The Seal Broken

stone rolled away

Matthew 27:62-28:10

During our very meaningful Tenebrae service on Friday night, we listened to the voices of Good Friday. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.”

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going.  See my betrayer is at hand.”

“The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.”

“Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?”

“Then all of the disciples deserted him and fled.”

“He has blasphemed!  Why do we still need witnesses? He deserves death. Then they slapped him and spat in his face.”

“You were also with Jesus, the Galilean.” “I do not know what you are talking about.”

“This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” “I do not know the man.”

“Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”

“’I do not know the man!’ And the cock crowed.”

“I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” “Judas then went out and hanged himself.”

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

“Release to us Barabbas.” “Crucify Jesus.” “Let him be crucified.”

“I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.”

“Hail, King of the Jews!”

“You, who would destroy the Temple and build it in three days, save yourself!”  “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” “He saved others, yet cannot save himself.”

“Eli, Eli, lema sa-bach-tha-ni? My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

“Command the tomb to be made secure. You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” “So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”

These are the voices of Good Friday: voices of betrayal; voices of denial; voices of disappointment; voices of hate; voices of cruelty; voices of finality; voices of no turning back; voices of no moving forward; voices of death. “Make the tomb as secure as you can. Seal the stone.”

And the reality is that you did not have to attend either the service on Thursday or Friday to hear these voices. For we live in a Good Friday World, don’t we?

We’ve heard these voices just this week.

Yesterday from Utah: “A woman heading to her mother’s funeral has died in a car crash.”

From Iraq on Friday: “A suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt in a park outside Baghdad on Friday, killing 41 people and wounding over 50 more.”

From Oklahoma City on Thursday: “The state medical examiner’s office said bones recovered from near Lake Stanley Draper are human.

Oklahoma City police Master Sgt. Gary Knight said police received a call Monday that bones, clothing and personal effects had been discovered near the lake.”

From North Carolina on Wednesday: “In a bill that zoomed through with head-spinning speed, lawmakers blocked cities and counties from protecting people from discrimination.”

From Brussels on Tuesday: “Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Brussels airport, killing 11 people, and a third man detonated a suicide bomb one hour later in an underground train in central Brussels, killing 20 more.”

From Indiana on Monday: “Indiana Sheriff’s deputy shot dead. Partner seriously injured after serving search warrant.”

And from Enid this week: “I can’t believe she talks about me behind my back.”

“Why does he have to be so hateful?”

“I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

“Why won’t my children come and visit me?”

“My wife is having part of her foot removed next week. We are just waiting for the doctor to call with the exact day and time.”

“Since my back surgery, I am still dealing with a lot of pain.”

“She needs a root canal. He needs braces.”

“I owe thousands in taxes this year. And I don’t know where the money is going to come from. I am already working more hours now than by body and mind can stand.”

“I’m never going to be able to forgive myself. “I have never been so embarrassed in my whole life.” “I simply can’t continue going on like this.”

“My mother really doesn’t like the nursing home. She believes we are all plotting against her. I think my father may have Alzheimer’s.”

“Her baby was born three months premature. My sister has been having chest pains. My brother’s arthritis is about to get the best of him. The doctor said my tumor is malignant and inoperable. I still can’t believe that my wife is gone. I have never felt so alone and so depressed. At times, I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.”

These are the voices of Good Friday, and they echo throughout our world without ceasing, sometimes overwhelming us. Every time we turn around there is something else in our Good Friday world to worry about. There is no escape. It is like being entombed in sepulcher for all of eternity by a large stone that has been sealed shut by soldiers.

So, now let us hear another voice. It is a voice called Easter. It is a voice called resurrection, a voice called hope.

“As the first day of the week was dawning. . .”  (Sounds hopeful already, doesn’t it?) As a new day, a new week was dawning, was beginning anew, fresh, bright, giving a chance to the promise of hope, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat one it.”

In our Good Friday world, oh how we need to hear this voice of Easter— this voice that says that our God who gave God’s all for us on the cross is so awesome, so good, so great, so much bigger than all of the cruelty and evil of the world, that God does not have to lift one finger, but sends an angel to break the seal that entombs all of us who are shrouded by the evil of our Good Friday world.

The Good Friday world says: “Seal it up.” Then our Easter God, without flinching a muscle, sends one meek angel to break the seal—an angel who then sits upon the stone and says the most hopeful words found in the entire Bible: “Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

The world says seal it up. The world says things are not going to get any better. The world says the good old days are long gone. The world says that evil will get the best of us. The world says that God is either a fairy tale, is powerless, or has taken some cosmic vacation. The world says death is final.

Then God without lifting a finger breaks the seal and says: “I am always working all things together for the good. Through the breaking of the seal, God says to us that the best days of our lives are always yet to come. Gods says, although we cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are dawning. God says that nothing in this world is final, not even death. God says I can, and I will transform all of your despair into hope, all of your defeats into victory, all of your pain into joy, and even all of your deaths into life.”

The world says: “seal it up; you will never amount to anything. You’re a loser. You are insignificant. You are worthless. You are not a good person. Nobody really cares about you. You are pitiful. No matter how hard you try, sin always has a way of getting the best of you.  Perhaps you’d be better off dead. Seal it up.”

God breaks the seal and says: “I love you and suffered for you and died for you and raised Jesus to life for you, just as you are. There is nothing you could possible do to earn my love. I will always be with you and never away from you. I will always be for you and never against you. I will always stay by your side fighting for you, doing all that I can to wring whatever good can be wrung out of all of your misery.” God says “I will give you an Easter Faith to live victoriously in your Good Friday world.”

“Through eyes and ears of Easter faith you will see my resurrecting presence all around and hear my voice everywhere. You will be able to see it in flowers and in the trees. You will read it in a card sent to you by a friend. You will experience through the smile of a child.”

You can know it through the devotion of a Sunday School teacher. You can experience it through the woman who serves meals in the soup kitchen the needy. You can experience it with the church group who visits the nursing home; see it in the one who volunteers at the hospital; through the family who gives sacrificially and faithfully to the church, through missionaries who have given their lives to serve in third world countries, through encouraging words, handshakes, hugs, through a meal prepared; a lawn mowed, a house painted, a petition signed.

You can hear it through the confessions of faith from two young men being baptized.

God says you can hear it and see it and sense it and know it through people who by my grace are living an Easter Faith in a Good Friday world. You can see it when and wherever justice finally prevails and love ultimately wins.

During this coming week, you will not have to pay close attention to continue to hear the voices of Good Friday. You will quite possibly hear them even before this Easter Sunday ends. My hope and prayer is that as people living an Easter faith, we will continue to raise our Easter voices: voices of hope; voices of justice; voices of equality; voices of peace and love; voices of life; voices of a new day dawning; voices of a tomb whose seal has been broken on this day and forevermore.

The First Easter Word

peace John 20:1-10, 19-21 NRSV

It is 34 degrees. Feels like 24. And it is snowing! What in the world are you doing here this morning? Why are you here so early? Do you have any idea what time it is? What is it that compelled you to set your alarm clocks before 6am, so you could get up, get dressed and drive to this place this morning?

What are you looking for here this morning? What are you hoping to find? What are you expecting to see? What do you want to hear? What is it that you need, early on this rather cool Easter Sunday morning?

Well, preacher, isn’t it obvious? We have been living in some difficult days, to say the least! We know it has only been a short time, but it seems like forever since we felt like waving palm branches, dancing in the streets, and shouting, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So much has happened to us since we last felt like dancing, since we felt like celebrating anything.  We’ve endured so much, suffered so much, lost so much.

And as grief, anguish and despair consumes us these days, so does the guilt. We have made so many mistakes in life. We have disappointed so many people. We look in the mirror each morning and a betrayer and a denier looks back at us.

And not only have we disappointed many, so many have also disappointed us. We have deeply hurt by those claiming to be religious. We have been terribly wounded by those claiming to be friends, and we have been painfully rejected by those claiming to be family.

We feel forsaken: forsaken by others and even, at times, forsaken by God. And because of that, we are anxious, agitated and afraid.

So, preacher, you know what we want. You know why we are here. We are here to hear that first Easter Word.

We are here to listen to the Risen Christ as he returns to his disciples from the grave, to the very ones who betrayed, denied and abandoned him, to the very ones who had been devastated by the religious establishment, to the very ones who were so anxious, agitated and afraid that they were cowering together in an upper room behind locked doors.

We are here early this morning to hear Jesus pronounce that first Easter word, that word that we long to hear these days more than any other word: “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

That is why we are here! To hear that first Easter word from our Savior and Lord—the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels:  “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!” –and the last word that came from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We deniers and betrayers, we who suffer and grieve, we who are so very anxious, set our clocks early this morning so we could hear God say to us once again: “PEACE.”

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. My love for you has no end. My love for you never fails. My love does not keep an account of wrongdoing saying I love the sinner but hate the sin. It is without reservations, without conditions. My love offers a grace that is greater than all sin and a peace that surpasses understanding. Peace be with you, for you are my sons. You are my daughters. I have always loved you. I still love you. And I will love you forever. I will forgive you always.

I am making all things new. Fear not, for I am working all things together for the good. I am the resurrection and the life, and because I live you will also live. Peace be with you.

“PEACE.”  This is why you are here. This is why we are all here this morning. We have gotten up early, and we have come to church to hear that first Easter word, a word that we desperately need to hear.

And, just as we need to hear it, so do all of those, who for whatever reason, are not here this morning. It is the word that every human living in this fragmented world needs to hear from the church, and it always needs to be the very first word that they hear from church.

For as soon as Jesus pronounces that word, he says, “As the Father as sent me, so I send you.” We have been commissioned by none other than the risen Christ to share this word with others.

However, sadly, even after nearly 2000 Easters, churches all over this world have ignored this commissioning. And tragically, the very first words that many hear from the church are words that denote the exact opposite of peace.

The first words they hear from many in the church are words of judgment and condemnation. They hear loud, angry, hate-filled rants and protests. They hear words judging them as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they are condemned by those who justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that was used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination.

They may hear reserved words of welcome to come in and sit on a pew, but they clearly get the message right away that they are not to expect to truly become a part of the church. They are not to expect to be able to use their gifts to serve with and alongside those who have been deemed worthy for service.

The sad truth is that there are many people in this world, people in our town who are anxious, agitated and afraid. Just like us, they oftentimes feel God-forsaken. It has been forever since they have felt like dancing in the streets and waving palm branches. They have been deeply hurt by people claiming to be religious, terribly wounded by those claiming to be friends, and painfully rejected by those claiming to be family. Just like us, they look in the mirror and see only guilt and shame.

And just like us, they are yearning for the same word for which we all yearn, that very first word of Easter: PEACE.

They hunger and thirst for the same peace that caused us to set our clocks way too early this morning. And they hunger and thirst for a community of people in our world who have the audacity to truly live as followers of Christ who take the commission of their Risen Christ seriously to share this peace with all people. They are thirsting for a church that seeks to be, not an institution or club of moral and devout people with right religion, right beliefs, right color and right lifestyles, but a church that seeks to be the living embodiment of Christ in this world, serving, loving, accepting and embracing the poor, the lost, the broken, the fearful, the grieving, those riddled with guilt and shame, and those whom society has rejected as outcasts, offering them the unlimited hope, unfettered grace and unreserved love that is in that first beautiful first Easter word, PEACE.

So, let me ask you again. What in the world are you doing here this morning? Why are you here?  I hope you have come to hear the first Easter word. And I hope you have heard it: PEACE. Your sins are forgiven. You are loved. You are accepted. You are enveloped with an amazing grace.

But I also hope you are here to receive this word so you can take it from this place to share it with all people, especially with those in our world who need it the most.

And now, may the PEACE of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ be with us all, now and forevermore.

The King We Need

rolling stones

Luke 19:28-40 NRSV

Our Palm Sunday gospel lesson is a rather strange text. As Jesus instructed them to do so, the disciples borrowed a donkey, brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on it and set Jesus on top. “As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice, for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in Heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Did you hear something strange there? For when have you ever heard the disciples of Jesus referred to as “the whole multitude of the disciples.” There were only twelve. But Luke describes them as “the whole multitude of the disciples.”

Let’s see, has there been any other time in Luke’s gospel when we have heard such language? Reminds us of another multitude, doesn’t it? The whole “multitude of the heavenly host” at the birth of Jesus, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” That sounds much like the chant of the disciples this morning, doesn’t it? I believe Luke wants to make the point that this processional of Jesus into Jerussalem is as important as the first processional of Jesus into the world. For Luke, Palm Sunday is as significant as Christmas.

 

And this is certainly not the only strange thing in this text. But by this point in Luke’s story, should we really be that surprised?  For throughout Luke something is always out of place, out of kilter, out of whack. If we remember the stories Luke has told us thus far, we would remember that the perfect neighbor is a despised Samaritan; the selfish prodigal is welcomed home with an extravagant party; the greedy publican goes home from the Temple justified; a woman who lets down her hair at the dinner table is praised; the first is last and the last is first; to save one’s life, one must lose one’s life; and now the king, and not just any king, the king of kings, the one whose birth was heralded by “a  multitude of heavenly hosts,” a theme now picked up by a multitude of disciples, enters the city riding on a donkey, and not just any donkey, a borrowed donkey.

If Jesus is a King, he is certainly unlike any king the world had ever seen: A king of poor shepherds; A king of simple fishermen; A king of dishonest tax collectors; A king of despised Samaritans; A king of harlots; A king of lepers, demoniacs, cripples, and outcasts. New Testament professor Alan Culpepper writes: “Those who followed this king were a rag tag bunch, pathetically unfit for the grand hopes that danced in their imaginations.”

 

And the cloaks thrown on the road that day were not expensive garments but tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags. Jesus was certainly no ordinary king, but a rather strange one.

The King we may want is not the king we get. But the good news is, this is the King we truly need. It is the King this broken world needs. It is the only king that can save this world. It is the only King that can give us life, true life, abundant and eternal.

Reminds me of the words of those great theologians of our time who once sang: “We can’t always get what we want, but we we try sometimes, we might just find, we get what we need.”

Jesus is the King. But as he will tell Pilate later this week, Jesus is a different kind of King, for his kingdom “is not from this world.” He adds: “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And, if we are honest, this makes those of us living in this world very uncomfortable. But that is Jesus. He comforts the afflicted of this world and afflicts the comfortable of this world. And whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, we have grown rather fond of the kings and kingdoms of this world. And we sometimes have difficulty accepting anything different.

We prefer the kingdoms in this world that “would be fighting” to keep Jesus “from being handed over to the Jews.”

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

We prefer “It’s not our job to judge the terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange the meeting.”

We prefer “the statue of Liberty…shaking her fist.”

The truth is that we prefer answering violence with more violence. We believe combating hate with more hate. We believe fighting for what we believe, even for Jesus.

We believe in coercing our convictions, imposing our opinions, forcing our beliefs, and we don’t care who it offends or even destroys in the process.

We prefer a kingdom where we say it loudly and proudly that “we eat meat; we carry guns; we say Merry Christmas and Happy Easter; we speak English and if you don’t like it, get the heck out!”

We prefer a kingdom where we do unto others as they do unto us.

We prefer a kingdom where we love only those we believe deserve our love.

We prefer a kingdom where we help only those who are willing to help themselves.

We prefer a kingdom where people put the needs of their own before the needs of a foreigner.

We prefer a kingdom where we care ourselves, while our neighbors fend for themselves.

Jesus implies to Pilate that there are two types of kings. There are the kings of this world, and then there is the king from another world. And then Jesus asks Pilate and Jesus asks you and me: Who is your king? Who do you say that I am? Am I your King? Is your king from another world or is your king from this world?

One king offers protection;

One king promises persecution, saying if you follow him, people will rise up and utter all kinds of evil against you.

One king endorses greed and validates prosperity;

One king fosters sacrifice and promotes giving it all away.

One king caters to the powerful, the wealthy and the elite;

One king blesses the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

One king accepts only people of like-mind, like-dress, like-language, and like-faith;

One king accepts all people.

One king is restrictive with forgiveness;

One king is generous with it.

One king controls by fear;

One king reigns with love.

One king leads by threat of punishment;

One king rules with the promise of grace.

One king governs by imposing;

One king leads with service.

One king throws rocks at sinners;

One king defends those caught in the very act of sinning.

One king devours the home of the widow;

One king offers her a new home.

One king turns away the refugee;

One king welcomes the refugee, for he, himself, was a refugee.

One king destroys his enemies with an iron fist;

One king dies for his enemies with outstretched arms.

For one king’s throne is made with silver and gold;

One king’s throne is made with wood and nails.

One king wears a crown of rubies and diamonds;

One king wears a crown of thorns.

 

So, of course, the powers that be, the kings of this world, will arrest this king “whose kingdom is not from this world.” Of course, they will torture this king, spit on this king, mock this king, and crucify this king—this king from a foreign realm. Of course, they will try to bury this king and seal this king’s tomb up with a stone.

But hate will not defeat this king. Bigotry will not stop this king. Religion and patriotism will not overthrow this king. This king will rise again. But not in the way the kings of this world rise. Despite the desires of his followers or the lyrics of their songs, there will be no thunder in his footsteps or lightening in his fists. There will be no plagues, fire, brimstone, or flood. There will no shock and awe or violence or riots in the streets of any kind.

For this king understands what, sadly, few since have understood, and that is:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,” said the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Consequently, this king will arise from the darkness of the grave, powerfully, yet unobtrusively; mightily, yet unassumingly; leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, leaving room to believe or to doubt, to reject him or to follow him. This king will drive out the darkness, not with more darkness, but with light. This king will drive out the hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, how do we live in these hate-filled days of hostility, violence and riots in the streets?

Well, that all depends on who your king is.

The arrest this week of a terrorist responsible for the attacks in Paris reminded me of Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife in those attacks, who proclaimed to the world which king he chooses to serve. He shared it in beautiful tribute to his wife on Facebook, in the days after the attack, promising to not let his 17-month-old son grow up in fear of ISIS.

“You took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…

I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to…

If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart…

So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.”

No, it may not be what we want, but if we open our hearts and try, it is truly what we need. It is what our world needs. So let heaven and nature sing! May the whole multitude of God’s people prepare him room shouting with our words and deeds: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Glory in the highest heaven and on earth peace!”

Spring Is in the Air

lilies

“As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out’”(Luke 19:37-40).

This year, I believe what makes Holy Week special in Oklahoma is the way it corresponds with the unmistakable arrival of spring. The freezing temperatures of this Palm Sunday weekend appear to be the last gasp of winter. It is as if the entire creation is joyfully crying out with a loud voice: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Trees budding; thunder booming; flowers blooming; grass greening; lilies rising; birds singing; sun shining—our world seems to be proclaiming that death has finally been transformed into life! It is Holy Week, and spring and hope and good news is literally in the air.

As disciples of the Lord, our mission is to share this good news with all people. And if we do not do it, Jesus says that the earth itself will shout out! May the arrival of spring remind us each day of this mission.

When we see new leaves in the trees dancing in warm breezes with new life, may we be reminded to hug those experiencing grief and loss.

When we hear the thunder, may we be reminded to comfort those who are afraid.

When we see flowers opening their blossoms toward the sun, may we be reminded to offer a smile and a kind word to those who are discouraged.

When we walk on green grass, may we be reminded to welcome those who feel lost and marginalized.

When we see lilies rise from the earth, may we be reminded to stand tall for justice on the behalf of the victims of narrow-minded bigotry.

When we hear the birds singing harmoniously together, may we be reminded to worship together in community.

And when we feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, may we be reminded to always let the light of love shine brightly for all people.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Duck Rabbit

John 12:1-8 NRSV

I believe every worship service with communion should begin with a warning. Perhaps, even before the Prelude, the congregation needs to be forewarned, be put on alert, and be advised to proceed with caution.

Because every time we gather around this table with Jesus things are likely to get a little crazy! Things are potentially going to get out of hand. Things will happen that will surprise, even shock us. Things may mysteriously breakout, break open, change, shift, and spill out. Because, when Jesus comes to the table, things are not always as we expect them to be, nor as they appear to be, nor even as we would prefer them to be. When Jesus comes to the table, there is always more going on than meets the eye.

To illustrate what I am trying to say, allow me to share a story.

Jesus has come to the end of his ministry. The enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders who already had everything in life figured out, those for whom life holds no mystery, those who have been lurking in the shadows plotting against him, may be at last ready to have him arrested.

But before Jesus takes his disciples on that final journey into Jerusalem, they gather with Jesus’ good friends, Mary and Martha, for dinner. And oh-my-word, what dinner it was!

First of all, John opens the story by saying, “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”

Now, can you imagine standing behind your chair at the table in the dining room, getting ready to sit down when someone introduces you to the one standing at the head of the table by saying, “You know our host, Mr. Lazarus, don’t you? We didn’t know he was going to be able to graciously host this lovely dinner party tonight, because, a couple of weeks ago he was very sick. And about a week ago, he was dead and buried.”

As you pull out your chair to sit down, you’re thinking: “This is going to be one crazy supper!”

Well, not long after the chicken-fried steak and gravy had been passed, Mary comes in the room acting as if she has already had too much wine and falls all over Jesus. She shocks everyone when she lets down her hair right there at the dinner table! She then takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, gets down on her knees under the table and anoints the feet of Jesus! Pouring the perfume all over his feet and wiping his feet with her hair! At the dinner table!

This is certainly not a scene one would expect at the dining room table, especially with a young rabbi over as the guest! The fragrance, almost overbearing, fills the entire house. So much commotion. Perfume and hair everywhere!

John mentions only one other guest at the table that evening. He is one of Jesus’ students. He is the follower whose reputation precedes him: Judas Iscariot, the very disciple who will betray Jesus just a few days later. Now, let me ask you this, can things possibly get any more crazy?!

Judas, Watching and shaking his head at Mary making a spectacle of herself under the table, being the moral and ethical person everyone knows him to be (yeah, right), surprises everyone by asking a great moral and ethical question: “Why wasn’t this expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor rather than wasting it by pouring it all over Jesus’ feet?”

Did that question just come from Judas? That’s question we expect Jesus to ask. But surprise, surprise, it appears, if just for a second, like Judas had actually been paying attention to the teachings for Jesus about the importance of taking care of the least. He didn’t sleep through ALL of Jesus’ sermons! Way to go, Judas!”

But then, just when you thought things could not become more shocking, comes an even greater surprise as Jesus responds: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me.”

Whaaaaaaaaaat? Now, why would Jesus say something like that?

Ohhhh!  Now we get it. This dinner is not about the poor. When Jesus first mentioned “burial,” we were still thinking about Lazarus being dead and buried. But this is not about Lazarus either. Jesus said, “his burial.” This is about what is going to take place in Jerusalem during the next couple of weeks.

This meal that ought to be a happy gathering of good friends, however odd these friends may be, enjoying a lovely dinner, is actually a prelude to the crucifixion. Jesus is at the table with both friends and betrayer. Sweet smelling perfume is not the only thing in the air on this night. Disloyalty and disappointment and death are also in the air. But, at the same time, fidelity, favor and forgiveness are also in the air. What a night this has turned out to be, a night of seemingly endless surprises. So much more is going on, way beyond the senses.

This is how it always is with Jesus. With Jesus, things are never as they appear to be. With Jesus, there is always more meaning beyond the moment, more reality beyond the senses, more truth beyond comprehension. Thus, this very morning, more is going on here in this place than we can possibly imagine.

There is more happening here than the saying of a few prayers, the singing of a few hymns and the mere preaching of a simple sermon. And in a few moments, there will be more going on than a room full of people, however odd they may be, enjoying a sip of juice and eating a morsel of bread.

Whether it be at the table with his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus or here in this place, at the table with us, Jesus, the incarnate deity, is present, communing with us, giving himself to us, revealing himself for us. And as fallen human beings, we can always count on being surprised and even shocked.

So, this morning, I am asking you to hold on to your pews, for anytime Christ comes among us, things are liable to break out, break open, change, shift, and spill out.

We expect the choir to stand up and sing a solemn, foreboding Lenten anthem, and we are blown away when the choir stands up and rocks our souls.

We are totally surprised when the bells rung by small children sound like the bells of angels.

We are completely bewildered when the singing of a hymn gives us a peace outside all our expectations.

We are utterly amazed when a brief moment in prayer gives us strength that is beyond measure.

We are outright befuddled when giving a sacrificial offering can fill us with indescribable riches.

We are absolutely astonished when the retelling of the story of a prelude to crucifixion and death gives us hope in a life that is abundant and eternal.

And gathering around this table and sharing this simple meal with Jesus, some of us friends of Jesus, all of us his betrayers, with wonderment we are enveloped with a grace greater than our sin and a peace beyond our understanding.

And it is not just within these walls around this table that things are breaking open, spilling out. Some of you know what I am talking about.

We visit a sick man in the hospital, and we are amazed to discover that he is experiencing life fuller than the healthiest person we know.

A small child speaks to us and takes our breath away when she imparts wisdom deeper than any great philosopher.

We help serve a meal to a poor stranger, and we are astounded to discover that we were somehow, someway, fed ourselves.

We grant unearned, undeserved forgiveness to others and we bowled over with an amazing grace for ourselves.

We offer a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek, physical, temporal expressions of love, and we are astonished when it is revealed to have spiritual, eternal significance.

If we pay attention to it, keep our hearts open to it, we discover that the Holy Spirit of God, like the beauty of Springtime, is everywhere breaking out, breaking open, and spilling out.

When Jesus comes to dinner, there will always be more going on than meets the eye. Things will not always be what we expect them to be nor are they what they appear to be.

You thought that you had things all figured out, had all the answers, knew what was going on and what was not going on in this world, only to be flabbergasted to discover that you did not have a clue.

You thought that the good old days were behind you, only to be astounded to find out that good new days are before you.

You are taken back when a way suddenly appears when you thought there was no way, despair is suddenly transformed into hope, sorrow becomes joy and death becomes life. A dry pathway becomes visible in the sea, a road appears in the wilderness, a river springs forth in the dessert.

This morning, when you got up, you thought you chose to get dressed to go to church, but you are now stunned to discover that some mysterious Divine Other has chosen you to be the church.

This morning, you thought you were going to go to church, go through the motions, and go back home as complacent as ever, but to your startling surprise it has been revealed that you have been summoned, you have been called to be something and to do something that is bigger than you and to go on a journey that is far from home.

And here is the real shock: In saying yes to this summons, in saying yes to giving your life away and to leaving a place of comfort and security, you have never felt more alive and more at home.

This morning, you thought you were going to come to this place and see a few friends, but you were dumbfounded when you came and saw Jesus.

And Jesus is not finished. No, he is not finished with you yet!

Some of you think you can somehow leave Jesus here, in this place, in this Sunday morning box. You think you can leave here to go have a little dinner, unsurprised, untouched, unmoved, and unchanged.

But wonder of all wonders, surprise, surprise, guess who’s coming to dinner? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Sidney Poitier.[i]

[i] Sermon was inspired by the thoughts of William Willimon, http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/booknotes/thank_god_its_thursday_by_will/

The Most Hopeful Word in the Bible

woman coin

Luke 15:1-3; 11-32 NRSV

This morning, I have a rather simple sermon. Now, don’t get too excited, I didn’t say a short sermon! I said simple, for it is about only one word, one simple word which I believe may be the most hopeful word in the entire Bible.

Jesus is confronted by grumbling Scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus, why do you insist on hanging out with people who are known sinners? Rumors are flying all over town about you eating and drinking and welcoming sinners.”

And Jesus responds as he usually does by telling a story. Here, he tells three stories: one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin and another about a lost boy.

It is in these wonderful stories that we find what I believe is the most hopeful word in the entire Bible. Which word do you think it is?

What about the word found? Now there’s a hopeful word. In each of these stories, there is something or someone who is found. The shepherd finds the lost sheep.  “And when he found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” The woman finds the lost coin. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” And the father finds his lost son. “Let us celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost but now he is found!”

Found: It’s a wonderful word.  For being found is the polar opposite of being lost.

Being found being recognized and accepted, welcomed and affirmed. Being found means coming home. Coming home to a place where you are loved and appreciated and understood. Being found means receiving salvation. Being found means being completely whole and alive.

I spoke to a young man this week who had been laid off from his job like hundreds of others here in Oklahoma. He said: “I don’t know if Aubrey McClendon drove his SUV into that bridge on purpose, but if he did, I get it. I feel like my whole world is crashing down on me. I have three children, and we were just making ends meet when I was working. And I just don’t know how I am going to make it not. Right now, I feel so lost.”

As a pastor, I have heard those words before.

“Since my my wife died, I have been so lost.”

“I feel absolutely lost without my husband.”

“Since my doctor gave me the grim diagnosis, I have been lost.”

“I know I have made many mistakes. And I keep making mistakes. I keep doing the things that I know I shouldn’t do. And I don’t do the things I need to do. I am lost.”

Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of playing hide-and-seek with his sister when he was a child. The game where one person is “it.” They hide their eyes and count to a hundred while the others run and hide.

Fred said that when his sister was “it,” she always cheated. “One, two, three, four, five, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one-hundred. Ready or not hear I come!”

But Fred said there was one day he didn’t care if she cheated because he had picked out the perfect hiding place, under the porch and under the steps of the porch.

Completely hidden from sight, he watched his sister search, behind the trees, in the barn, in the corncrib. Round and round she searched. He watched as she kept passing him by again and again, confident that she would never find him.

He kept saying to himself: “She will never find me here. She will never find me here.”

Then he says it dawned on him, “She will never find me here.”

So he says he stuck out a toe.

And finally, she saw it! “Fred, You’re it! You’re it!”

He said he crawled out muttering, “Aw, phooey, you found me.”

After telling the story, Craddock asked, “What did I want? To hidden, yes. But what did I really want? To be found, just as every person in this room.”

Found:  What a hopeful word! For how many of us yearn to be known fully, understood completely, accepted fully and loved unconditionally? How many of us yearn for a place that we can call home? Where we can be ourselves, reveal all of our flaws, be honest with all of our mistakes, and still be welcomed and affirmed. Found: it’s a wonderful, hopeful word. It is who we are called to be as a church, but it is not the word that I am thinking of.

What about the word rejoice? Now there’s a hopeful word. In each of these stories, there is an awful lot of rejoicing. When the shepherd finds his lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and “rejoices.” And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and invites them to a party, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

After the woman who lost one of her silver coins turned on every light in the house, swept every square inch until she found it, she called together her friends and her neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

And who can forget the party in the final story of the lost boy. When the boy is found, the father says to his servants: “Quickly, bring out a robe, the very best one, and put it on my boy.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again’ he was lost and is found!” And they began to rejoice together with food and music and dancing.

Rejoice: now, that’s a hopeful word. Although that young man who lost his job cannot imagine it, someday, somehow, someway there’s going to come day in his life when there is going to be rejoicing. One day, he is going to get another job. I said to him on Friday, “Although you feel as if your life is over, you do know don’t you, that with God, it is entirely possible that all these things will work together for the good.”

Rejoice: it’s an incredibly hopeful word, but it is not the word I am thinking of. There is another word, a little word which is found in each of these stories that I believe offers even more hope.

Jesus says that the shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep.  The woman searches until she finds the lost coin, and the father waits until the lost boy is found.

Each time Jesus tells a parable, he is implying that God is like that. God is like a woman who turns on all of the lights in the house, sweeps every square inch and feverishly searches until she finds it.  God is like a shepherd who searches, not for an hour, not for 24 or 36 or 48 hours, not for a week or a month or even a year, but searches until he finds his sheep.  And God is like Father who patiently and graciously waits until his son comes home.

The most hopeful word in the Bible may be the simple word until.

The most hopeful good news is that God is going to stay beside the young man who lost his job, and with his family until he finds another job. God is going to be his friend and his companion until he is able to one day come home and rejoice. God is never going to forsake him, never going to give up on him. God is going to be patiently persistent until.

I believe someone needed to remind Aubrey McClendon, as someone needs to remind each of us, that no matter your mistakes, no matter your trouble, God is going to stay with you and fight for you until.

I have always prided myself on being open-minded. I have even preached sermons about the importance of being open-minded, and I have chastised people who were hard-headed. I’ll never forget that after one such sermon, a worshipper came up to me and asked, “Preacher, don’t you think that sometimes it is good to be close-minded? Don’t you think that there are some things that God is hard-headed about?”

Although the man was notorious for being closed-minded, he did have a pretty good point. For the good news is that the God of Jesus is a close-minded, hard-headed, stubborn God. God is obstinate and unrelenting in God’s desire to draw all of us unto God’s self. It was a very stubborn, immovable and inflexible love which propelled Jesus to pick up and carry his cross. Perhaps the most close-minded statement that was ever made was made from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The late L.D. Johnson’s wonderful book, The Morning After the Death, ends with these words about the stubbornness of God.

“God can be trusted!  In the last analysis, Christians have no more persuasive word. God can be trusted. That does not resolve all the mysteries or answer all the questions, but it gives us enough to build our lives around. God is trustworthy. God is Lord of life and death and God is to be trusted.”

So you say, “I’m so sick and tired of being sick and tired.  How much longer can I count on God to hold me close?” Until.

You say, “I keep failing, I keep falling. I keep making the same mistakes over and over and over.  How long will God continue to pick me up and put me back on my feet?”  Until.

You say, “I don’t think I am ever going to get over the loss of my husband.  It’s been ten years.  How much longer can I keep calling on God to help me?”  Until.

You say, “Although I know that it is wrong, I still find myself doing the same stupid things over and over. How much longer is God going to put up with me?”  Until.

How long will God keep fighting for me in this battle? How long will God keep protecting me in this storm? Until.

How long will God keep working with is church, encouraging every member to use his or her gifts for ministry? Until.

How much longer is God going to believe in me and stand by me and make a place for me at God’s banquet where there is going to be endless rejoicing, where life will be full and whole and complete and eternal? How much longer is God going to wait for me to come home?

The answer is in the simple, yet most hopeful word in the entire Bible: until.

Left-Handed Power

okalhoma sunset

I recently had a conversation with someone who firmly believed God uses God’s power to cause tragedies in life in order to accomplish some divine purpose. The God who rules with “thunder in his footsteps” and “lightening in his fist” as the song goes, will rain down cancer, heart disease, automobile accidents, hurricanes and earthquake to accomplish the divine purpose.

For me, this represents a gross misunderstanding of the power of God. Although the Bible insists over and over that our ways are not God’s ways, we insist on equating God’s power with our concept of worldly power.

One day, a father was driving down a road with his little boy admiring a beautiful sunset. The father said to son, “And to think, God created all of this just for us to enjoy.”  The little boy responded, “And to think, God did it all with God’s left hand.”

“What do you mean, son? Where did you hear that?”

“Well, God had to use God’s left hand, because my Sunday School teacher told me that in heaven Jesus was sitting on God’s right hand.”

As they say, “out of the mouth of babes.”

The truth is, we have allowed the world to define power for us instead of allowing the Jesus we remember in this season of Lent to define such power.

To the world, power means controlling. Power means dominating.  Power means taking. Power means ruling.  Power means imposing.

However, the power of God as revealed through Jesus Christ is the exact opposite. God has what the late theologian Arthur McGill called a “peculiar” kind of power.  You could call it a “left-handed power.” It is a power of self-expending, self-giving love.

God’s power is not power that takes, but a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules, but a power that serves.

Not a power that imposes, but a power that loves.

Not a power that dominates, but a power that dies.

And as McGill has written, this is the reason that it is “no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life. For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, his power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”