimes I am in and out of homes or hospital rooms daily. Although my visits are brief, I listen to family members who live in the presence of gradual death, day in and day out, with little or no breathing space of their own. Over time and many visits, I can see different reactions to those who are dying.

Some caretakers use protective emotional strategies to shield themselves from overwhelming sorrow. Sometimes they joke. Sometimes they clean. Sometimes they do things that do not necessarily need to be done for the patient, but which gave the caregiver the sense of helping. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, you can sense that a sorrow-soaked family member is not really there in the moment. The caretaker has just shut it all out.

Some people will limit hope by becoming emotionally militant. There is a mock-Latin aphorism:  Illegitimi non carborundum. The phrase came about in World War II: Illegitimi — the tame translation is “illegitimate ones.” The phrase means something like, “Don’t let the illegitimate ones grind you down.” It was picked up by Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, and reportedly sits prominently on the desk the current Speaker of the House. At first glance, Illegitimi non carborundum has its appeal. It is macho and assertive. “I’m going to be tough in the face of despair. I’m not going to let those who suffer pull me down. I will resist.”  It may sound hard-hitting and muscular, but I wonder if it’s true, because in my experience, when we deny suffering we may actually take on even more suffering.

So, if denial doesn’t work, if protective emotional strategies don’t always help us, if anger and stoicism cause more suffering, what are we to do?

How about this: weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn? We could try emotional honesty. Author Frederick Buechner suggests that we keep track of the times and events in our lives that bring tears to our eyes. They may be happy or sad moments. It may be a funeral, or a wedding, or a patriotic event; when veterans march by in a parade or "Taps" is played. It could be something that triggers a sense of loss, like hearing a loved-one’s favorite song unexpectedly played at a restaurant. It could be something inconsequential.  Some men need to go to a dark movie theater to cry. There’s that scene in Rocky II when Rocky’s wife Adrian is in a coma, but her hair is perfect with that little ribbon pinned to the side, and her lipstick is on, and she comes out of the coma just to tell Rocky to win his second fight against the Apollo Creed. The dramatic music builds and the scene cuts to Rocky doing one-armed push-ups with the dawning sun behind him. That scene can bring on the tears.

I’ve had moments when I get choked up during a truck commercial. I don’t understand it. I just go with it. 

For some of us, tears may come at an unexpected time or place. Whenever we are stirred to such depths, these may be times God is working in our lives. The Spirit breaks through the craggy veneer of hardness behind which we tend to entomb ourselves.  Check the times and places where you weep and you might feel the places where God wants to get through to you.

Jesus weeps. We read it in today’s gospel account from John. Jesus weeps over the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus weeps because God cares. When we wonder if anybody cares, the tears of Jesus remind us that God cares. God understands.

One day a child was running down the hall at church on the last day of Church School. He had a little ceramic plaque in his hand that he had made for his mother. He had worked on it all month. As he ran down the hall to give it to her, he dropped the plaque and broke it into a thousand pieces. The child began to cry. The grown-ups tried to comfort him. They said, "Don’t worry, it was just a little piece of clay." The child was inconsolable. Finally, his mother came on the scene. She said, "Let's pick up all of the pieces, and we will take them home and put it together and see what we can make out of it." That is what God is like! God is like a good parent. God understands when and how it hurts. When life shatters, go ahead and weep with sadness. God helps us pick up the pieces and make something out of what is left. God cares about you. Weep with hope. Weep for joy.

When denial doesn’t work, when protective emotional strategies don’t help us, when anger and stoicism cause more suffering, what are we to do?

We let go of hopelessness and remember God cares. Weeping does not mean all is lost. It does not equate to hopelessness. Weeping means that we are opening ourselves up to God’s care.  We remember God can bring life from death. God pieces together something-ness out of nothingness.

For me that’s the story of Lazarus. Lazarus was dead, dead dead. Three nights dead. Buried in a tomb. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it’s too late. By the fourth day, everyone’s given up. The mourners have resented and resigned. There’s no happy ending. No beautiful finale. It’s too late. It’s finished. Lazarus is dead. I’m sure there is some denial. Some anger. Some emotional protective strategies to shield mourners from overwhelming sorrow.  And then Jesus calls out a name. He issues a command. “Lazarus, come forth!” Through tears of sadness and the torment of hopelessness, Jesus calls his name. Lazarus. Get up! In the face of anger and denial and stoicism, in the face of skepticism and lament, Lazarus walks out of the craggy fa├žade of a garden tomb. Finally, everyone understands the meaning of Lazarus’ name. Lazarus means, “God has helped.” No one else could help, but God has helped. On the fourth hopeless day, God has helped.

Clutching a picture of his pregnant wife, a 25-year-old Marine was flown into a military hospital in Afghanistan. Doctors immediately begin working on him, attaching IV’s and cutting his clothing off. As blood spilled out over the photo, he begged the doctors buzzing around him to get him back to his wife. From pale lips and a raspy murmur, he managed to say, “I promised…I promised I’d meet my son.” Then darkness fell around him. The medical staff noticed the Marine had lost liters of blood, his lower torso was completely gone. One doctor asked, “Will this kid even want to survive?” Silently and grimly, they wheeled him into the operating room, uncertain he could sustain the hours and hours of surgery ahead. A nurse tenderly removed the photo of his wife from his stiff hands and propped it by the OR table.

It’s said, after surgery, when soldiers come to after days of powerful pain medications, amputee soldiers are often sent home emotionally broken, spiritually empty, and unable to move beyond their traumatic losses. Doctors and nurses try to save a  physical life, knowing many of the soldiers’ spirits die before they ever get to the OR table. Hope is hard to find among their hospital beds.

When this young Marine awoke after days of recovery, his first words were to thank all the staff for saving his life. Then he paused to thank God for guiding their hands in his healing. The startled staff carefully repeated the severity of his injuries and the extent of his loss, thinking the Marine had not understood. He replied that he already knew how bad he was hurt when he was put in the helicopter. He knew this might happen. “God was with me and got me this far,” he explained. The nurses wondered when the news would really hit him. Instead of the blank stare and overwhelming grief, this soldier grinned at them saying, “I’m still living and that’s something, isn’t it?” Gratitude poured out of him. Not sorrow or lament or despair. Gratitude. Gratitude for the staff for keeping him alive. Gratitude for the ability to keep his promise to his wife to meet his unborn child. The staff marveled at his positive outlook and his determination. Perhaps everyone finally understood the meaning of hope.  “God has helped.”

This Lenten season, maybe you need to give up some hopelessness. In the darkness of ruined relationships, in the frustration of unsuccessful attempts to make your life better, in failed dreams of beauty and happy endings, in the entombed hopeless reality of life’s shadows, there is a voice – a special, singular voice – and it calls your name. Through the tears and the torment of hopelessness, the voice says, “God has helped! No one else could have helped, but God has helped. On even the most hopeless of days, God has helped. Now rise.”


Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...