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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday: He is Ahead of You! (Mark 16:1-8)


When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

 

Did you notice me in that Bible story you all just read a minute ago?  I’m the angel, “the young man in a white robe” who was seated inside the tomb.  I know what you’re thinking – “Hey buddy, you’re not as young as you used to be,” and trust me, I am already well aware of that, thank you.  Or maybe, “You don’t look like an angel to me!” but you’d be surprised how often we’re among you and go unnoticed.  Maybe you’re expecting to see me in a white robe, like in the story, but I’ll bet you don’t wear the same thing every day, do you?  Neither do I.

 

Whatever you think you know about angels, you really don’t know the half of it, until you’ve flown a mile in my wings.  For one thing, the commute is a killer.  You think you rack up the frequent flier miles in your job; I was a million mile member just in my first month, and yet, I never get upgraded to first class!  And then, the clientele I’ve been assigned – people – are just so frustrating to work with.  I’ll tell you, for a species created in the image of God, you humans can be awfully thick-headed and unimaginative, sometimes.  But for some unknown reason to me, God just loves the socks off you people!

 

You see, as an angel, I’ve delivered more messages to humanity that are too numerous to count.  Those messages have all been different variations on the same theme: namely, how much God loves you.  Not just you as individuals, but collectively, all of you, the whole human race, the whole world, in fact.

 

God has been clear about this.  From the very beginning, everything God has done has been motivated by God’s love for all of you.  And each heart-breaking act of humanity only seems to increase God’s resolution to show you the full extent of his love, the wideness of his mercy, the depth of his grace.  Granted, God is the only boss I’ve ever worked for, but I continue to be surprised that no matter what you do, God just keeps right on loving you.  Boy, if that doesn’t tell us who God is!  That sort of unconditional love – well, I guess that’s why God is God and we’re not.  That holy, divine, perfect love – that perfect love that casts out fear and sin and all manner of darkness – has been the driving force behind everything God has ever done, is doing, and will do.

 

Today is Easter Sunday, the day when we remember and celebrate God’s greatest and most complete act of love toward humanity.  I’m talking about Jesus, of course!  The whole story is about Jesus the Christ, isn’t it?  Jesus is the clearest and fullest expression of God’s love for humanity.  At his birth, Jesus was God-in-the-flesh, the love of God with a human face, God’s very presence come to earth.  His life and teaching witnessed to God’s love, as he taught how to grow in love toward God and one’s neighbor, that the kingdom of God might be realized on earth as it is in heaven.

 

In hindsight, I think it’s all that talk about “the kingdom of God” that got him into trouble.  Existing kings didn’t like talk about a new king or a new kingdom.  Existing religious leaders didn’t like talk about a God who was more loving and inclusive than they were.  And so the religious and government leaders formed an alliance against Jesus’ message of God’s radical love and grace for all, and all humanity had Jesus, God’s love with a human face, put to death on a cross.

 

And really, that’s what broke God’s heart more than anything.  Around the office, we thought that might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Talk about tension at work!   God didn’t come into the office for three days, and it seemed he had gone silent.  We thought you all had pushed it too far this time – beyond the bounds of God’s love, outside the scope of God’s forgiveness, further than the wideness of God’s mercy, untouchable by the reach of God’s grace.  Humanity killed God’s own Son, for goodness’ sake; no one, not even a God named Love could overlook that, or so we thought.  We sort of thought that was the place God was going to leave you to your own devices – you’d made your bed and God was content to let you lie in it.

 

But, Lord love you and bless your hearts – I mean that literally, by the way – you all are pretty special to God.  All I can say is he must love you an awful lot to put up with the things you do to him, to each other, and even to his Son, because he turned that cross – an emblem of suffering and shame, what should have been an instrument of defeat – into the victory of love and grace over sin and death.  How like God to turn darkness into light, to bring life out of death, to turn mourning into dancing, to transform a symbol of the world’s hate into one of the power of his love.  How like God to take what should be an ending and turn it into a brand new beginning, and to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

 

That first Easter morning, all the company of heaven got the news that Jesus was risen, and I got the assignment to go and wait in the empty tomb for the women to arrive.  I had hoped to maybe run into Jesus as he was leaving, a sort of tag-out at the tomb, but I was too late.  The risen Lord apparently had better things to do than hang around an empty tomb.

 

Now, I’m aware that I have a little bit of a celebrity status with some of my co-workers because of this particular assignment, “wow, you got assigned to the empty tomb!” Yes, it was an important assignment in a crucial and well-publicized part of the story, but truth be told, my role really wasn’t as glamorous as some of them want to believe.  I was basically tomb-sitting, waiting like some sort of executive assistant for the women to arrive so I could say, “Were you looking for Jesus?  Oh, I’m sorry – you just missed him!”

 

The women approached, a set of expectations in their minds about they would find.  They carried exotic spices and oils and perfumes because they expected to find the decaying body of an innocent man, sealed behind a stone.  They were pretty startled to see the stone rolled away, and me sitting there.  Standard reaction, by the way, when you humans see one of us – some combination of surprise and fear.  Angel training 101 is to tell people not to be afraid, which I did.

 

I knew why they were there, and what they expected.  “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, aren’t you?”  They nodded.  “Well, as you can see, he isn’t here.  He’s been raised from the dead.”

 

In hindsight, I probably should have given that a minute or two to sink in.  That’s not really the kind of news people hear every day.  And so, I admit I panicked a bit, and started filling the silence with my own rambling.  “Uhhhh, first time here, is it?  Well then, let me show you around a bit.  You saw the stone on your way in – wasn’t it a big one?  This tomb was originally owned by Joseph of Arimethea, but up until recently, it was occupied by, you guessed it, Jesus of Nazareth.  And right over here, this is where the body was laid.”

 

The women said nothing, and I realized I needed to get back on message.  “Ahem,” I continued.  “Well, again, Jesus isn’t here.  But he asked me to leave word for you that he is going on ahead of you.  I think he mentioned that to you previously, but he’s asked me to remind you of that appointment.  So, bottom line.  Jesus: not here.  Risen from the dead.  Gone on ahead.  Meet him there.”

 

They didn’t say anything.  They didn’t confirm what I had said, didn’t make any indication that they even understood.  In fact, during our entire one-sided conversation, the expressions of fright on their faces never changed as I shared the message.  When I was done talking, they simply fled from the tomb, and I was left wondering if my message had fallen on deaf ears, and if their lack of understanding was somehow going to become a negative mark on my performance evaluation that year.

 

Well, it didn’t.  I still have my job.  Got promoted to middle management, last quarter.  One of the things I’ve come to understand and appreciate about working for God is that when God gives us a message to share, we’re responsible to share it, but don’t have any control over what people do when they receive it.  I can’t make anyone believe anything, and I can’t make anyone do anything.  Thank God, I don’t have to.  Thank God he doesn’t work that way.  God just has us put the good news out there – again, and again, and again – sometimes to the point where we feel like a broken record, but that’s what God wants, so that’s what we do.

 

I didn’t have a lot of luck with the women at the tomb on that first Easter Sunday.  I proclaimed the good news, but they weren’t ready to hear it yet.  They didn’t grasp it.  They didn’t understand it.  No transformation happened – they showed up at the tomb in fear and they left in fear.

 

Now, thankfully, I understand that they did meet up with the risen Christ a little later on – just exactly where he promised he would be.  Thank God Jesus has a way of finding us even when we don’t know where to look for him.  And of course, an encounter with me doesn’t hold a candle to the radiance of actually meeting the resurrected and living Lord, and nor should it, because, this story isn’t really about me – it’s about Jesus.  Thank God that new life can be ours, even when our first encounter with it causes us to run away.

 

I didn’t have a whole lot of luck with the women on that day, so I’m hoping I have better luck with you, today.  You see, I’ve been sent to give you a message.  Now, I hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears or hard hearts, and I hope you don’t run away screaming.  I hope that the message I share kindles something of faith within you, leading you to trust God more than your own expectations.  I hope all of that happens for you today, but again, I also know I can’t make you experience Easter or believe in the resurrection or embrace the promise of new life in Christ.

 

The message I have for you is the same message I gave to the women, so here goes: the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive.  He’s got better things to do than hang around an empty tomb.  He’s gone on, he’s out there ahead of you, and if you’ll step out in faith, he’ll be waiting for you, and he’ll meet you there.

 

It’s the same message I’ve been delivering to humanity since my first assignment, the message I’ll continue to deliver until God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s a message that God still loves the socks off of you – always has, always will, and nothing you do can change that.  Through the risen Lord, he has opened a way for you to experience new life in him.

 

Friends, don’t take as long as all those Marys – however many of them there actually were, even I don’t have the exact figure – to find your way to the presence of the risen Lord.  Jesus is risen and he’s out there ahead of you.  Live as Easter people.  You’ve got better things to do than to hang around an empty tomb.

Easter Sunrise: Warm, Warmer, Hot, Hot, HOT! (John 20:1-18)


Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

 

You all know the game of “Hot and Cold” we used to play as kids.  Some object is hidden, and those playing start far away from it, and the person who hid the object says, “Cold, cold,” and then as they closer and closer they say, “Warmer, Warmer, Warmer, Hot, Hot, Red Hot, Burning Up!” until finally, the hidden object is found.

 

I imagine that first Easter Sunday as sort of a game of “Hot and Cold.”  Jesus’ body is like the hidden object everyone is trying to find.  For his followers, the Marys, Simon Peter, John, and whoever else was headed to the tomb, it should have been a fairly easy and straightforward game.  As a general, reliable rule, bodies stay in place once buried, and so Jesus should be easy to find.  When they left the house, ice cold.  As they got closer to the cemetery, a little warmer.  Down the garden path, warmer, warmer. Right up to the entrance of the tomb – HOT, HOT.

 

But, the tomb is empty. As Mary approaches the tomb in the early morning mist and sees the stone rolled away, she supposes he has been taken away in the middle of the night, and despair sets in.  When it comes to finding Jesus, Mary’s heart is screaming, “Red Hot, Burning Up!” but her senses are telling her, “Cold, Cold, Cold.”  Her heart feels Jesus nearby, but the tomb is empty.  Angels confirm this news, and Mary backs out of the tomb right into a man who was just outside.  Through the tears, she barely gets out, “Sir, if you have taken him away, please, just tell me where he is . . . please, please, please . . .”

 

The gardener doesn’t answer.  He just says one word.  He calls her by name, “Mary . . .”  And when, out of the darkness, we hear our name called, we recognize the One who stands before us – the crucified One is the risen One, and what, a moment ago seemed “Cold, cold, cold” now radiates with the warmth of the presence of Christ.

 

We have also shown up today looking for Jesus. Through the liturgy, the music, the sermon, and the sacrament I pray that we too might discover this day the risen Lord, who is forever finding ways to bump into us.  God has a way of finding us far quicker than we’re able to realize we’ve found God.

 

Honesty bids us admit that we don’t always know what God is up to or where God is. Sometimes, like the disciples, we look in the tomb and go back home because we don’t know what else to do.  Sometimes, like Mary, we cover the ground with our tears or lash out at angels or strangers or even at Christ himself.  Sometimes, our questions go unanswered or our fears get the better of us, but the good news of Easter is that fears, and doubts, and grief, and anger, and confusion are not the end of the story.

 

Mary invites us to linger as long as we need to. Mary doesn’t go home, she looks in the tomb over and over again, God’s grace working to make her warmer and warmer and warmer until she’s “hot.” Encountering the risen Christ herself.   The resurrection doesn’t lessen the pain or the reality of death, it simply shows us, that with God, the worst thing is never the last thing, and that tears and grief, through God’s love and grace, can be transformed into joy and hope.

 

That joy wells up from the depth of Mary’s being and she lunges to embrace this resurrected Jesus, but Jesus, to our dismay and certainly Mary’s says, “Do not hold onto me.”  I have to admit I’d have written this part differently.  If it were up to me, pan in for a long, tearful hug between Jesus and Mary – close-up on their smiling, tear-stained faces.  Cue the sappy reunion music, get the tissues ready because there will be water works.  Wide angle shot on the sun rising over the horizon, music builds, credits roll – start writing your acceptance speech for the Oscars ‘cause we’re taking this one all the way down the red carpet, because that’s showmanship!

 

The problem with how I would write the scene, however, is that the reunion with Jesus isn’t the end, it’s actually just the beginning of God’s new redemption story.  Mary just didn’t know that yet.

 

Holding onto Jesus in that moment would have allowed her to hold onto all that Jesus had been, yet would rob her of experiencing all that Jesus was yet to be.

 

Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.  Don’t bottle me up or try to keep me all to yourself.  Go tell your brothers and sisters what you have seen.  Do not hold on – let me go to the ends of the earth.”

 

It’s not simply for her own good.  One of the greatest complaints against the church in our time is that we can try to hold onto Jesus for ourselves, while the world literally goes to hell around us – so heavenly-bound, we’re no earthly good, as it were.  But, resurrection means transformation. If, like Mary, we are fortunate enough to encounter the risen Lord, let us not hold onto new life just for ourselves, but make Christ known to others, as Christ has so graciously made himself known to us.

 

Friends, today is Easter, a day for us to meet the risen Christ.  I need not ask, “What are you looking for?”  It’s the sunrise service, for goodness’ sake – reason tells me that you are seriously looking for Jesus.  Good thing, too, because just in showing up, you’re not cold. Christ is risen, and he is here with us, in this room, this very morning.  Hopefully in the liturgy and music you’ve sensed, “warmer, warmer.”  Maybe even something from this sermon has moved all of us a bit closer to finding the One we are all looking for.

 

But, I promise you this: If you’re looking for Jesus, if you’re looking to hear “hot” as you get closer and closer to his presence, know that Jesus has always promised that he would be known in the broken bread and a shared cup.  His love is as tangible as the bread on the table, his grace reflected in the face of every person gathered here today.

 

This table is HOT! In true Jesus fashion it is he who has found us long before we realize we have found him. We have come looking for him, but the truth is he was here long before we ever arrived in this room. We may just be getting to the table, but it was set long ago.  God’s love and grace is here, it’s been here the whole time.

 

Today is Easter Sunday, and where shall we find the risen Lord?  We meet the resurrected Jesus where he promised to always be: in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

 

And just like Mary, he asks that we not to hold onto these elements for our own sake but to go forth proclaiming the life-giving grace and love poured out at this table.  Today is Easter Sunday; Christ is risen, and Christ is here.  The crucified One is the risen One, who finds us in the darkness, calls our name, and gives us a hope and joy that is too great for us to hang onto.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday: Wash Up Before Supper (John 13:1-17,31b-35)


Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.

Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”

“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”

Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

 

“Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’

34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

 

We all know the difference between a command and a suggestion.  A command is an order, something with which compliance is not optional.  In the workplace, if your boss commands you to do something, so long as it’s not illegal or immoral, you do it, or you start looking for a different job.  In the military, decisions and orders are passed down through a chain-of-command, with which everyone complies, because lives and the overall mission are at stake.  Husbands, you know the difference between a command and a suggestion from your wives, namely, that there is no difference – that every suggestion is, in reality, another form of command.

 

In these contexts, we are pretty good at following commands.  The life of faith also comes with commands, but do we brush off the commands of Jesus as mere suggestions?

 

Today is Maundy Thursday – sometimes called Holy Thursday because it is Thursday of Holy Week – that climactic week in the church’s year between Palm Sunday and Easter.  Maundy is an old-sounding word, a confusing word, but a good word for us to keep.  “Maundy” comes from the Latin, mandatum, sounds like “mandate,” and it means “commandment.”  Maundy Thursday literally means, “Commandment Thursday,” and we remember on this day that Jesus gave us a mandatum novum, a new commandment, to love one another.

 

It is a command given when the stakes are high.  Imagine, for a moment, that you knew you were going to die – but you had a chance for one last gathering of your family and friends – would you not share with them things of the utmost importance?  Some wisdom to pass on, final instructions, a verbal last will and testament, the important things by which you wish to be remembered?

 

Around the table on that night, before Jesus tasted death, he did the same thing with us.  “I give you a new commandment,” he said.  “Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.  This is how the world will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

 

And so here’s my question for us to consider on this Maundy Thursday: are we diligent in following this command, or do we treat it as a mere suggestion?  Have we made optional something Jesus clearly intended to be mandatory?  Often we have, and here’s why.

 

Somewhere along the way, the Church (not this church but THE Church) bought into the myth that spiritual matters are private matters – something just between me and God.

 

When Jesus gave this new commandment to “Love each other,” it was actually a reiteration of what Jesus had already said was the greatest commandment, to love God and love our neighbor.  The Gospel is social in nature, always lived in the context of relationships with other people, and it is never enough to reduce it to what is going on only between an individual and God.  Think of it as living in a house with windows open in the roof, toward God in heaven, and windows open around the sides, toward those around us, our neighbors.  To privatize our faith, to make it solely between us and God, is to close off those windows around the side and shut our neighbors out.

 

Friends, that’s not an option, because Jesus said we would be known as his followers in our love for one another.  The goal is to open the windows of our soul toward heaven and bask in the radiance of God’s love, while we also open toward our neighbors and reflect that love in their direction.  On this Maundy Thursday, on this Commandment Thursday, Jesus gives a command: Love each other.  Let us not treat as optional something Jesus made mandatory.

 

To be clear, Jesus isn’t saying, “Have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone.”  For one thing, that’s just impossible.  You can’t have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone because so many people are just so downright irritating!  Jesus’ commandment is not to have warm fuzzy feelings, but it is to love.

 

Love is not a feeling, but an action, a choice.  It’s the disposition to reach out in compassion and concern to others with all the sensitivity, understanding, and imagination our faculties can muster, to think of others more than ourselves, to place the needs of others above our own.

 

Love may start in our hearts, but it shows itself through our hands.  Love makes itself known by our actions.  On this night, Jesus performed two actions that demonstrate his love, and he told his followers to continue doing those two things as a way to grow in love with him and with each other.

 

We probably think of one of those actions pretty readily – Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Last Supper.  God’s family table is a place where God’s love and grace are as real and tangible as the bread on the table.  Holy Communion is a meal that celebrates the limitless extent of God’s love, which is why all are welcome to receive, and the abundance of God’s grace, which is why I give you such big pieces of bread it has become a running joke between us.

 

On that night so long ago, the disciples were eager to get to the table.  They bounded into that upper room, scoping out positions of honor around the table, ignoring the pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel by the door.  In those days, traveling meant walking.  Sweaty feet in leather sandals kicking up great clouds of dust.  Even a short distance could make your feet pretty nasty, and so feet were washed just inside the door.

 

Washing feet served several purposes.  Part of it was so that you could have a pleasant dining experience after walking around with dusty and sweaty feet all day.  Part of that was to help you feel refreshed at the end of the day.  Part of that was simply about being clean.

 

A wealthy person might have servants who did that, sometimes you were left to wash your own feet, and sometimes, the socially lowest-ranking person present would be asked to wash the feet of everyone else.  Washing feet was the job of servants.  Great people do not wash feet.  The disciples were so caught up in rank and positions of honor, none of them wanted to willingly take the lowest position.  The disciples realized that if they stopped to wash their own feet, they might end up washing everyone else’s feet, too.  Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, Judas - none of them wanted to get stuck doing that – they were all above that!  And so the basin sat by the door.

 

But as the supper progressed, Jesus got up from the table, and he walked back to the door, and he picked up that pitcher, basin, and towel.  As he tied the towel around his waist, the disciples were mortified.  “Oh no.  Jesus isn’t going to wash our feet, is he?”  But Jesus starts around the table, first with John, then with Judas, then on around the entire table.

 

Jesus Christ – the son of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords – washed his disciples’ feet.  Think “Undercover Boss” here.  The master performed the work of a servant.  The king took on the role of the slave.  The one with the highest rank completed the task reserved for the lowest among them.

 

They’re not feeling happy about this.  They’re not refreshed.  They’re embarrassed because their Lord –their teacher, their master – has taken the form of a servant.  Jesus is pointing us to the kingdom of God, in which the roles of the world are reversed – where the king is the servant, where the greatest are those who give of themselves in service to others.  But by washing their feet, Jesus was showing them that, in the kingdom of God, rank has no privileges.

 

After washing their feet, Jesus says, “You call me master, teacher, rabbi, Lord – and I am all these things.  But follow my example: I have washed your feet to show you that no one is above this, that no one is too good to perform even the most menial or degrading task.  Friends, this is what love looks like.  I have taken the most degrading, humiliating job a servant can take on; I’ve taken a job nobody else wanted to do.  If you want to live in my kingdom, start worrying less about who is going to serve you, and get serving.”

 

In the world of tennis, the greatest players are known for their serve.  That’s true in the life of faith, as well – the greatest disciples are known for their serve.  Consider Jesus a tennis coach – always helping us improve our serve.  Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be servant to all.”

 

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave us a new commandment – to love each other.  Love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but acts of compassionate service, as Jesus demonstrated and called us to imitate.

 

The question of Maundy Thursday for each of us to consider is whether we have a servant’s heart – whether we are waiting to be served, or looking for opportunities to serve, whether our motivation is in terms of what we can get, or what we can give.  Jesus told us to love each other – something that may start in our heart, but that shows itself by our hands.

 

Jesus came among us as a servant - he was here to serve rather than be served.  We say we want to be like Jesus, which means we, too, are called to serve.  Just as he washed his disciples’ feet, now he looks at each of us and calls us by name and hands the basin and towel to each of us and says, “If you love me, show it in your love for others.  Take the tools of love, and go to serve others in my name.”  Jesus is calling you by name to love and to serve - they are one-in-the-same - will you take the pitcher and basin and towel and do as he tells us to do?  Or, like it did on that night so long ago with Jesus and his disciples, will the tools of love once again sit neglected by the door in the hopes that someone else will pick them up?

 

One more thing.  This night, Jesus knew that Judas was going to sell him out for thirty pieces of silver.  He knew that Peter would deny him.  He knew the others around the table would flee out of fear and abandon him, but he still said they were his friends, he still desired to eat the meal with them.  Jesus washed the feet and ate with those who would betray, deny, and abandon him.  So remind me again of our excuse for holding grudges and withholding affection?

 

He still washed their feet.  He still served them Holy Communion, even though he knew they were all going to fail him, because that’s what love does.

 

We all know the difference between a command and a suggestion.  On this Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave us a new command – to love each other, as he has loved us.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday: Ride On, King Jesus! (Mark 11:1-11)


When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

 

One of the formative experiences of any trip to the Holy Land is to walk the Palm Sunday road, from the top of the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem.  Not surprisingly, at the top of the route and really all along it, vendors are waiting to sell all sorts of things to the religious pilgrims walking that route.  For a few bucks, you can have your picture taken riding a camel or donkey, and the vendor who seemed to get the most business was the one with the best sense of humor.  He led his donkey through the crowds, shouting, “Donkey rides, taxi! Ride Jesus’ taxi!”

 

I don’t remember my first parade.  But I know I love parades, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t.  What I always loved about the parades were the vehicles.  Red and yellow fire trucks with lights flashing, blaring their horn as they passed, volunteers from some organization riding on the back and pelting the crowd with as much candy as a kid could grab.  I loved all the special interest cars, from the shiny new convertibles (though I could care less about the mayor or city council member riding on the back), to the muscle cars and classic cars and antique cars that made their way through.

 

We lived in a small town in Oklahoma until I was about 3, and our friend and neighbor, Seymour, owned a restored Ford Model ‘A’ truck, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world, especially the “ahooga” horn.  Seymour’s truck appeared in just about every parade in town, and I have the vague recollection of riding in a parade with him, where he let me sound that “ahooga” horn all over the entire route, and I relished every single minute of it.

 

Another parade I have an early memory of is the palm parade every Palm Sunday.  As a child, I remember waving my branch high and shouting, “Hosanna,” much as we have already done, with our children leading the way, at the beginning of today’s worship service.

 

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Holiest week in the life of the Church, and it moves in roller coaster fashion for Jesus and his followers from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and then back up again.  The traditional images of Palm Sunday with which we are so familiar – smiling crowds, fuzzy donkeys, colorful cloaks laid along the road – may lull us into the sense that what took place on this day in Jerusalem so long ago was a matter of child’s play, when the reality is that things of the utmost importance were in play, setting in motion a clash of forces that would lead to Jesus’ execution on the cross.  Let us pray.

 

It was the beginning of the Passover week, the highest and holiest of Jewish religious festivals.  During Passover at the time of Jesus, the population of Jerusalem would swell from 40,000 to 200,000, drawing religious pilgrims from around the known world together into one place.

 

But their minds were not only on things religious.  Several came with political agendas as well.  Passover celebrated the Hebrew liberation from the Egyptians, and during the time of Jesus, the people found themselves occupied by the Romans.  Passover parties of the past had proved to be a political problem, the perfect staging ground for rebellion and uprising. 

 

Picture Jerusalem as the center of a busy intersection.  Jesus’ ride on the stolen donkey was not the only parade taking place that day.  As he descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city from the East, another parade entered the city from the West.  This other parade was led by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, atop a beautiful and powerful warhorse, with the reigns of worldly power held loose, but firm, in his hands.  600 Roman soldiers followed behind to reinforce Rome’s rule during the festival, accompanied by all the symbols of military might we would expect – flags flying, trumpets blasting, drums beating, armor clanking, spears gleaming in the springtime morning sun.

 

The Romans reinforced their occupation forces on Jewish high holy days to discourage any attempted insurrection by rebel leaders who might take advantage of the swelling holiday crowd. Pilate wanted to be close enough to the Temple complex with a strong display of Roman force to ensure the “Pax Romana,” Rome’s version of peace. And Rome had the cross, an intimidating execution device, to enforce Roman authority with any who would question it. Thousands of criminals and perceived enemies of the state were executed along the main roads so that all could witness the penalty for insurrection.

 

The cross was a particularly cruel device of both torture and execution.  Not only did it ensure that people died in the most painful and excruciatingly long way possible, but it dehumanized the crucified in a way we cannot imagine.  We picture crosses as high in the air, but the reality is that the crucified typically hung a few feet off the ground, next to a main road, close enough for people to insult and degrade them face-to-face, eye-to-eye. 

 

In contrast to the display of Roman imperial power, Jesus, who came with no sword, rode into the city on a donkey from the east with a group of ordinary fishermen and farmers and day laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, the least and the last, the lost and the lonely, the downtrodden and the forgotten.

 

The Roman legion symbolized power and privilege; Jesus represented its opposite.  He was born as an oppressed minority.  He spent the first two years of his life as a political refugee in Africa, escaping Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem.  Wherever you consider to be the most backward, middle-of-nowhere place on earth, that’s where Jesus grew up, as some had commented about his hometown, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

 

Pilate and the kingdom of the world came from one direction; Jesus and the kingdom of God from the other, and there in the middle, caught between the two, was a third force: the compromised religious institution. The institution was more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with caring for the poor and marginalized.  They were intent on personal gain and institutional security, with no concern for God’s redemptive mission of justice and righteousness in the world.  More concerned with self-preservation than witnessing to God’s love for those beyond themselves, they had become, as some describe, “so heavenly bound they were no longer any earthly good.”

 

On Palm Sunday, the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus shouted “Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” but those in the crowd were asking for salvation from different things.  Those with political aspirations were seeking salvation from the Roman government.  They had on their mind a coup d’├ętat in which Jesus would overthrow the Romans and establish a regime of his own.  Those with religious sensibilities were seeking salvation from the misguided, self-serving religious establishment, in the hopes that Jesus would establish a new one in its place.

 

In either case, first on everyone’s minds were their own aspirations or desires – whether political or religious.  Those looking for a political Messiah greeted Jesus as the new king – of the old kingdom.  Those looking for a religious Messiah greeted Jesus as the new priest – of the old religion. 

 

And though Jesus is king, he came neither to take over the old kingdom or to establish a new one, which disappointed those with political hopes.  And though Jesus is priest, he came neither to take over the old religion or to establish a new one, which disappointed those with hopes for a new religious institution.

 

Jesus is always a great disappointment to those who wish to use him to advance their own agendas. Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.  That explains how he lost the support of public opinion by the end of the week, and how the very crowds who exultantly shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday, would, by Friday, in blood thirst be yelling, “Crucify Him!”

 

Nothing about the story suggest child’s play.  Jesus, riding a donkey, enters the Holy City from the east. The Roman contingent parades into the city from the west. In the middle were the compromised religious elite. It became known as Palm Sunday – when kingdoms collide.

 

When Jesus came to earth, he brought with him the reign of God, which uproots self-serving systems of greed, corruption, abuse, and exclusion, whether political or religious in nature.  The reign of God is always a threat to those who benefit from maintaining the status quo.

 

Friends, I wonder where we would place ourselves in the crowd.  In my own hand, there is a palm branch.  Today, we have waved these branches high and greeted Jesus with shouts of, “Hosanna!”  Have we done so in the hopes that Jesus will advance an agenda that reflects our own?  The temptation is always there to co-opt God to legitimate our vision of utopia, but today, shouts of “Hosanna” can be our cry for Jesus to save us from our own misguided, small-minded, self-serving, status-quo-preserving thinking and desires.

 

Today, as I wave my branch and greet Jesus as king, I do so with the whole-hearted desire to be a citizen in his kingdom, to pledge my allegiance to him alone, to bow my will and desires to his.  I may not fully understand his kingdom all the time, may not recognize it when it’s in my midst.  I may, at times, cheer for the wrong reasons, or have expectations for Jesus that reflect my own thinking rather than the mind of Christ.

 

Yet, Jesus has so much more in store than my little mind can fathom, and my limited understanding and misguided expectations do not diminish or dictate what God is up to.

 

When my expectations collide with those of Jesus, my waving branch indicates my desire to do it his way, rather than asking him to promote mine.  This branch is a reminder to me, to all of us, that there can only be one king, and that position has already been filled by Jesus.

 

So lift your palm high and greet him as King.  Hail Jesus as the King; love and serve him as your King.