Holy Week

Emma

It happened 2,000 years ago, and it happens today.

Someone experiences suffering.

They love their neighbors as they love themselves.

They have a dream that love can change the world.

They heal. They teach. They unite. They march.

They speak truth to power.

They inspire.

But they also disturb.

Pushback comes.

Betrayal. Denial. Lies. Mocking. Humiliation. Degradation. Dehumanization.

Some of it comes in the name of God.

The good news is that Easter is coming.

Hope is rising.

And love will win.

Advertisements

The God Who Rides a Donkey

March for our lives.jpg

John 12:12-16 NRSV

I have a confession to make. I got more than a little down dejected last Sunday morning. Looking at the empty pews last when so many were out on Spring Break got me thinking: “What in the world are we going to do to get more people to come to church here?”

And planning for this Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant march into Jerusalem also got me thinking: “Everybody loves a parade!” Maybe that is what our church needs. A good parade!

Now, some may argue that many churches these days already look like some type of parade.

Some churches look like a parade they have down in Southern Louisiana where they throw candy, beads all sorts of fun things from the float. People go to parades like some people go to church: to get something, to receive something, to catch something that is thrown their way, something sweet, pleasant, something that is going to make their lives better, make their family happier.

Then there are other parades. Although no candy is thrown, these parades just have a way of making us feel good. They put us in a good mood. Nothing gets some of us in the Holiday Spirit like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

There are people who go to church to get in a particular mood. They go to hear something that moves them, stirs them. They go to see something that wows them. They go to ooh and ahh. They go to get a good feeling that will hopefully last them the rest of the week.

Then there are military parades. They show off a well-trained, well-conditioned army marching in step with tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads to show the world who’s the strongest and the greatest, whose citizens are the safest, most protected, most secure.

Just like some people go to church to get something that makes them feel a little more superior than others. They also go to be protected from all sorts of evil. And they go for some eternal security.

If we pay attention, we discover that each of these parades has the same drum beat. It is a beat of pleasure. It is a beat of comfort. It is a beat that is easy for us to march to. It is a beat of self-preservation, but also self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. It is a beat of pride. It is a beat of greed. It is beat that entices us.

And, although we know this beat has an innate tendency to be depraved, although we know this beat often stirs the darker, most selfish places within us, we love this beat. We live by this beat. We work by this beat. We relate to others by this beat. We vote by this beat. We even worship by this beat.

But on this Palm Sunday, we are reminded that there is another kind of parade. And it’s a parade that marches to the beat of very different drum.

Nearing the end of his life, Jesus, the savior of the world, paraded into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion, but on a borrowed donkey; not with a well-trained, well-conditioned army, but with a gang of rag-tag students who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

The late Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors and pastors once said, that to much of the world, this parade looked “downright stupid.”

For Jesus marched to a difficult beat that pushes against the status quo, that pulls us out of our comfort zones, that challenges our instincts.

While others marched to the beat of a self-serving, self-seeking, self-preserving drum, Jesus rode a donkey and marched to the beat of a self-giving, self-denying drum.

As the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna! God save us!” Jesus answered their cries by marching to a beat of sacrifice. Although he knew he would be killed for it, Jesus kept marching forward with a scandalous love and an offensive grace.

Yes, bouncing in on the back of a donkey, Jesus marched to the beat of a very different drum.

During the Fort Smith Marathon, several of you made and held up signs to cheer on the runners who made their way down Free Ferry. Some of your signs were very creative. One read: “You Are Running Better than the Government.” One of my favorite signs that I see people holding in nearly every marathon reads: “Worst Parade Ever.”

If we are honest, this is our initial reaction to this Palm Sunday parade. The people cry “Hosanna! God save us!” And here comes God, riding in on a donkey!

This is not a parade of pride. It is a parade of humility.

It is not a parade that entertains. It is a parade that suffers.

It is not a parade of pleasure. It is parade of agony.

It is not a parade of self-preservation. It is a parade of self-expenditure.

And although the route of this parade brought Jesus to the capital city, this parade was not good news for the rich and the powerful, the self-important and the self-sufficient.

This parade was good news for the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners—for all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

This march was good news those who had been left out and left behind: For sinners condemned by bad religion; For women, children and minorities silenced by the privileged; For the broken cast aside by society; For all those who are unable to march: the blind, the disabled, the mentally ill, the wounded and the sick. For all who realize that they need salvation.

I have heard it said that what America needs right now is a good parade. On this Palm Sunday, I agree.

However, we do not need a parade led by tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads asserting that military might is the answer to our problems.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey asserting that selfless love is the answer.

We need a parade that emphasizes that what this nation needs is more humility and less arrogance, more respect and less name-calling, more empathy and less callousness, more acts of kindness and less talk of preemptive military strikes.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey showcasing not those who sit in the highest seats of power, but school children who just want to be safe, teachers who just want a living wage, women who just want to be heard, persons with different abilities who just want to be included, the sick who just want to see a doctor, the poor who just want to eat, the oppressed who just want to be free.

We need a parade led by our savior who rides a donkey!

And if we are honest, we would confess that this parade is not easy for us accept. Look at verse 16: His disciples did not understand these things…” The truth is: neither can we.

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon writes: “We wanted Jesus to come to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to march up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine. We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday from noon until three, with hardly a word.”

Jesus didn’t come fixing all of our problems. He didn’t come offering us health and wealth, an easy life or even a better life. He didn’t come showering us with treats to make us feel good good. And he didn’t come showing us his power and might. Jesus came riding a donkey.

For God so loved the world that God came and emptied God’s self. God came and poured God’s self out. God came and bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in the way that we wanted—but, the good news is, God came in the way that we need for life—abundant and eternal.

Those great theologians of our time had it right: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might just find, you get what you need.”

I may want these pews to be full every Sunday morning, even during Spring Break. However, for us to be the church that God is calling us to be, worship service attendance on Sunday morning will never be as important as how we are worshiping God with our selfless service the rest of the week. How we march through these doors today is not nearly as important as how we are marching outside of these doors tomorrow.

To determine if we are being the church God is calling us to be, what we need is a new gauge. We need a new benchmark to determine if we are marching to the beat of a different drum, a new indicator to tell if we are marching in the steps of the One who rides a donkey. For it’s not how many of us are coming to church that is important to this One. It’s what we are doing in the world to be the church.

Spending an entire day with our youth, teaching them how to use power equipment for a mission trip that you plan to lead them on this summer, is a sign that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Making sandwiches for college students who are building affordable housing for the working poor is evidence that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Selflessly giving our time, our resources, and ourselves marching downtown to feed the hungry; marching across town to sit down and share a meal with a group of another faith; marching to the capital to stand up against gun violence, to cry out against injustice and corruption, to speak up for the care of God’s creation; marching down the road to extend mercy to someone who is broken; marching across a room to perform a small act of kindness to a stranger, marching out in the darkness to be a friend to someone who is afraid, marching everywhere we go to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves—

These are the markers that we are the church God is calling us to be.

May God give us the grace and the strength to keep marching forward to the beat of a different drum, to keep following in the steps of the One who rides a donkey; to keep marching a march of suffering, but also a march of joy; a march of sacrifice, but also a march of hope; a march to lose our lives, but also a march for our lives.

Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, as you entered Jerusalem, you did not look like the Messiah that we expected, bouncing in on the back of that donkey,

Lord Jesus, when you stood before Pilate and his inquisition, you did not sound like the Lord of Lords.

Lord Jesus, as you hung in agony on the cross, you did not look like the Kings of Kings.

Lord Jesus, help us to see you, even when you do not look like the God we wanted.  And make us realize through your strong presence that who you are is all we will ever need, now and forever.  Amen.

INVITATION TO CHRIST’S TABLE

Come. Come and find your place at this table.

All are invited, and all means all.

Come and share a very humble meal that in the eyes of many looks downright stupid.

But this is the feast God imagines –

where peace and salvation can be experienced in a simple loaf of bread and in one cup.

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.

INVITATION TO THE TABLE

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.

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

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

cross

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.