Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

John 12:1-8 NRSV

Every service of worship should begin with a warning. Instead of a welcome and a few announcements before the hand bell choir, the congregation needs to be forewarned, put on alert, and be advised to proceed with caution.

Because every time invoke the presence of the living Christ to join us around this table, things are likely to get little crazy! When Jesus comes to the table, things are going to get out of hand. Things with happen that will surprise, even shock us. Things will mysteriously break open, break loose, change, shift, and spill out.  Because when Jesus comes to the table, things are not always as we expect them to be, nor even as they appear to be. When Jesus is at 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. There has always been a sense of foreboding, of gathering gloom throughout much of his ministry. And now there is a sense that things are coming to a head. The enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders who already had everything in life figured out, those who believed they had all the answers, those for whom life holds no mystery, those who have been lurking in the shadows plotting against him, may be at last ready to entrap him.

But before all of that, 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 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?  Yeah, 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 ill.  And about a week ago, he was dead and buried.”

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

Well, not long after the cornbread and butter made its way around the table, Mary comes in 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!

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!  At the dinner table!

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?

Shaking his head at Mary making a spectacle of herself under the table, Judas, being the good committed liberal that he is, asks a great 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?”

It is rather shocking that it comes from Judas, for it’s the type of question that one can easily imagine Jesus asking, especially knowing how he feels about the poor.

Well, surprise, surprise, Judas! You have been paying attention! You 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 the surprise of all surprises: Jesus responds: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me.”   Whaaaaaaaaaat?????  Why would Jesus say something like that?

But then we begin to get it. When Jesus first mentioned burial, at first we thought he was talking about Lazarus. But this is not about Lazarus. And this is not about the poor. This is about what is going to take place in Jerusalem during the next couple of weeks.

This meal that should have been a happy gathering of good friends enjoying a lovely dinner was 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. Disloyalty and disappointment and death are also in the air on this night.

And Jesus still eats and drinks with them. Love, grace and mercy is also in the air on this night.

What a night this has turned out to be—a night of seemingly endless surprises.  So much more is going on 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. The truth is that 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.

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 fragmented 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.

To our absolute amazement a brief moment in prayer gives us strength that is beyond measure.

To our complete bewilderment, the singing of a hymn gives us peace outside all our expectations.

To our pure wonderment, each Sunday morning, gathering around this table with Jesus, some of us friends of Jesus, all of us his betrayers, envelops us with grace which is greater that our understanding.

To our utter befuddlement, a tiny cracker and sip of juice fills us with immeasurable sustenance, giving a sacrificial offering fills us with untold riches.

And it is not only during this service of worship that things are breaking open, breaking loose and spilling out. Because the good news is, if we open our eyes and our hearts to it, we can experience the Spirit of Christ everywhere.

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

We include someone who is usually excluded, and we are stunned when we realize that we are the ones who have been included in something larger than we could imagine.

A child speaks to us, and we are taken aback when she imparts wisdom deeper than any great philosopher.

We grant unearned, undeserved forgiveness to others and we are astounded to find ourselves forgiven.

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

And here, right now, because a church in Western Arkansas has made the commitment to invoke the presence of the living Christ to the table every week, because we’ve have made the decision to not only believe in Jesus, worship Jesus, but to actually follow Jesus, to welcome others like Jesus, to serve like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus and to love like Jesus, you know what’s gonna happen!

Like perfume and hair everywhere, the Holy Spirit of God is going to break open, break loose and spill out!

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

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.

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 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, saying yes to giving your life away and to leaving a place of comfort and security, you have never felt more alive, more you, 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’s not finished with you yet. Some of you have tuned out everything that has been going on and is going on here. You think you are going to leave here in a few minutes to go have a little dinner, unsurprised, untouched, unmoved, unchanged. Well, guess who’s coming to dinner?  I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Sidney Poitier.

Let us pray together.

O God, surprise us, overwhelm us, bowl us over, render us speechless, take our breath away, with your love and your grace, your mystery and your glory, as we follow you wherever you may lead us.


As you prepare share this meal from this table, know that you have been forewarned. You have been put on alert. You have been advised to proceed with caution. You will be surprised to discover that objects in the rear view mirror may not be what they appear to be. And you will be shocked to discover that the road ahead may not go where you expect it to go, or even where you may want it to go. So, remain pliable, keep your heart completely accessible and your life totally available. And may the ever present God, the unpredictable Christ, and the Holy Spirit like hair and perfume everywhere, surprise, shock and startle you from all immovable complacency.


Ashamed of the Gospel

not ashamed

I believe the church needs to re-discover its mission to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. We are to continue his ministry in this world, doing the very same things that he did while he was on this earth: offering healing to the sick, sharing hope to the despairing, giving comfort to the troubled, bestowing grace to the sinners, showing love to the hateful, speaking truth to the powerful, and bringing life to the dying.

Now, if this is like any church that I have ever known, there may be more than a few of you who have been thinking: “I just don’t know if I am ready to make such a commitment.”

I have some things that I need to work out first in my life. My faith needs some work. I have my doubts. I have questions. I have so much to learn, so much to figure out. And I have some very personal issues to deal with. I have this problem with anger. Sometimes I act or say before I think. So right now, if you don’t mind, until I can get my act more together, learn a little more, I think I will pass on this following Jesus thing. I have enough trouble just believing Jesus.”

Well, here’s my response to that: “Have you ever met Peter?”

You know, Saint Peter. The one Jesus called a “rock” and said, “on this rock, I will build my church.” The one Roman Catholics recognize as the first Pope. Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter: the one whom Jesus loved and trusted to carry on his ministry in this world. You may think, there’s no way I can be like Saint Peter.

Well, let me tell you a little more about this Peter fella.

One day, he is out on boat with the other disciples. It is the middle of the night, and there’s this big storm. The wind is howling. The waves are crashing against and into the boat. And as you could imagine, they were all scared to death. But then, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them to have courage and fear not.

But Peter…Peter has some doubts. Peter has some questions. Peter needs to work some things out: “Lord, if it is really you, then command me to come out on the water.” And Jesus responds, “Peter, you of little faith.”

Later, Jesus is instructing Peter about discipleship. Jesus talks about being humble, lowering one’s self, even pouring one’s self out. Jesus talks about selfless, self-expending, sacrificial love, being with and for the least of these.

But Peter…Peter has some issues. Peter has some things to learn. Peter gets into an argument with the other disciples about which one of them was the greatest.

After Jesus prays in the garden, surrendering himself to the will of God, offering himself as a sacrifice, Jesus does not resist arrest. Jesus practices what he teaches and turns the other cheek.

But Peter…Peter loses it. Peter acts before he thinks. In a fit of anger, Peter fights back. Peter draws his sword and begins swinging it Jesus’ captors, cutting the ear off of one.

And in our text this morning, Jesus foretells that garden event. He talks about being rejected by organized religion. Jesus is essentially saying:

“When you preach the word of God that cuts like a sword; when you love all people and try to teach others to love all people; when you preach a grace that is extravagant and a love that is unconditional; when you talk about the need to make room at the table for all people; when you stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized; when you proclaim liberty to the oppressed and say that their lives matter; when you defend, forgive and friend sinners caught in the very act of sinning; when you tell lovers of money to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor; when you command a culture of war to be peacemakers; when you tell the powerful to turn the other cheek; when you call religious leaders hypocrites and point out their hypocrisy; when you criticize their faith without works, their theology without practice, and their tithing without justice; when you refuse to tolerate intolerance; when you do these things that I do,” says Jesus, “then the self-righteous-powers-that-be will rise up, and they will hate. They will come against you with all that they have, and they will come against you in name of God. They will do anything and everything that is in their power to stop you, even if it means killing you.”

But Peter…Peter has some serious issues with that. Peter says to Jesus: “No way! Stop talking like that. This is not right. You are crazy. We will not let this happen!”

Then, having had about all that he could stand of Peter and his nonsense and excuses: his doubts, his questioning, his anger, his lack of faith, his personal issues, all the mess that he needs to work out, Jesus responds to Peter with some of the harshest words ever recorded by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Jesus, calls Peter, “Satan.”

And yet, that did not stop Jesus from loving Peter, from using Peter. Jesus kept teaching Peter, kept calling Peter, and kept leading Peter to do his work in the world. In fact, that did not stop Jesus from calling Peter to start his church in the world.

So, if you do not feel like you can follow Jesus, and if your excuses are: that you have doubts; or you have questions; or you are just not ready; or you have some issues to work out; or even have days you feel unworthy, even have days you know you resemble Satan more than God; then you are going to have to come up with another excuse, because as Peter teaches us: with Jesus, those excuses simply don’t fly!

So, what is it that is really keeping us from following Jesus?

After Jesus is arrested, Peter goes into the courtyard of the High Priest. It is a cold night, so he gathers with some folks who had started a fire to warm themselves. A servant girl begins staring at Peter and says: “This man was with Jesus. He traveled around with him doing the things that Jesus did, saying the things that Jesus said.” But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not even know this Jesus.”

A little later, another saw him and said: “You are a disciple, a disciple of Jesus who defended, forgave and friended sinners. You welcomed strangers, visited prisoners, clothed the naked, gave water to the thirsty, and fed the hungry. You restored lepers, elevated the status of women, gave dignity to Eunuchs, and offered community to lepers. But, again, Peter denied it.

About an hour had passed and another man began to insist saying: “Certainly this man was with Him, for he is a Galilean too. You called out hypocrisy on the behalf of widows. You challenged the status quo on the behalf of the sick. You disobeyed the laws of God on the behalf of the suffering.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”

Peter’s denials had nothing to do with his lack of faith. His denials, his refusal to take up his cross, his failure to follow in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus had nothing to do with his doubts and his questions, his personal issues and poor anger management because, as Jesus pointed out over and over, those excuses simply don’t cut it. Peter’s failure was shame.

Peter had trouble following Jesus, because he was ashamed of the gospel.  He was ashamed of what the gospel stood for, and for whom the gospel stood.

Which raises the question: “Could this be our failure to follow in the way of Jesus?”

Peter was ashamed to love, because living among voices clamoring to take their country back from foreign invaders, it was more popular to hate.

Peter was ashamed to identify with the least, because it was more popular to identify with the greatest.

Peter was ashamed to be last, because it was more popular to be first.

Peter was ashamed to tell the truth, because it was more popular to embrace a lie.

Peter was ashamed to embrace a way of humility, because it was more popular to be arrogant, proud, condescending and self-important.

Peter was ashamed to share his wealth, because it was more popular to hold on to it.

Peter was ashamed to side with the poor, because it was more popular to call them “lazy.”

Peter was ashamed to include foreigners, because it was more popular to dehumanize them by calling them “aliens” or “snakes.”

Peter was ashamed to defend and forgive sinners, because it was more popular to throw rocks.

Peter was ashamed to welcome and elevate children because it was more popular to put them down.

Peter was ashamed to visit prisoners, because it was popular to treat them as animals.

Peter was ashamed to stand up for the marginalized, because it was more popular to call them “abominations.”

Peter was ashamed to respect women as equals, because it was more popular to treat them like objects.

Peter was ashamed to turn the other cheek, because it was more popular to draw a sword.

Peter was ashamed to pick up and carry a cross, because it was more popular to pick up and carry a weapon of war.

And Jesus said: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So, are we ready to follow Jesus? Are we ready to give sacrificially and serve graciously? If not, what’s our excuse? We must remember, with Jesus, a lack of faith, having a lot of questions and some serious issues, or not having ourselves together simply doesn’t cut it!

Could it be that we are ashamed? Are we ashamed of the gospel? Are we ashamed of what it stands for, and for whom it stands?

The good news is that Peter dealt with his shame. Peter repented. And, this one Jesus called “Satan,” helped start the church and has been named by the Church as its first Pope.

And the good news for us this morning is that we still have a little time to deal with our shame.

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to deal with our shame and openly commit ourselves to following the way of Christ, his gospel, his mission in this world. Help us to pick up our crosses and courageously follow Christ, unreservedly, confidently and unashamedly wherever he leads. Amen.

When Monday Morning Comes (Or Wednesday Afternoon)

Aaron Feis

Mark 1:9-15 NRSV

Do you remember the Israelites?  After they were affirmed by God in the presence of God through Moses and the Exodus, they found themselves in the wilderness for forty years struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.


Do you remember Moses?  After he was affirmed by God in the presence of God as the leader of God’s chosen people as he led the Israelites out of Egypt, he found himself in the wilderness on Mount Sinai for forty days struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Do you remember Elijah?  After he was affirmed by God in the presence of God on the top of Mount Carmel, he found himself in the wilderness for forty days struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Today, and every Sunday, we come to this place, hopefully we are also affirmed by God in the presence of God. We are affirmed as we sing the songs of faith and say the prayers of faith. We are affirmed as we gather around a communion table, as we listen to the Word of God through music and word, and as we commune with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Together, we sense with our hearts, hear with our ears, and see with our eyes the very presence of God. As we come together in this place and make commitments and recommitments to God, we are empowered by the Spirit of God, and we are affirmed.

However, like the Israelites, like Moses, and like Elijah, Monday morning comes.

On Monday morning, anxiety is usually your alarm. You are awakened with a list of countless worries. If tomorrow morning is anything like the last few mornings, added to your fretful list are the children who were killed in yet another horrific school shooting. You anguish that so many of your friends have acquiesced to the notion that nothing can be done to prevent this from happening again. You worry about your own children, your grandchildren, great grandchildren. You grieve over the state of our country. Some of you absolutely dread going to work or to school. While others dread spending another day at home alone.

Some of you make it to work, and it’s just that, it’s work. And school is still school. Same old mess day after day, week after week. There, there are all kinds of trials, temptations, drama. This is where you are most aware that you are not the person you need to be, the person you could be, the person you should be.

Back at home, there is more drama. There is arguing over trivial things, fussing over nothing. However, much worse than the drama some of you experience are those who come home to no one. Your phone rings in the middle of the drama or the isolation, and you’re told that a good friend has just been diagnosed with cancer.

One day— affirmed by God in the presence of God. The next day— hurled into the wilderness, struggling with all kinds of evil, into a place where God seems to be non-existent.

The good news is that God understands. The good news is that God empathizes. The good news of the gospel is that God has experienced this world as we often experience it through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

One day, Jesus was affirmed by God in the presence of God like none other. We are told that Jesus’ baptism, the heavens which were thought by many to have been closed, were “torn apart” and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus “like a dove.” Then there was this voice from heaven: “This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

One day affirmed by God in the presence of God, but then, without warning, Monday morning came. Jesus is driven immediately into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, hurled into a place where God seemed to be non-existent, a place with wild, chaotic forces, with evil personified.

At one time, when I was much younger, much more naïve, much less experienced in this world, this passage of scripture used to trouble me. For what kind of God would affirm their child one day and then drive him into the wilderness the next day, where there are trials, dangers, and sufferings?  What kind of God would lead us into such a place?

Well, since becoming more experienced in life, earning some of these gray hairs, I no longer struggle with these questions. Because, the reality is that God does not have to drive us into a wilderness. We are already there. We are there because we are human, and life itself is a wilderness. We encounter suffering, evil and chaotic forces everyday of our lives, not because God drives us into it, but because we are earthly creatures living in a fragmented world.

Like you and me, Jesus found himself in a in a fretful, fearful place. One day, Jesus is affirmed by God in the presence of God. The next day, he’s in a seemingly God-forsaken wilderness.

But here’s the good news. It’s just one short sentence, but it is a beautiful sentence. Mark says: “And the angels waited on him.”

Angels, representing God’s providence and presence waited on Jesus. Struggle and trial, isolation and evil are present in the wilderness, but “So is God!” Throughout Jesus’ forty days and nights, God was not absent! God was with Jesus, ministering to him, serving him, waiting on him.

Even in the most demonic experiences in this wilderness called life, God is always present. The Rev. Fred Rogers put it this way: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

In other words, even in the midst of the most chaotic forces, even in the midst of evil personified, we will always find angels.

Angels like football coach Aaron Feis who gave his life this week, sacrificing his body to shield students from gunfire.

Angels like geography teacher Scott Beigel who risked and gave his life opening classroom door to shelter and save the lives of students.

Angels like the unnamed janitor who helped save students who were unknowingly running toward the shooter.

Angels like so many of the teachers who hid students in closets, barricaded their doors, kept everyone quiet.

Angels like so many of the students who survived this experience, who you just know are going to help make this world a better, safer place to live.

In the middle of the wilderness, in the presence of evil personified, in the midst of the chaos and terror, angels were everywhere.

This wilderness experience of Jesus is often called “the temptation of Jesus.” I believe we are sometimes tempted to believe that we can make it through our wilderness alone, on our own power. We are tempted to believe that our own physical power or even our own spiritual power can see us through our Monday mornings.

We must be able to humbly recognize that come Monday morning, or Tuesday morning, or Wednesday afternoon, we need another power. If the Son of God needed angels to wait on him in his wilderness, how much more do we need angels? How much more do we need God’s abiding presence? How much more do we need one another? How much more do we need those who have been called to be God’s selfless, sacrificial, transforming agents in this world, who are, even now, sitting all around us?

Which leads to this question: Come Monday, who might need you?

It’s Sunday morning.  Gathered here, in the presence of God, we are loved, and we are affirmed. The heavens are open. God’s Spirit fills this room, and God is speaking to our hearts.

In a few moments, we will receive the bread and the cup, and we will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are loved with a grace that is greater than our sin. We will pray. We will sing a hymn. And we will make commitments and our re-commitments. During the Benediction you will hear the wonderful words: “You and you and you and you are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.”

Yes, it is Sunday morning, and here in the very presence of God, we are affirmed.

But we can be certain of this: Monday morning is coming. For some of us Monday morning may come this Sunday afternoon. As sure as we are here, it is coming. But always remember…

Remember the Israelites.  They found God and the promised land.  Remember Moses. He found God in such a profound way that it changed his appearance.  Remember Elijah. He found God in a still, small voice. Remember Jesus. The son of God found God through angels who waited on him. And as children of God, as sons and daughters of God, I am confident that so can we.

How can I be so confident?  Because when I look around this room, you know what I see?

I see angels.  Let us pray.

O God, thank you so much for the countless times this church has come to us and waited on us, ministered to us, served us as angels.  Remind each of us O God that you call us to be your representatives on this earth sharing with all people the good news that when we find ourselves in the wilderness, you are always present.  Amen.


Invitation to Communion

Come to the table, join in the song,

This is the place where all shall belong.

Voices in chorus, seeking Christ’s ways,

To become God’s living stones of praise.

Come voice your struggles, come shed your tears,

Come calm your anger, come lose your fears.

Here we encounter the Living Lord

Through bread that’s broken, in wine that’s poured.



It’s Sunday. The good news is that you are here in the very presence of God, and “You and you and you and you are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.”

But guess what? Monday morning is certainly coming.  Go now with the assurance that tomorrow morning, God will not leave you alone nor forsake you.

Go, also remembering your calling to be God’s representatives on this earth, on Sunday, but especially on Monday, in the light of affirmation, but also in the darkness of the wilderness.

And may the love of God, the grace of Christ Jesus and the communion of the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of angels, be with us all.

Claiming the Body of Jesus


Sermon preached at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church for the Ecumenical Good Friday Service, 2017 in Enid, Oklahoma.

John 19:38-42 NRSV

After Jesus is crucified, John speaks of two individuals who emerge from the shadows, exposing themselves, risking their anonymity, putting their reputations on the line, by claiming the body of Jesus.  The first is Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus who had previously hid his faith in secrecy for what John calls “fear of the Jews.”  He was one of the Jewish authorities who never openly confessed their faith in Jesus because of fear of losing their political power and position in the synagogue.

And the second was Nicodemus. You may remember Nicodemus from John chapter 3. He had previously come to Jesus secretly by night, showing some interest in Jesus, but never making a public profession of faith.  However, now on Friday afternoon, in claiming the body of Jesus, the faith of both of these men is clearly exposed and made very public.

And as we read John’s account we notice that by coming out of the shadows, openly claiming the body of Jesus, these two men do much more than risk their anonymity and their reputation in their community.  They also put at risk their religion.  For touching the dead body of Jesus made them ceremonially unclean which meant that they would be unable to celebrate the Passover and the Sabbath with their families.

The extravagant amount of burial spices which weighed about a hundred pounds that the men bring to anoint Jesus’ body, tell us that these men also put at risk their riches. Along with the expensive spices, the linen burial clothes they used to prepare Jesus for burial were usually something worn only by people of wealth and prominence. The pristine condition of the garden tomb also underscores the extravagance of Jesus’ interment.

So in this story we see two persons who come out of the shadows risking reputation, religion and riches to claim the body of Jesus.

The question which should come to our minds is why?  Why risk anything for someone who is dead?  Why would Joseph and Nicodemus risk their reputation, their status in the community; their religion, their standing in their family; their riches, and their wealth for a lifeless corpse?

What was it that led these men to risk so much?  Well, one might ask: What would have happened to the body of Jesus if these men had not claimed the body of Jesus?  Well history tells us that after a Roman crucifixion, the unclaimed bodies were often left hanging on the cross to be picked apart by birds. And other times, the unclaimed bodies were simply thrown into the trash dump outside of town.

So these men, living in secret shadows, loving Jesus from afar, simply said, “enough is enough.”

We can no longer conceal our faith.  We can no longer mask our love.  We can no longer sit back and do nothing. We can not bear to let our Lord and our Savior’s body be defiled by being picked at by birds or thrown into a pile of trash.

We must do something.  Even if it means putting at risk every thing that we cherish, everything that we hold dear.  Even if it means risking our reputation, our religion (the way we have always done it anyway), all of our riches, we must act.  We can no longer stay in the shadows. Our love for our Lord demands that we claim his body:  that we remove him from the cross; that we prepare his body for burial, that we seal him in a rich man’s tomb.

It was love, pure and simple and powerful which caused these men to act on the behalf of Jesus by claiming his body risking reputation, religion and riches.

The irony here is that it was the same love which caused our God to act on our behalf.  The story of Joseph and Nicodemus is the story of our God.  Out of a high and holy place, our God said: enough is enough.  I can no longer love my creation from afar.  I can no longer watch my creation suffer and perish.  I can no longer keep myself from risking my all, from empting myself, from becoming a human being.  I can no longer keep myself from offering my creation all that I am and all that I have. I can no longer keep myself from pouring myself out.  I can no longer keep myself from loving my creation even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Joseph and Nicodemus claimed the body of Jesus because they were filled with the divine love of God.

The question for us is this:  How long are we going to continue to live in the shadows?  How long until we open our hearts to the story of God’s love; to the divine love of God which wants to fill our souls, to be so overflowing with the love of God that we have to cry out: “enough is enough!   I can no longer sit back and do nothing, I must act. I can no longer love my Lord and my Savior from afar.  I must claim the body of Jesus, the body of Christ, for myself even if it means putting at risk the things I most hold dear.  Even if it means risking reputation, religion, and riches, I must share this pure and simple and powerful love with everyone I know. I can no longer let others suffer alone. I can no longer sit back and allow injustice to continue. I can no longer ignore inequality. I can no longer turn my back on those who are marginalized and ostracized. I can no longer keep my faith private.  I can no longer remain silent. I can no longer keep myself from giving all that I have and all that I am to the ones who are lonely, thirsty, cold and hungry.  Enough is enough!  I must claim the body of Christ!”

Well, what are we waiting for?  Are we afraid of what we might lose from risking so much?  Let’s look at what Joseph and Nicodemus lost by claiming Jesus’ body.  They really did not lose a thing.  Instead of losing their reputations, their good names, their names are remembered by the gospel writers and by you and me two thousand years later as the ones who risked everything to claim the body of Jesus.

How do we want to be remembered?  As someone who lived only for one’s self; accumulating a lifetime of reputation, religion and riches?  Or would we rather be remembered as one who because of so much divine love welling up inside of our heart, we risked it all to claim the body of Jesus?   By doing whatever we can to serve our Lord in our community and in our world.  By giving all that we have and all that we are to our Lord by loving others with the complete, divine love of God.

Crown of Thorns

Matthew 21:1-11 NRSV    nerve gas

Palm Sunday—it’s the spectacular day we celebrate the King of Kings’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem!  And in this world of so much suffering and pain, oh how we need a day like today!  Oh how we need to hear that Jesus Christ, our ruler and our king is coming through the gates to finally set things right, to take complete control of things. Oh how we need a day to reassure ourselves that no matter how bad life gets, no matter how distressed, fragmented and chaotic life becomes, and how hopeless it seems, Christ is large and in charge! “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as we all like to sing.

Ok. Now, as we Disciples of Christ like to do, let’s get real for a moment. Let’s honestly think through this. Is the truth that “He’s got the whole world in his hands really that comforting?”

Although none of us good God-fearing, Bible-believing, church-going folks like to admit it, is this truth of God’s supreme providential power more than a little disturbing?

Think about those times you were reminded by someone, albeit with good intentions, that “God is in control.” When Lori and I lost our first child two months before the due date, people came up to us and said, “Don’t let this get you down. Just remember that God doesn’t make any mistakes.”

After the doctor gave you the news that the tumor was malignant, people came up to you and said, “Don’t worry, God knows what God is doing.”

When people learned that you were going to lose your job, they reminded you, “It is going to be alright, for God in control.”

At the graveside of a loved one, your friends and family lined up between you and the casket and whispered: “God has a reason for this.”

And very politely, we nodded. We even thanked them for their words with a hug or a handshake. But then, a short time later, after we dried our tears and came a little bit more to our senses, while we were sitting quietly at home or while we were out on a long drive, or maybe sitting in church, we began to reflect and to ponder those well-intended words. We began to think to ourselves: “If God is really sitting on some providential throne in complete control of this fragmented fiasco called life, this disastrous debacle called the world, then, really, just what type of ruler is this God? Just what type of king sits back and allows so much evil to occur in their kingdom, especially to people we are told the king loves.

The king of kings makes his triumphant entry—what is supposed to bring us great strength, peace and comfort, instead brings us frustration, anger and doubt.

Hosanna, the King is coming to save us—what is supposed to bring us assurance and hope brings us misery and despair. And we become tempted to join all those who will laugh and ridicule Jesus by the end of this week: “Umphh!  King of the Jews! Some King!”

I have said it before, and I do not mind saying it again—If God is the one who willed our first baby’s death, causes tumors to be malignant, gets us fired from our jobs, takes our loved ones from us, and sits back allowing such atrocities as the snuffing out of lives of little Syrian children being with nerve gas, then I really do not believe I want anything to do with a god like that!  I think I would rather join the millions of people who have chosen not to be in church on this Sunday before Easter.

But the good news is that I am here.

And I am here to proclaim with a confident voice God that God is not the type of King who decrees the death of babies, pronounces malignancies, commands layoffs and orders our loved ones to be suddenly taken from us. There is no doubt about it, Christ is King.  But thank God, Christ does not reign the way the kings of this world reign.

The reason I believe we allow ourselves to be tempted to give up on God in the face of evil is because we often forget that our God reigns not from some heavenly throne in some blissful castle in the sky. But our God reigns from an old rugged cross, on a hill outside of Jerusalem, between sinners like you and me.

I believe we oftentimes become despairing and cynical about God, because we forget that our God does not rule like the rulers of this world.

The kings of this world rule with violence and coercion and force. Earthly rulers rule with an iron fist: militarily and legislatively, and with executive orders. Worldly kings rule with raw power: controlling, dominating, taking, and imposing.

But, as the events that took place this week in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago remind us, Christ is a king who rules through self-giving, self-expending, sacrificial love. Christ is a king who rules, not from a distance at the capital city, not from the halls of power and prestige, but in little, insignificant, out-of-the-way places like Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Waukomis and Enid.

Our King doesn’t rule with an iron fist. Our King rules with outstretched arms.

Our King doesn’t cause human suffering from a far. Our King is right here beside us sharing in our suffering.

Our King possess what the late theologian Arthur McGill called a “peculiar” kind of power.

God’s power is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.

God’s power is not a power that imposes. It is a power that loves.

God’s power is not a power that dominates. It is a power that dies.

And as Arthur 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, [a] power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”[i]

Christ the King did not take our first child. The day our baby died, our King came and cried with us in that hospital room.

God did not cause the tumor. The day the doctor said the word “cancer” was a day of anguish for God as it was for us.

God did not create the layoff. The day you were told that your job was ending, God stayed up with you and worried with you all night long.

And God did not take your loved one.  When they died, something inside of God died too.

What we all need to learn are very different definitions of “king,” “rule,” “reign” and “power”—very different because they define the holy ways of the only true and living God, rather than defining our false gods and their worldly ways.

When life gets us down (and if we live any length of time at all in this world, it most certainly will), we need to remember the great truth of this day—The king has arrived. The king has entered the gates. And this king is has come to take his place on his throne, on an old rugged cross.  Do you see him reigning today? Do you see him bleeding, suffering, sacrificing, and giving all that God has to give from from the cross?

God does not make mistakes. God knows what God is doing. God is in control. God is king. But God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels. God wears a crown of thorns.

This past week, I visited with Marion Batterman whose doctor just told him that he was dying. He said, “Pastor, my doctor gives me no hope. They said that my lungs are just about gone.”

I said, “Marion, I am so sorry.”

“Oh don’t be sorry he said. “Because my hope is not in my doctor! My hope is in my Lord!”

“So Marion,” I said, “Even when your lungs stop working completely…”

Marion finished the sentence, “I still have hope!”

No, he was not delusional. His mind was not clouded with medication. Marion was at peace, because his King reigns from a cross.

Marion was filled with hope, because his King is not far away from him seated a celestial throne removed from his agony. His King is seated at his very side suffering with him.

His King is not above his pain. His King is experiencing every bit of his pain.  His King is not willing or decreeing his death, his king is experiencing his death.

His King is not slowly taking his life away from him. His King is giving the King’s eternal life to him, pouring out the King’s holy self into him, and promises him every minute of every day to see him through his dying.

After he described an intensified intimacy that he now shares with his Lord, he then said something miraculous. With this hopeful joy in his smile and eternity in his eyes, he told me that he was a blessed man.

Think about that for a moment.

A man, barely able to breathe, nearing the end of his life, told me that he is blessed.

Aren’t we all?

[i] Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, 61-63.

Loosening the Bonds of Death


John 11:32-44 NRSV

John 11 is a great example of why I love the Bible. I love the Bible because the Bible is honest. The Bible is real. The Bible does not hide, cover up or try to sugarcoat the difficulties and even tragedy of life in this fragmented world.

I love that, because this world in which we live is sometimes incredibly painful. We live in a world surrounded by poverty and economic pain. We live in a world where the rich take care of themselves while taking advantage of the poor.

We live in a world where so-called “Christians” in the church are some of the meanest and most evil bullies we know. We live in a world where our loved ones suffer with all sorts of dreadful diseases. And we live in a world where we are continually reminded our own mortality.

Thus, I love John 11, for here in this very honest chapter, there is no denying the harsh reality of this fragmented existence we call life, especially in dealing with the most tragic aspect of this life: the death of a loved one.

Too many Christians, for many reasons would rather treat the tragedy of death as if it does not exist. We don’t want to talk about it.  And when we do, we try to deny the harshness, the sheer austerity of it. We do not even like to call it “death.” We would rather call it “passing away.”

We say things like: “there are worse things in this world than death;” however, in death there still exists an inescapable starkness that cannot be denied or ignored. When we are honest, we would admit that death is the most difficult thing about life. Losing someone we loved is the worst of all human experiences. We try to comfort ourselves by saying things like, “at least our loved one is no longer suffering.”  “At least she is now finally at peace.”  But if we are honest, just a second later, we find ourselves questioning why she had to get cancer and suffer in the first place. Why did they have to die as young as they did?

And we like to comfort ourselves by saying that he or she is in a far better place. But then a second later, we question why he or she would not be better here with us, at home, surrounded by family and love.

Yes, in John 11, there is no refuting the stark reality of death. Notice that Martha is absolutely horrified when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back from the tomb. Her horror reminds us of something that we would rather ignore: the body was beginning to decay. The very sound of the words of verse 39 “Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for four days” seems inappropriate to read from the pulpit. Dressed in our Sunday best on a beautiful spring morning, we don’t want to hear that!

But this is reality. This is truth.  And sometimes we simply do not want to hear the truth.

And sometimes we just think it is our Christian duty to be an example to the world, to the weak, to the unfaithful, how to be strong, how to put on a brave face and hold back the tears.

But notice in John 11 that there is no holding back.

Mary, the brother of Lazarus, weeps. The mourners who had gathered at the cemetery that day weep. Even Jesus himself weeps. The harsh reality of death and grief is evident everywhere.

We are told twice that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Is there really a difference there? That is like saying that Jesus was grieving and mourning.

Just looking at the tomb of Lazarus caused Jesus to burst into tears.  Even Jesus, who we believe is manifestation, the very embodiment of God, the creator of all that is, who became flesh to dwell among us, does not remain calm and serene as one unmoved and detached from the fragmented human scene. Jesus himself is deeply disturbed at death’s devastating force. There is no denying it or escaping it or muting it. Neither is there any dressing it up with euphemisms like “passing away” or “gone on to be with the Lord.”

John 11 also points out why Jesus grieved. In verse 36 we read: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.’”

It has often been said that the only way to miss pain in life is to miss love in life. Garth Brooks sings a song entitled “The Dance.” One line of the song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.” Grieving only means that we have loved as our God has created us to love. The only way to never grieve is to never love. But to never love is to never truly live. As the song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

So, I believe John 11 gives each of us permission this morning to grieve. May we grieve long and deeply. May we never dare to run away from it.  May we never treat it as it was some stranger that we could send away, or deny that grief, because someone who doesn’t know any better thinks grieving means our faith is weak. Let us grieve what is lost. Grieve honestly, lovingly and patiently. Let us grieve until our cups are emptied.

However, (and here is the good news for all of us this day) as the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians that those of us who call ourselves Christians should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  As Christians, our grief is real, but our grief is different. Our grief is not despairing, because as Christians, we possess hope because Jesus, who himself was not immune to grief and even death, always brings resurrection and new life.

Those of us who are not immune to grief and death need to again to hear Jesus’ prayer which came in a loud voice.  “Lazarus, come out.”

I heard a preacher once ask his congregation, “You do know why Jesus said, ‘Lazarus, come out’ and not simply ‘come out’ don’t you?  Because if he did not call Lazarus by name, if he did not say specifically, “Lazarus, come out, then every tomb in Jerusalem would have opened up that day!

We need to hear this voice and see this very real and foul, decaying corpse walking out of the grave, still wrapped in burial cloths, coming, at the voice of Jesus, to life.

And then I believe we need to hear again, and hear again loudly Jesus’ words: “Unbind him, and let him go.”  “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus is loosed from the bonds of death. He is freed from the shackles of his past. He is let go into a brand new future, liberated and set free.

Then, I believe we need hear John and Jesus himself tell us over and over that this event reveals the glory of our God. What we have in this story is much more than the resuscitation of one dead corpse by one man.

Always for John, miracles are much more. Miracles are always signs that point us to something greater. Thus this miracle is the revelation that the God in whom we serve and trust and love, this God who is not unmoved and detached from the human scene, is always a death-overcoming and life-giving God.

The good news that we need to hear is that this God is still working in our world today unbinding, letting go, loosing, freeing. God is here enabling us to confront death and grief, us to acknowledge it, to look it straight in the eyes, to see all of its harshness and starkness, and then be liberated from it.

And if God is here liberating us from the shackles of death, then there is nothing else in all of creation from which God cannot set us free.

From evil bullies bent on crushing our spirits.

A job that is draining the very life from us.

A relationship that is killing us.

Fears that paralyze us.

Disease that is destroying us.

Economic hardships that never seem to end.

Depression that never lets go.

One of the great things about being a pastor is how I have the awesome privilege to witness this good news all of the time.

Someone loses their job. They come to me believing it is the end of the world. But a year later, working a new job, they share with me that losing that job was the very best thing that could have happen to them.

Someone else comes to me and says that their marriage has fallen apart. And that they are partly to blame. They said they thought life as they knew it was over. But a few months later, they tell me that they are beginning realize that although they cannot go back to the good old days, they have plenty of good new days ahead.

Someone comes to me sharing their deepest fear: the fear of being known for who they really are; the fear of rejection and ridicule. Then I see them a short time later, and they tell me how they have been surprised by unconditional love and unreserved acceptance.

People call me to share their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They say that they had just received a death sentence. But a short time later, I visit with them, and they tell me that they are beginning to understand that being alive and whole have very little to do with physical well-being.

And then I have visited with countless people as they are facing what is certainly their final hours on earth, and I hear in their voices, and I see in their eyes a faithful awareness that there is nothing at all “final” about them.

Thus, like Lazarus, in this incomplete and fragmented world where death, divorce, disease and hate entomb us, we can be loosed. We can be freed, and we can be unbound.

We can come out and let go and celebrate the good news together: where there is incompleteness and brokenness, there can be wholeness. Where there is tyranny of the mind, there can be freedom of the heart. Where there is an imprisonment of the soul, there can be a liberation of the spirit. Where there is grief and despair there is hope. And where there is death and even decay, there is always life.

Let us pray together…

O God of New Life, may we be a church that shares this good news with all people, honestly and truthfully and faithfully. May we weep with those who mourn. May we be deeply moved with those who are afraid. And may we be deeply disturbed in our spirit with all who are suffering. Stay beside them. Befriend them. Accept them. Love them…until they are whole, liberated and fully alive now and forever through Christ our Lord. Amen.