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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Faith that's Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker: God doesn't give you more than you can handle? (James 1:12-18)

12 Those who stand firm during testing are blessed. They are tried and true. They will receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward.
13 No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

It was late spring of 2004 when my mom was initially diagnosed with aggressive, stage 4 breast cancer.  Over the next five years, as she fought that battle which eventually took her life, the outpouring of love and support from friends and family were tremendous.

Most of the sentiments expressed were helpful and healing, and came from a very genuine place.  Most.  There were, however, other sentiments that were less-than-helpful, particularly those that tried to sound pious and theological and ascribe some sense of nobility and purpose to the pain.  Things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” “This is all part of God’s plan,” “God doesn’t give you more than can handle,” “Something really good will come out of all of this,” or my personal favorite, the very well-meaning woman at the funeral home who approached my sister and I, shaking her head, saying, “Well, if you all had prayed harder . . .”  My face apparently went four shades of red, and my sister, wisely, excused us and walked me outside for a few minutes!

I couldn’t help but think, “What causes people to say things like that?  Do they really believe these things about God?  And if they do, why in the world would anyone want anything to do with their god – their god sounds like a real jerk, and if that’s God, no thanks!”

Taken together, these phrases represent a sort of populist bumper sticker theology.  They are “Christian” (and I use the term loosely) clich├ęs, axioms and truisms that can easily fit in a greeting card or on a bumper sticker; they’re easy to memorize, and if you don’t think about them too much, they sorta sound true.  And yet, their picture of God is not only inaccurate, but downright harmful.

Today we are beginning a new series of messages on “Faith that’s bigger than a bumper sticker.”  We’re going to take a look at some of these phrases and their implications, and see how they fall far short of expressing God’s heart, God’s will, and God’s intent for us and our world.

Why does it matter?  Two things, really.  First, as those who worship and follow God, we also serve as God’s representatives in the world.  We need to understand God, as best we can, in order to represent God accurately.  The sayings of bumper sticker theology not only misrepresent God, but I am convinced actually serve to drive people away from God rather than draw them toward God.

Second, I want you all to have a faith that is deep and rich.  I want you each to know God personally and intimately.  If God is big, than our faith should be, as well.  When things are going well, and when we and those we love face difficulty, we need a faith that’s bigger than a bumper sticker.  May we pray.

You have heard it said . . .
Today’s bumper sticker phrase is “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  This is one that gets thrown around when you’re going through some particularly difficult period in life, some well-meaning person will pat you on the shoulder, cock their head to the side a bit, and say, in a very wise and compassionate tone, “Well, just look at it this way: God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It sorta sounds right, doesn’t it?  And yes, there is some truth here, but we need to look at the context in order to get the most meaning out of it.  Many of you know that it was Mother Teresa who put this phrase into popular usage, when she famously said.  “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle; I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.”  Mother Teresa - no stranger to suffering and difficulty – if she can say it, why can’t we?  Because, when she said it, she was looking at the suffering of those around her, not her own.  It was not about what God would give her, but who, people to serve, people whose needs she was called to meet.

She made this statement in the context of servant ministry – “I know God won’t give me more people to serve, more needs to meet, more ministry to do, than I can handle.”  The genuine need and depth of suffering around her was so great – so much to do for others in the name of Christ – that it seemed overwhelming, at times.  And yet, she was called, as we all are, to minister the healing and life-giving presence of Christ into places of despair and hopelessness.  She was called, as we all are, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and to seek out the places of greatest need and do something about it.  Like Jesus, Mother Teresa was filled with compassion for the least, last, and lost of society, and she said “God won’t give me more than I can handle” as a statement of her trust in God to provide the resources she would need to fulfill her ministry.

That’s something very different than looking at someone who is at their breaking point and saying, “There, there.  God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  That’s just patronizing!  It does much more harm than good, and places us in a position of speaking for God, about what God will and will not do.  How do we know that?  What if we get it wrong?
Before you speak . . .
As a married man, I have learned not to speak for my wife.  I’ve learned that – I didn’t start out that way!  As a rule, we don’t speak for each other; I am not her spokesperson, nor is she mine.  We’re also careful about not serving as message service for each other; if you want her to know something or to ask her something, tell her, not me!

In the same way, we need to be very careful about speaking on behalf of God.  When we say something like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we are presuming to know the mind of God – what God will and won’t do – and I don’t know what you think, but that’s a pretty bold claim to make!  I also realize the irony in that, too: in my preaching role, part of what I do is speak, in a sense, on behalf of God!  Not just pastors, but every Christian, in the very acts of worship and service that are foundational to our faith, everything we do, everything we say, witnesses something about who we think God is, what God desires, and what God expects.  When we say to someone that God doesn’t give them more than they can handle, we’re presuming something we probably don’t actually know anything about.

It doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about God.  But, we allow reliable sources to inform our theological reflection.  For us in the Wesleyan tradition, we listen to Scripture, we engage Christian tradition, we use our God-given gifts of reason, and of course, our experience of new life in Christ.

When you hold up the phrase, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” as relating to personal suffering or difficulty against these four sources, you can quickly see that it just doesn’t hold up.

Who God is (and isn’t)
The Scripture we read today, “No one who is tested should say, ‘God is tempting me’” (James 1:13), in other words, the test isn’t from God!  Or “Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all” (James 1:16-17).  God is the source of good and perfect gifts, not hardship, and God’s character is faithfully unswerving in that regard.

The Scriptures tell us plainly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Love is God’s reigning attribute; there are certainly other aspects to God’s character, but love is always primary.  One of the overarching images of God through Scripture is a loving parent, one whose will is ever-directed toward the good of his children – that’s all of us.  How loving or good would it be for that parent to deliberately bring difficulty, hardship, and suffering into the lives of their children?  We would call the Department of Social Services on such a parent, for they are an abusive parent.  Likewise, any god who behaves this way is an abusive god, is certainly not our God!

Again the Scriptures tell us, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8).  Or, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  I don’t know about you, but I believe these things about God!  The first prayer I learned as a child began with “God is good.”  Again, I believe that!  I’m counting on it!  How about you?  “God is good!” (All the time!) and “All the time!” (God is good!)  We must believe that – why else would we say it?

Is God good?  Is God love?  Is God’s character consistent, or is it just flapping around in the breeze?  If all that’s true, and it is, why would a God who is our help in times of trouble be the one who sent us the trouble in the first place?  Jesus didn’t go around giving people diseases on Friday so he could them come and heal them on Saturday.  God is not sending us problems in one moment and then helping us through them in the next, but when we say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” that’s sort of what we’re implying.

You ever been blamed for doing something you didn’t do?  Had people angry at you for something you had nothing to do with?  How did that feel?

It’s lousy, and we do the same thing to God when we say things that make God the author of suffering and difficulty.  It is simply not God’s nature to send calamity or difficulty into our lives.

God isn’t the only force at work in the world
Let’s recognize that everything that happens in our lives isn’t necessarily from God.  God isn’t the only force at work in the world.  The reality is that human forces, natural forces, and evil forces also have their influence in our world.  There’s an awful lot all these things can do that go against what God wants for us – that grieve and disappoint and frustrate God just as much as they do us.

God isn’t giving people cancer or foreclosing on their homes or killing off their children or spouses.  God is not taking away people’s jobs or causing problems in their families or leading people into depression.  God is not causing car accidents or wars or racism or any other awful thing.

Not even natural disasters – I love the interview with the person whose house was built in a flood zone and just lost their house in a flood, who looks into the camera and says, “All I can figure is God is testing me” and I yell back at the TV, saying, “Don’t blame God for this!  You built your house in a flood zone and it got flooded!  How else did you think this was going to work out?”  Even though the insurance industry calls them “acts of God” – they are natural forces at work, not God testing or trying or judging anybody.  Maybe you ask, “Why are those things there in the first place?  Why would God create a world that could be so violent?

Take earthquakes and hurricanes, for example – both are absolutely essential to sustain life on this planet.  Earthquakes are the results of shifts in the plates that make up the earth’s surface, and they’re designed that way to release both pressure and heat from the earth’s core.  Without that system of relief in place, earth’s temperature would rise such that it could no longer sustain life.  Likewise, we know that hurricanes are an essential mechanism to cool our atmosphere to keep it in the range that supports life.  Flood zones produce rich soil in which the crops that feed us grow, even the occasional forest fire promotes a healthy forest.

When we’re affected by those things, we don’t blame God or surmise that God is testing us or judging us.  We don’t pray for God to stop all earthquakes and hurricanes, because doing so would mean the destruction of all life on the planet.  A more appropriate response would be to learn not to live in the areas most affected by these phenomena, or if we do, to engineer our buildings and provide the community resources in order to survive through them.

Does that mean that God has nothing to do with these things?  Not exactly.  Remember, God doesn’t send the trouble, but God is our help in trouble.  God’s response to pain and suffering is to send others – us – to provide care.  God calls us to provide food and clothing and shelter to those in need.  To offer compassion and love and support for those who need it most.  To wrap our arms around those who survive and help them put the pieces of their shattered lives back together again, and we trust that when our lives fall apart, they will in turn be there to help us.

As we peel away the bumper sticker theology of “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we peel away the idea that everything in our lives is directly from God.  In place of that idea is the realization that a lot happens in our lives that God didn’t do, including things that are just as painful to God as they are to us.

We also peel away the idea that we’re supposed to be able to handle everything that comes our way.  That’s not true, either.  Life is overwhelming sometimes.  More than we can handle, in fact.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you lack faith or trust in God, because God is not the one giving you more than you can handle; life is.  God’s promise is to simply be present with you, whether you handle it or not!

The other promise is that God has given us each other, the Church, the body of Christ, a community, so that whatever life throws our way, we don’t have to handle it by ourselves.  Church isn’t a place you have to pretend to hold it all together, actually, if you’re going to fall to pieces, this is a great place to do it.

Life often does give us more than we can handle.  When we encounter those whose worlds are falling to pieces, they don’t need our platitudes; they need our help and support.

Life gives us way more than we can handle.  God gives us each other.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Happens in the Dark (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.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  How many of life’s journeys begin while it is still dark?

Neither my wife nor I are morning people.  She is less of one than I am.  I am at least functional early in the morning, but one of the rules of our home is that I don’t speak to her until she has had at least one cup of coffee.  My grandfather, whenever someone would say they’d see him bright and early the next morning would say, “Now, you have a choice; I can do bright, or I can do early, but don’t expect me to do both.”

As I was growing up, we lived in Niagara Falls and my grandparents lived in the DC suburbs in Northern Virginia.  So many road trips to go see them meant loading up the family Suburban at some completely ungodly hour while my Dad barked things like “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out, we’re burning daylight,” which always struck me as odd because it wasn’t going to be light for hours!

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  Easter begins in the dark.  Not with fanfare and trumpets, no choirs singing “Alleluia,” but in a dark, cold cemetery.

On that first Easter Sunday, the characters in the story didn’t know it was Easter.  They didn’t wake up, excited like we may have, to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord!  For us, on this side of the story, Easter Sunday is the greatest day of our faith!  But for Mary Magdalene, Mary (the Mother of Jesus), the other women, Peter and John, the other disciples, and all the friends and followers of Jesus, the day started with no cause for celebration.  It started in the dark, darkness that was not only literal, but spiritual and emotional, as well.

Mary did not set out early that morning to find an empty tomb.  She walked through the darkness as one with no hope, crushed and defeated.  Maybe you know that road.  Maybe, you, too, are feeling crushed and smothered, maybe you feel like there’s no way out, nothing but dead ends every road you try to go down.  Maybe you know something of abandonment and despair and the feeling that hope itself has died.

But friends, hear the good news: God does God’s best work in cemeteries.  God does God’s best work while it’s still dark.  Though we cherish images of a sunrise creeping over the horizon and shining light into the empty tomb, Easter happens while it is still dark.  It was still dark when Mary arrived at the empty tomb, discovered the stone rolled away and a vacancy sign hanging outside.  The resurrection, God’s new life and new creation for all the world, doesn’t wait until sunrise; it takes place while everything is still dark.

No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen.  None of us is ready to approach the empty tomb before we have knelt at the cross, none of us is ready for the joy of resurrection before we have known the abandonment of the crucifixion.

In the dark and cold, Mary arrived at the tomb, and she was startled to discover that it was empty.  Mary wants to know – where’s Jesus?  Was it body snatchers?  Grave robbers?  Had the authorities moved him to a secret location in the middle of the night?  She told Peter and John, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

A man she supposes to be the gardener asks her why she is weeping, and you can hear exasperation and combativeness in her voice – “Please, if you have taken the body away, please, just tell me where it is, so help me . . .”

The gardener doesn’t answer.  He just says one word: “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, he who had died now lives again.

An empty tomb is one thing.  But meeting the risen Jesus face-to-face and hearing him call your name is something completely different.

Does Mary understand it?  No!  Of course not!  And really, who among us really understands the resurrection?  Resurrection isn’t meant to be understood, rather, an encounter with the risen Christ is meant to be experienced.

In one of the more curious exchanges in the Easter story, Mary goes to embrace Jesus, who says, “Don’t hold onto me.”  Why would Jesus say that?  Maybe he has a touch phobia!  Some people don’t like hugs, maybe Jesus is one of them!

Well, not exactly.  In that moment, Mary was reaching for the Jesus she had known – the pre-resurrection Jesus.  Make no mistake: pre-resurrection Jesus is good, but now, there’s so much more to him.  For Mary to reach out and embrace what had been, she would miss out on what was yet to be.  Something even better was coming, but Mary had to let go of what had been in order to embrace what was yet to come.

With Jesus, the best days are ahead of us, not behind us.  That's a resurrection faith!  That's an Easter faith!  If you’re a person who loves and cherishes your past, Easter is a day to hold onto your bonnet because God has something even better in store for you.  If you’re a person with a past you’d like to forget, Easter is a day to claim the promise of a fresh start and a new beginning.  Either way, with Jesus, the best is yet to come.

Another reason Mary is not to hang onto Jesus is because when we encounter the risen Christ, we are supposed to share the news, not hold onto it for ourselves.  Our instincts, when we encounter something truly good say, “Hold on tight and don’t let go!”  But the Easter story is different.  Jesus didn’t go and get resurrected so a small handful of us would keep him to ourselves.  In the story of faith, good news, life-giving news, is always meant to be shared.

That’s what Mary did, making her the first apostle.  The first one who has encountered the risen Christ, experienced his new life, and goes to tell others about it.  Again, Mary doesn’t have it all figured out, but that doesn’t stop her from witnessing, to the best of her understanding and experience, to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life it is.

Could Mary prove it?  No.  And you know what, it’s not our job to “prove” anything about God to anyone!  It is our responsibility, however, when we recognize that we have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, and then to go and share – to witness – about what we have seen and experienced and felt.  It’s not our job to convert or convince anyone, it’s our job to keep sharing the good news of the new life God is bringing.

The difficult thing with Easter is that something has to die in order for there to be a resurrection.  Maybe that’s an old habit or behavior, an attitude, some bitterness or resentment that needs to be put out of its misery in order to experience the gift of new life.  Ashley and I love to work in the yard, and when we moved here last year, we inherited some sad rose bushes.  I mean, pitiful, really!  They were wild, gangly, diseased, and producing zero flowers.  So last fall, we hacked them back.  Butchered them.  I just knew we had killed them, and if we didn’t, surely the winter we just had would have finished the job.

And yet, this spring, new healthy growth is flourishing from those bushes that appeared to be dead.  It’s as if the roses are going, “Ahhhh” and thanking us for cutting back everything that was diseased and dead and fruitless.

So it is with us.  We are Easter people, but to experience the joy of new life, sometimes something within us needs to be pruned, pinched back, and hauled away.  It’s near impossible to experience the resurrection so long as we want to hang onto dead, diseased, and self-destructive ways.  We cannot make room for what is yet to be, until we have let go of what has been.

Easter doesn’t diminish the reality or the difficulty of sin and evil and spiritual and emotional darkness; but it does let us know that God can redeem something good from the most profound loss and suffering, just as God did through the tragic and heart-breaking death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.  What God did in the lifeless body of Jesus, so too will God do in those dead and dying places within each of us.  Easter is the day to remember that neither evil, nor hate, nor even death itself has the last word in our lives.  God has the last word, and that word is, “LIFE.”  New life.  Abundant life.  Eternal life.

And friends, every day for us is Easter.  Easter is not a one-time thing that happened once upon a time in a land far, far, away – the resurrection of Jesus is a game-changing present reality.  I would die a happy man if we would all stop talking about the resurrection as a past event – to purge from our vocabulary the phrases “Christ was risen,” and “Christ has risen” and instead to boldly declare the Gospel truth that “Christ is risen, present-tense, Christ is risen indeed!”  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will have counted for something when the people of faith claim the power of Christ’s new life in our lives – right here, right now.

Easter is a present reality.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s a verb.  God is Easter-ing all the time, new life is springing up in some of the most unimaginable and unlikely places.  Where do you need an Easter in your life this year?

"New life starts in the dark.  Whether a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark" (Barbara Brown Taylor).

Friends, Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed!)  The cemetery is empty, and Christ is alive.  Easter happens in the dark – God can overcome anything.  Claim the promise of the resurrection this year: with Jesus, the best is yet to come.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Meal for Sinners (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.”

It is Thursday evening of the most important week in the history of the world.  Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Sunday, triumphantly riding a donkey, fulfilling the prophecies about the Messiah, God’s anointed king, coming to set God’s people free.  If you’ve followed Jesus’ activities the rest of the week, you’ll find that Jesus will weep for the city for they don’t know the things that make for peace, you’ll find him angrily turning over the tables of the money changers as he clears the temple.  We know that on Tuesday night, Jesus had supper at the home of Simon the Leper.  Somewhere in here, Judas, one of his disciples, has struck a bargain to sell Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver; about $10,000 in today’s money.

On Thursday night, the Gospel writers come alive as Jesus and his disciples take their place around the Passover table in an unnamed Upper Room somewhere in Jerusalem.  The meal they shared has been portrayed in art through the centuries, and DaVinci’s The Last Supper is probably the most famous.  That’s unfortunate, because based on what we know about the customs of the day, DaVinci had the scene, in every conceivable way, completely wrong.

Does it matter who sat where or what the room looked like?  Actually, yes it does.  As we take our place with Jesus and his disciples around the table, I want you to keep this thought at the back of your mind: the disciples were not perfect people, yet Jesus invited them to the table, Jesus desired to eat the meal with them.  The Lord’s table is still a feast of grace; where God’s grace is always greater than our sin.  May we pray.

When Ashley and I got married, one of the least romantic yet incredibly practical gifts we were given was from an attorney in the congregation who drew up our wills, power of attorney and healthcare proxy documents.  Now, obviously we hope that we won’t need those documents for another 50 or 60 years, but let’s also face reality – any one of us could die at any time – having a will in place ensures that, even when we are gone, the things that are most important to us are still taken care of.

Did you ever think of Jesus’ supper with his disciples, on the night before he met with death, as his last will and testament?  Knowing that tomorrow he would be executed, Jesus gave his disciples some of his most important teaching.

In fact, that teaching is where we get the name for tonight – “Maundy Thursday.”  The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin, “mandatum,” meaning “command.”  On this night, Jesus gave his disciples a “mandantum novum,” a “new command” to love one another.

But when Jesus says, “Love one another,” he isn’t saying “Have warm fuzzy feelings for each other.”  That would be an impossible task, to have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone because so many people are downright irritating, and you can’t have warm fuzzy feelings for me because I’m irritating; we all are sometimes!  Further, that’s not what love is.  Love is not a feeling; it’s an action, it’s a decision, it’s a choice.  And on this night, Jesus displayed his love in action around the table. He commanded the disciples to grow in their love as they continued to come to the table and remember all that he had done, and to look forward to all that he was yet to do.

Let’s come back to the design of the table and the seating arrangement for a moment.  Unlike our dining tables, formal dining tables in the ancient near East were low to the ground.  And rather than a long table, a formal dining table would have had three sides in a u-shape.  This kind of table is called a triclinium.  “Tri,” meaning “three,” and “clinium” comes from the same root that we get the word “recline” from.  While we sit in chairs around our tables, people reclined on pillows and cushions.

Jesus was the host for this particular meal, which meant he would be sitting at the head of the table.  But the head of the table isn’t in the middle, it’s over on the side, one position from the end.  This graphic shows a table arrangement for 9, but you can imagine it for 13 with Jesus and his disciples.  Those at the table reclined against the table, typically with their left arm toward the table, and their feet away from the table.  To the right and left would be the positions of honor.  You remember the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest and who would sit at his right hand and his left hand (Mark 10:37), and in many ways, this is what they were talking about. 

John’s Gospel tells us as Jesus sat at the table, he said, “One of you will betray me.”  Peter whispers across the table to John and says, “Ask him who it is.”  The Gospel writer says that John leaned against Jesus’ breast to ask him, “Master, which one of us is it?” (John 13:23-25)  Now, seeing how they would have been seated at the table, does that make sense to you?  It also tells us that John was sitting to Jesus’ right, in one of the honored positions.

But, this was the lesser of the two honored positions.  The person sitting to the host’s right would serve the host, but the person sitting to the host’s left would be served by the host.  Also, the person to the host’s right might be asked to get up and help serve the meal since they were on the end and it was convenient for them to get out.

Now, back to the question about who will betray Jesus. How does Jesus respond?  “The one with whom I share my bread will betray me” (John 13:26).  Well, who is going to share Jesus’ bread?  Who is Jesus going to serve?  The person to his left.  So who was sitting to Jesus’ left, in the position of great honor?  Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus, who sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver.

Judas – the very name now carries the stench of betrayal and distrust.  We think about Judas as if he were evil to the bone – what kind of person would sell Jesus out for a few silver coins?  And what he did was awful, make no mistake about it, but what I were to suggest that Judas wasn’t really that different from you or me?  What if we were to take Jesus’ command – to love one another – seriously, even as we think about Judas?  Not to condone what he did, but neither to condemn it, but to look at Judas and his actions through a more charitable lens?

You see, Judas never intended to get Jesus killed.  Of all the disciples, Judas and Peter were probably the most radical.  Their expectation of the Messiah was that he would be a strong military leader, who would lead an armed rebellion against the oppressive Roman government and crush them, who would lead the nation to eternal superiority over all other nations.  So, Judas really believed in Jesus; he just believed the wrong things about Jesus.

Judas had been with Jesus for three years, expecting Jesus to start the revolution at any moment, enlisting the disciples as front-line freedom fighters who would all be lauded and lifted up as national heroes.  Now, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, fulfilling the Messianic prophecies, Jesus was claiming the rights to his royal throne.  Judas thought the time was now, only Jesus wasn’t getting the revolution started.

I’m convinced Judas was trying to give the revolution a little kick-start.  Jesus wasn’t moving fast enough for him, so Judas took matters into his own hands, and what harm was there if he made a few bucks for himself in the process?  I can just see the wheels turning in his head.  “If they come to arrest Jesus, surely Jesus will fight back and it will be ‘game on.’  At supper, Jesus had announced that one of us would betray him – surely, Jesus knows it’s me, he must be wise to the plan.  If Jesus wants to abandon the plan, he can say the word anytime.  Wait, what was that Jesus just leaned over and told me?  ‘What you are going to do, go, and do quickly?’ (John 13:27)  All right, there are my orders!”

He wasn’t trying to get Jesus arrested and killed, he was trying to get Jesus to take his place at the front of the rebellion!  Judas was his lieutenant, the one who sat in the seat of greatest honor, after all, he was going to be there right beside Jesus and have Jesus’ back the whole way.

Those who came to arrest Jesus came with swords and clubs because they thought Jesus was going to start a rebellion (Matthew 26:55).  They thought that because that’s what Judas had told them; that’s what Judas wanted and expected to happen!

By the time Judas realized that Jesus’ mission was bigger than Judas’ own expectation, it was too late, and the whole plan backfired in his face.

Judas was wracked with guilt.  He took the money back to the chief priests and said, “I changed my mind.  I don’t want this.  I never wanted this.  I don’t want Jesus to die.”  But the deal was signed, and there’s no way it could be undone.

His regret was so deep that he hung himself.  These are not the actions of someone who is pleased with how things worked out.  They are the actions of someone who is riddled with grief over their own sin, who took matters into his own hands, tried to force the issue, and got his friend killed.

But, Judas isn’t the only one who betrayed Jesus that night.  The disciples had argued about who would get the most important, honorable place.  They had all refused to serve each other.  They had false expectations about him, even at that late hour.  They would fall asleep when Jesus told them to pray.  Peter would deny ever knowing him.  The others would abandon him and run for their own lives, not just for tonight, but for the next several weeks.  None of the disciples is any prize.  Not just Judas, but there is enough sin to go all the way around the table.

What are we to do with all these sinners?  What did Jesus do with them?

He loved them.

He served them.

He spent time with them.

He gave his life for them.

The Scriptures say, “God showed his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Even on the cross, Jesus would mumble words of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).  Words for the Roman soldiers who nailed his precious body to the cross, for the government officials who condemned him, for the chief priests and jealous religious leaders, for the crowd who cheered his death, for the disciples who abandoned him, and I believe, for Judas, who betrayed him.  Father, forgive them – all of them – they don’t have the first clue what they’re doing.  Father, forgive us – all of us – we don’t know what we’re doing, either.

Friends, we’re a hot mess.  We don’t have it all together, we need a Savior whose love and grace is infinitely greater than our sin.  The Holy Week story is our story.  Later tonight, our sin will betray Jesus.  Our sin will put him trial.  Our sin will torture him.  Our sin will nail him to the cross.  Our sin will take his life.  Our sin will bury him, but it will also be buried with him.

Yes, the Holy Week story is our story.  We, too, cheer for the wrong reasons, we often don’t know what we’re doing.  We grasp at coins and make bad decisions and walk away from our commitments and join our voices with the angry mob who shouted “Crucify Him!” and disappoint and betray Jesus in a thousand other ways.

The thing about Jesus is that he loves and trusts people even when they let him down.  And sometimes when we trust people, they’ll disappoint us.  But, following in the way of Jesus, we continue to love and trust them, anyway, and maybe even invite them to share a meal with us.

In the kingdom of God, sinners get the seat of honor.  That’s who this meal, God’s grace and love broken and poured out, is for.

We, too, belong at the table for sinners.  When the invitations go out for the banquet of God’s grace, there are no perfect people on the guest list – only sinners who are hungry for God’s love.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Donkey Rides (Matthew 21:1-11)

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When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task.He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Every year on Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the road lined with cloaks and branches and palm fronds.  Many Christians view Palm Sunday as little more than the prelude to Easter Sunday, which is now only a week away.  In many churches, the anthem on Palm Sunday may as well be “Hippity hoppity, Easter’s on its way.”

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the most important week in the history of the world, yet many of the faithful will skip Holy Week services, going from the excitement of Palm Sunday directly to the exuberance of Easter, and they will miss some of the most important parts of the story.  Lest we begin to celebrate too quickly, keep some of that somber reflection in your back pocket; we’re still going to need it.

Indeed, Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem sets the stage for the tragic events that will take place later in the week.  Lay aside any sentimental images you may have of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the equivalent of a leisurely Sunday drive.  No, on Palm Sunday, Jesus clearly demonstrated truth in the face of power.  What Jesus did on Palm Sunday and what it represented – friends, that’s what got him killed.   May we pray.  

Last weekend, I was in Kansas City with members of our Community Care Team for training.  I had four days with Betty West, Ann Duncan, Lib Joyner, and Sylvia LeClair. Someone asked me what that was like – think Driving Miss Daisy, times four.  At the Kansas City airport, we went to pick up our rental car, and I had reserved a full-size car.  But, before they process the reservation, I always ask if they’ve got anything a little nicer on the lot – sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Well, this time it did, as they handed me the keys to a brand new Lincoln MKZ.  Not a car I’d necessarily buy for myself, at least not until I get my AARP card, but a very nice ride, none-the-less.

In our society, sometimes a car is more than just a car.  They can be statements, symbols, identity markers.  In seminary, I drove a 1992 brownish-gold Saturn SC2.  Because of the previous owner, it was covered in Meredith College stickers, which I removed only a few hours after I got the car, but that didn’t stop my friends from naming the car, “Meredith” on my behalf.  Do you have any idea what it’s like to drive around in a car named “Meredith?”

Sometimes, transportation is just transportation; other times, it’s a statement, as it was in the 11 verses we’ve read today, the familiar story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. 

It was the beginning of the week leading into the Passover celebration, and crowds of hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the known world would be coming to Jerusalem for the festival.  Remember that Jerusalem was occupied territory at this point.  They were subject to foreign rule by the Romans.  There was constant tension between the Jews and the Romans, and Passover was the annual celebration of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.  It wasn’t hard to draw the parallels between slavery in Egypt and occupation by Rome, combined with the crowds and excitement, and it made Passover week a particularly ripe time for any tensions to boil over.

Though a garrison of Roman soldiers was permanently stationed in Jerusalem – right next to the temple, in fact – Pilate, the governor, maintained Roman government headquarters on the coast, in Caesarea Maritima.  Jerusalem was sacred to the Jews, but dreaded by the Romans.  It was cold and wet in the winter, hot and dry in the summer.  Caesarea Maritima had a state-of-the art port for the easy transfer of people and goods, and was temperate year-round with pleasant breezes off the Mediterranean.

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only one taking place that day.  A few times a year, to coincide with the major festivals, the Roman government would temporarily relocate to Jerusalem.  It was a grand military procession with the imposing power of the empire on full display.  Imagine the scene – trumpets blasting and drums beating, as chariots, war horses, and legions of soldiers and archers marched into town.  An approaching cloud of dust and a pulse you could feel in the trembling ground from miles away – the steady beat of soldiers marching, armor clanking, flags flying.

It was a message: Rome is in charge.  Caesar, the emperor, is your king.  Look at the power of his kingdom; resistance is futile.

To be sure, the local officials would have arranged for great, cheering crowds to greet this proud display of Roman military muscle.  Under threat of beating, imprisonment, and death, soldiers would have ordered men away from their businesses, women away from their households, boys and girls away from their lessons and chores, to line the streets and greet the forces of the occupying government with cheers, which made the people hate the Romans all the more.

This parade, this demonstration of Roman power, was taking place on the West side of town.  Jesus would stage a counter-demonstration from the East.  From the village of Bethany, and down the Mount of Olives, his “triumphal entry” echoes the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The crowds who lined the road greeted Jesus as a king.  The little parade that developed around Jesus may have started in fun or as a joke, but it struck a chord with the people and became something they could all rally around.  They greeted Jesus as a king, a direct affront to the Roman government.  They spread their cloaks on the road so that even the feet of the donkey wouldn’t touch the ground.

Even the palm branches were intended to be inflammatory.  For the Jews, the palm branch was a national symbol, equivalent to waving the flag, a classic “in-your-face” to Rome and its government.

As Jesus rode on by, the people waved their palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” – literally, “Save us!”  But they weren’t thinking of salvation from their sins or anything that spiritual.  They were thinking of salvation from the Roman government.  They were greeting someone they believed would be a strong military leader who would lead their nation to victory.  They cheered because he was one of their own, and he would lift their nation to prominence and superiority over all others.

They were familiar with kings and rulers of the world.  In short, they expected Jesus to be the same kind of king, just with politics more to their liking, but there’s a clue in the whole thing to let us know that expectation is unfounded: the donkey.

In Matthew’s Gospel, 11 verses describe the events of that first Palm Sunday, and fully 5 of those have to do with the procurement of the famous, borrowed, donkey.  The disciples are to simply go and find someone else’s donkey, not ask to use it, and untie it and bring it to Jesus.  Jesus says, “If anyone asks you what you’re doing, just say ‘The Lord needs it.’” A piece of personal advice here: if you get caught trying to steal someone else’s car, let me know how saying, “The Lord needs it” goes over in court!

I know that people have gotten hung up on the language used to describe the actual animal Jesus rode in on.  The gospels of Mark and Luke call it a colt, Matthew says he rode in on a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:5) - it says that Jesus rode “them,” which I always thought would be an interesting feat to watch Jesus ride two animals at the same time, straddling them like some sort of circus act.  So which was it?  Did Jesus ride a donkey, or did Jesus ride a colt, the foal of a donkey?

John Dominic Crossan offers that the mention of both the donkey and the colt are intentional.  The Gospel writer wants us to see “two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism.”

In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a gelding warhorse, a mule, a male donkey or even just any old female donkey.  He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: an untrained, un-ridden, female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

Contrast this display with the Roman parade on the other side of town.  The warhorses and chariots of the army are instruments of oppression and death.  Jesus’ donkey symbolizes the humble splendor of his kingdom.  In the government’s parade, Rome displayed its oppressive power.  In Jesus’ parade, he displayed his subversive humility.  Rome brings control.  Jesus brings peace.  Rome brings occupation.  Jesus brings liberation.  Rome will reign from a royal palace.  Jesus will reign from a cross.  Rome comes armed and ready to kill.  Jesus is willing to die so that we might live.

You probably didn’t realize the donkey symbolized all that, did you?  Neither did the people in the crowd that day.  They expected a royal savior – a political personality who would fulfill their nationalist desires.  But the thing about Jesus, is that he’s not here to fulfill the agenda of any particular nation, he’s here to do the will of God.  God’s kingdom is bigger than any one nation.  His kingdom is about peace, not might.  Those who greeted Jesus as a king on that first Palm Sunday clearly didn’t know who they were cheering for; they even had to ask one another who he was.

Imagine their surprise when they learned that their king had been teaching things like “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” or the value of forgiveness, or that in his kingdom, all swords would be turned into plowshares.  They greeted Jesus as a king, and they got it right when they did; it’s just that he is a very different king representing a very different kingdom than what they wanted.

Crowds are fickle.  It’s not hard to see how those who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday would turn on Jesus and cry “Crucify Him!” by Friday.  So it is with public opinion.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we would have done the same thing.  We don’t want the kind of king or kingdom Jesus represents.  We often want God to act more like the mighty Roman army than the humble carpenter from Nazareth. A savior who will be at his most glorious when he gives himself in love to die upon a cross, who calls us to give ourselves in self-sacrificial love in the same way?  No, no thanks – that’s not the king we were hoping for.

If you go to Jerusalem today, partway down the Mount of Olives is the Chapel of Dominus Flevit, Latin for “The Lord wept.”  This chapel commemorates Jesus stopping on his way into Jerusalem, where he wept and prayed over the city, where he said, “If only you knew the things that make for peace, but now they are hidden from your eyes.”

View from Dominus Flevit. Photo by Paul Brown, 2013

We, too, prefer shock and awe to forgiveness and grace and love.  When will we learn that as long as we try to do it our way, the world’s way, the peace that passes all understanding remains elusive?
Rather than the beginning of the countdown clock to Easter, Palm Sunday invites us to recognize what kind of king Jesus is.  The Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, yes, but a humble king, riding on a donkey, a peaceful and grace-filled king, a king who calls us to follow him in ways of forgiveness and humility and self-sacrificing love – even if doing so leads to our own suffering – because this is the way of our king. 

It’s all about the donkey.  Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey.  Not on a war horse or behind a chariot.  Not in wealth in splendor.  Not promoting a life of comfort and ease, not promising the complete annihilation of our enemies. 

Before the week is over, our king will be lifted high, his arms outstretched against the cruel wood of a Roman cross.  In that moment, when the world laughs and calls him a failure, Jesus will name his life’s work as “finished.”

Is Jesus the king we wanted?  Maybe not.  But he’s definitely the king we need.