Sunday, January 14, 2018

Preaching Palm Sunday - March 25

     When we sit down to plan worship, we always entertain the question: are we doing Palm Sunday or Palm/Passion Sunday? I acknowledge we have to decide what texts to read, and to read the full passion narrative out loud requires a total restructure of the service – which can be lovely and moving. We’ve interspersed reading a section and then music/hymn, sort of Lessons & Carols-like.

     But the dichotomy is less clear to me than it once was. There is no Palm Sunday without an eye to the Passion, no festive entry that is simply party time. His entry is ominous, dripping with irony. He enters to die – and the forces of evil are already arrayed against him. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their stellar The Last Week, explain how, with Passover due, Pilate with his Roman legion is marching into Jerusalem from Caesarea to the west, arms clattering, swords glinting in the sun, the thunder of hooves and chariots meant to intimidate, to quell any thought of an uprising with the huge crowds visiting the Holy City.  Simultaneously, from the east, as clear a counterpoint as you could imagine, Jesus enters, not on a war stallion, unarmed, not to intimidate but to unmask the powers, to conquer evil and hate with mercy and love.
 Hosanna, heysanna!” from Jesus Christ Superstar captures the mood dramatically. And for me, I love the fact that "Hosanna!" isn't a cheer. It's a prayer, meaning something like "Lord, help, please," or "Help us now."  What was the tone of the Hosannas on Palm Sunday - as habituated as the people were by the Romans to stay quiet?

   I am pondering doing something ultra-creative (which frightens me a bit) - building a sermon around What did Jesus see in trees? I started with the idea that when he saw palm fronds, those branches they waved at Palm Sunday, he liked them - 
but shuddered a few days later when what he'd seen in other trees were those strands of thorns (the dreaded zizyphus spina christi, with a bit of itchy, burning poison which would grace his brow on the cross). Then I thought of Jesus and trees period. He'd worked in wood with his father; The Last Temptation of Christ envisions Jesus making crosses for the Romans. Did he see building material? Did he see birds in the trees (which he spoke of so eloquently in the Sermon on the Mount)? I thought of Mary Chapin Carpenter's lovely "Only a Dream," recalling a childhood of looking up into elm trees with her sister; did Jesus recall his childhood? Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) might help... At Passover, did Jesus notice wood having been recently cut down - for the fires of the temple altar, or for the fires for the Roman soldiers in the city to keep the peace? Jesus wound up dying on a tree - and I may delve back into that lovely medieval "Dream of the Rood," which tells the story of the tree that became the cross.  Will I do this to break my own boredom of preaching now on my 37th Palm Sunday? or stick to my usual?

     David Bentley Hart eloquently articulated the humility that is God in The Beauty of the Infinite – how God “apparels himself in common human nature… brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds.”
 Even the whitest most prosaic preacher can indulge in a bit of a cadence this week. Something like Instead of a war stallion, he rode a donkey; instead of a palace he was born in a manger; instead of wielding spears and swords he was armed with nothing but love – and so forth. People love this, and it can capture the counter-cultural-ness that is the Gospel. Last year, with the election looming, I observed how Jesus is humble, courageous but not angry; but we fawn over leaders who are arrogant, and angry – and we are driven by fear. I might revisit that this year.

     The confusion that reigned on the first Palm Sunday is worth exploring. People were wrapped up in their fantasies about Jesus, about God, and about what deliverance would look like. The Epistle reading, Philippians 2:5-11 (a perfect Palm or Palm/Passion text, toward which I leaned in my sermon 3 years ago) clarifies what Jesus was demonstrating by entering the city on a donkey. The translation is fascinating: we typically hear “Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” but the Greek will allow for an even more insightful rendering – “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” Jesus’ humility, his lowness, his vulnerability – this is not temporary charade, no play acting whereas God’s real nature is sheer, unadulterated power and might.  This is God, the humble one, the infant in a cow stall, the abject, beaten, silent one, the nailed one.

     If you do the full Markan passion account, I’d commend Donald Senior’s brief and wise The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark – a close reading of the text in context, beginning with this, “The hostility against Jesus was a result of Jesus’ own mission” (which he then unfolds for us), and ends with this, “The true identity of Jesus as God’s son is manifested not in acts of marvelous power but in an event seemingly devoid of any power, his passion and death,” with lots also on what we do as a consequence, like “The cross is both what we have to endure and what we actively and deliberately take up.” 
And then I will never again ponder the passion narrative with recalling Robert Jenson’s wise conclusion to his exploration of various theories of the atonement: “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back.  There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives.  The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours.  Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”  The question for the preacher is: can I trust the story? Or do I feel some compulsion to dress it up and improve upon it?

     Some more fodder for preaching Palm Sunday. Here is what I did on Palm Sunday, 2014 – with a little humorous use of Donkey in Shrek: “Are we there yet” (over and over) but then redeeming himself with a spiritually suggestive “Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer.”  At the culmination of Jesus’ long journey, involving a donkey, we finally see his true face – and believe.

     Many people will have seen the movie “The Shack” (or read the book) – almost a handy substitute for the Bible for many!  Its best line, I think, is when Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?”  He answers, “No, not at all – most roads don’t lead anywhere.  What I do mean to say is I will travel any road to find you.”  That’ll preach…

     I love Howard Thurman’s pensive reflection:
 “I wonder what was at work in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey. Perhaps his mind was far away to the scenes of his childhood, feeling the sawdust between his toes in his father’s shop. He may have been remembering the high holy days in the synagogue with his whole body quickened by the echo of the ram’s horn. Or perhaps he was thinking of his mother, how deeply he loved her and how he wished that there had not been laid upon him this Great Necessity that sent him out on to the open road to proclaim the Truth, leaving her side forever. It may be that he lived all over again that high moment on the Sabbath when he was handed the scroll and he unrolled it to the great passage from Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor.’ I wonder what was moving through the mind of the Master as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey.”

     Or maybe you know the music of David Wilcox. His moving “Show the Way” I think fits Palm Sunday to a tee: “You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason We should dream that the world would ever change. You're saying love is foolish to believe 'Cause there'll always be some crazy with an Army or a Knife To wake you from your day dream, put the fear back in your life... Look, if someone wrote a play to glorify What's stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage To look as if the hero came too late he's almost in defeat It's looking like the Evil side will win, so on the Edge Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins.  It looks like we’re alone in this scene set in shadows, evil is cast around us.  But it’s love who stacked the stones, it’s love that made the stage it’s love that wrote the play; For in this darkness love can show the way.”

What can we say come Maundy Thursday?

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    I tell my students and young colleagues not to talk too long on days like Ash Wednesday - and Maundy Thursday. They come, not even looking for pulpit wizardry, but for the tangible experience, the bodily encounter. Just a little bread and wine. My kooky mind is drawn to the semi-comic scene in Jesus Christ Superstar of the semi-drunk disciples singing “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I could make it if I tried…”

     I don't usually focus on the footwashing in John 13, although it's theologically provocative. But it’s way too easy to flatten it out: Jesus served humbly, so go and serve others humbly (although Pope Francis sure revolutionized how we'll forever think about footwashing after doing it to women, and Muslims!).  I’m not sure John would say that was his one-liner takeaway… and we have so much all year long about serving anyhow that Holy Week, for me, needs devotion to Jesus and his literally sacramental death. 

     I don't usually re-envision biblical scenes at length, but on Maundy Thursday I invite my people to imagine that first Holy Thursday night.  Maybe like Palm Sunday, the disciples were in a buoyant, expectant mood, while Jesus was mired in a more somber apprehension of what was to come.  They sang Psalms - any or all of 113-118. What did their voices sound like? Did Jesus or one of the others lead? Did they harmonize? How did "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” or “This is the day the Lord has made” resonate with Jesus and the rest of them?  This is the preaching angle I often suggest:  instead of asking about takeaways or relevance to me today, I just ask people to marvel over what happened then.

     Beyond any doubt, Jesus stared at that bread and caught a vision of what would happen to his own flesh the next day. And then he peered into the wine and glimpsed an image of the blood he would shed. How haunting, lovely, gripping, poignant.

     When they ate, what did they think?  We quiz candidates for ordination about their theology of the Eucharist; just to be clear, a struggling seminarian and even the frankly less than average churchgoer today understands more of what was going on that the disciples did.  Austin Farrer (in his unfortunately out of print Crown of the Year) put it beautifully:

     “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”  I like that.  We are mystified – but we know we receive Jesus himself, and we are thereby committed to him, come what may.  As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”

     While we include or exclude and feel noble about it, Jesus was utterly inclusive – and he makes that shrine thing happen for everybody, even those who don’t believe or have a clue.  Jürgen Moltmann (in The Church in the Power of the Spirit):  The Lord’s supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of ‘the world,’ the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper.”

     In my book which came out a year ago, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I quote these words and then turn to the lovely interview Krista Tippett had a while back with Father Greg Boyle, whose ministry with gang members in California is impressive and moving:  “We’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’ hand and we’ve replaced it with a chalice because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn’t use a chalice?”  Then he told how he asked an abused orphan and former gang member in his program, “What did you do for Christmas?” The young man said he cooked a turkey “ghetto-style,” and invited six other guys to join him. When he named them, Boyle recognized them as members of warring gangs. As he pondered them cooking together on Christmas day, he wondered, “So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends.”

     A few years ago, it occurred to me that my reflections on something as stupendous and tender as Maundy Thursday were growing stale.  How to find a new wrinkle?  I tend to forget that Maundy Thursday includes Jesus bolting out into the dark to pray in Gethsemane – and being arrested.  On that prayer of agony, I am always moved by Jesus Christ Superstar’s “I Only Want to Say.”  I’ve made a point over the years of correcting a popular image of Gethsemane – that of Heinrich Hoffman’s “Christ in Gethsemane” (hanging in the Riverside Church, NY) – Jesus praying placidly, well-coiffed, almost as if saying his bedtime prayers.  Willem Dafoe captured that searing agony in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” and I’d refer you also to the very interesting take in Mel Gibson’s gory “The Passion of the Christ.”

     And then, of course, the poignancy of Judas’s kiss, and the arrest – and I am continually mentioning the detail that I can’t and don’t even want to explain:  in John 18:6 Jesus says, “I am he.”  What happened next?  “The soldiers drew back and fell to the ground.”  Wow.

What can we say come Good Friday?

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      I love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service.  I preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word.  “Homily” is even too grandiose.  I meditate, and briefly – or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty.  May I just sigh, or shudder.  That would be a good enough sermon.  Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or one of the others listed at the end of this blog.  As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar.  And I'm going to ask my musicians to play, just after I speak, or maybe later on where it fits, that elegiac, emotionally powerful piece from the end of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical - "John 19:41."

     At our church, we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness.  A childhood friend of mine, who lives in another city, called the church last year at the end of the service he was livestreaming, saying "I can't see anything!"  Indeed.  We can't see.  We can hardly speak.  On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything – just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours.  On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it.  We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.  I love this:

     The brilliant theologian Robert W. Jenson (who just died in September), after assessing the historic doctrines of the atonement, quite shrewdly concluded, “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back.  There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives.  The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours.  Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”

  I just finished reading Fleming Rutledge's amazing (and long!) Crucifixion (which I read through day by day as part of my Lenten discipline) - a highlight of which was her citation of an astonishing sermon by Melito of Sardis, maybe around the year 190, which includes this: "The Lord suffered for the sake of those who suffered, was bound for the sake of those imprisoned, was judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the buried. So come, all families of people defiled by sin, and receive remission. For I am your remission, I am the Passover of salvation, I am the Lamb sacrifice for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your Resurrection, I am your light. I am your salvation. I am your king. I lead you toward the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up with my right hand."
   Then, in awe, we pray, perhaps with St. Francis:

     My Lord Jesus Christ, 
            two graces I ask of you before I die:
         the first is that in my life I may feel,
             in my soul and body, as far as possible,
             that sorrow which you, tender Jesus,
             underwent in the hour
                 of your most bitter passion;
         the second is that I may feel in my heart,
                        as far as possible,
             the abundance of love with which you,
                                son of God, were inflamed,
         so as willingly to undergo
                 such a great passion
                       for us sinners.

After this, Francis bore, in his body, the actual wounds (the stigmata) of Jesus, which he hid for the rest of his life out of humility.

     N.T. Wright’s fresh look at things, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, is hugely important – but for my tastes, Good Friday isn’t the day to reiterate his theologically correct understanding that Good Friday was the blastoff, and our marching orders for God’s and the Church’s transformative work in the world.  We’ll get back to that soon, of course; but on Good Friday, we let the sorrow linger.

     Wise, deeply spiritual writers help me weigh what happened at Calvary.  One of Henri Nouwen’s more obscure books, Heart Speaks to Heart, will place you in conversation with the crucified Jesus. I love the idea of speaking with the suffering Christ on the cross and saying, "O Lord, why is it that I am so eager to receive human praise even when experience tells me how limited and conditional is the love that comes from the human heart?  So many people have shown me their love... but no one could touch that deep, hidden place where my fear and my loneliness dwell. Only you know that place, Lord.."

     Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God has hot when I was in seminary – and it still speaks to me, and should be required reading for younger generations.  He wonderfully explains how an omnipotent God is inferior to the suffering God, as only the vulnerable one can love and be loved.  My copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale is chock full of underlinings and exclamation points, and I return to it often. 
Rowan Williams’s newest book, The Sign and the Sacrifice, is predictably and wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent (and brief).  For him, the Bible parses the cross as proof of God's love for us, and a demonstration of the kind of God we're dealing with: "When Pilate, on behalf of all of us, pushes Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do.  That's the good news: our powerlessness to change God's mind.  God's love is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable.  It has a magnetic force because it is a love that can't threaten us.

     Whether the following things “make it into the sermon” or not, I think it’s important for me to “survey the wondrous cross,” simply to ponder images of Jesus’ suffering – especially in contexts different from my own.  Here are just four examples.
(1) The recently opened (and wonderful) National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington features a Pieta – Mary holding her crucified son – by David Driskell.  After 14 year old Emmett Till was brutally murdered by two white men (who were acquitted) in Mississippi, Driskell was so disturbed by the killing, and his mother’s very public grief, that he created “Behold Thy Son.” {By the way, I can commend Timothy Tyson's moving book, The Blood of Emmett Till.}

(2) The crucifixion I count as my favorite (partly because Karl Barth kept a print of it above his desk) is by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, whose ministry was to sufferers of the plague; I try to imagine medieval women and men suffering horrific skin diseases looking upon Jesus’ lacerated body, pitted with pricks and sores.

(3) I continue to be struck by the first artistic depiction of the crucifixion we have – which is the mockery in the Alexamenos graffito, picture a Roman convert saluting the crucified Christ pictured as a donkey/ass.  The self-evident ridicule is pitch-perfect – back then, but certainly today as well as the crucified Lord is stranger than ever in our culture.

(4) And there is the harrowing scene in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (and as of last year in Martin Scorsese’s film) about missionaries to Japan under persecution.  Fr. Rodrigues is told by the magistrate he must trample upon an icon of Christ to save his flock.  “The priest raises his foot.  In it he feels a dull, heavy pain.  This is no mere formality.  He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man.  How his foot aches!  And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest:  ‘Trample! Trample!  I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.’  The priest placed his foot on the fumie.  Dawn broke.  And far in the distance the cock crew.”

 * some other choral pieces that are lovely and moving for Good Friday: “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears” by Kenneth Leighton; Dan Forrest’s “Forsaken”; “Thy Will Be Done,” by Craig Courtney; or Al Travis’s “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” 

What can we say come Easter morning?

Easter - on April Fools' Day!  I'll have to say something, but not overdo it...  There is a foolishness at the heart of Easter.  It's not flowers blooming in the Spring (which only works on one hemisphere!), and it's not any natural and inevitable continuance of some immortal soul within.  It's the miracle, the shock of new life.  Or really, Easter isn't about you and me.  It's about God, and Jesus, how amazing they are - as we will see.  You can view the sermon I did four years ago (featuring some Winston Churchill humor, reflections on the deaths of a two year old and a teenager in our church family just before Easter, and some wisdom from Julian of Norwich).

Easter preaching, to me, is so hard – in two ways.  There’s such a “prettiness” to the day, with lots of sightseers, the Christmas and Easter peeps, flowers – and at least for us, more people than we can fit in the room, a problem that prompted me to write a blog last year about how we come to church on Easter and Christmas, hospitality, kindness, etc.

   My focus this year will be this: the plot of the Easter accounts in the Bible seems to be, not Jesus rose so you get eternal life, but Jesus rose, so you are forgiven.  And Jesus rose, so he’s vindicated, he’s amazing, he’s the One.  If you’ve followed my blog, you know I advocate preaching sermons that aren’t Here’s the text, so go do such and such, but are rather just reflections on how amazing Jesus was/is.  I think the Gospels do this.  It’s just Wow, he really is the Messiah, the crazy things he said and did now most clearly are wonderfully the way.

Mark 16 interestingly begins “After the Sabbath” – meaning this kind of thing unfolds during the day of rest, when we aren’t laboring but are only trusting God’s hand to be on what we aren’t managing or producing right now… reminding me to encourage all clergy to watch the best sermon for clergy I’ve ever heard  - and it’s on this business of the women, the tomb, and the Sabbath – by my friend Claude Alexander; a must watch – and don’t miss the song right after the sermon.

The Forgiveness part is huge.  We don’t know sin, and thus we don’t know forgiveness – and if I ask people about the need for forgiveness, they tell me about somebody who hurt them they just can’t forgive.  Is there a sermon for Easter about the healing of fractured relationships – beginning with ours with God?  Can we find any vivid imagery or stories to help people see Easter?  Can you come up with a profound story of forgiveness?  Or would you use this incredible, moving story from Corrie Ten Boom that Ben Witherington told in my sanctuary recently (video – at the 49 minute mark)?

Resurrection isn’t the reward for a well-lived life, or the natural outcome of mortal existence.  You always have that famous Buechner quote about If Easter is nothing more than the flowers blooming in the Spring, the natural outflow of how things unfold, then I should turn in my credentials.  I think he’s right.

I wonder about the role of personal testimony at Easter.  I did this after the DaVinci Code came out, along with the other anti-Christian books that sell so well.  I clarified that for me, as a guy, not as pastor, not under instruction from the bishop, but just me, a naturally cynical guy: I really believe Jesus didn’t stay dead, but he rose, he appeared.  I can clarify various things, like It’s not a resuscitation, etc.  But I really believe this amazement happened.

If I were asked for proof, I’d go for the one several others have advanced:  in those days, lots of great, heroic leaders died; some were even believed to be messianic.  After their deaths, their followers trudged home and gave up or looked for the next great thing to come along.  Jesus’ followers never went home, but launched out into the world, risking everything, and often winding up dead or hurt, because of one thing only: they had seen the risen Lord.  As Rowan Williams said in The Sign and the Sacrifice, “It’s hard to see how this new age faith could come into being without an event to point to.  The language of resurrection is historical, not speculative: it’s about earth before it’s about heaven.  The very untidiness of the resurrection stories is one of the main reasons for taking them seriously.  What’s going on is clearly people struggling to find words for something they had not expected.”

Or I am fond of what J. Christiaan Beker wrote in Paul the Apostle: “Paul’s church is not an aggregate of justified sinners or a sacramental institute or a means for private self-sanctification, but the avant-garde of the new creation in a hostile world, creating beachheads in this world of God’s dawning new world and yearning for the day of God’s visible lordship over his creation.”  N.T. Wright mirrors this approach in lots of his books, especially Surprised by Hope.  Does the D-Day analogy fit? Or is the carnage of war counter-intuitive for Easter?

Preaching hinges on how we grow and are enriched personally, whether we ‘use’ the stuff involved or not.  Let me summarize what Rowan Williams has said in his lovely new book: “Believing in the resurrection is believing that the new age has been inaugurated… The decisive difference has been made.  The destinies of all human beings are now bound up with Jesus.  They will find who they are, who they may be, and where they will be, in relation to Jesus.  The future is in his hands.  Christianity is not the Jesus of Nazareth Society – rather like the Alfred Lord Tennyson Society, looking back to a great dead genius. If Jesus is risen, there is a human destiny.  We were made with dignity and liberty so that, one day, we would be companions for Jesus Christ.  Human nature was endowed with all its gifts so it would one day be a proper vehicle for the transforming work of God the Father.”

What a high view of humanity!  And then he invites us who preach to trust the message:  “Wherever we go, with the biblical story in our hands and the vision of Jesus in our eyes, there is an expectation that human beings will resonate with what’s being spoken of.  They may not quite know how they do it or why…  We go on in mission, because of that conviction that there is such a thing as the human heart and human destiny, and thus that these words will find an echo.”

What can we say come April 8? Easter 2

    I recall being semi-impressed with myself as an undergrad for taking a challenging course on Existentialism, expecting to have my intellectual horizons expanded.  Plunging into Kierkegaard, though, I had my life challenged.  His pointed, barbed critiques of a thin, superficial, even faked faith blew me away - including his report of walking around Copenhagen, asking people if they believed Jesus was raised from the dead.  Almost unanimously, his fellow citizens said Yeah, sure.  But what difference did it make?  No one could answer; no one had much to show for their belief.

     Easter 2's texts astonish us with the difference resurrection makes. Acts 4:32-35 describes a vital church not much like ours at all. What was the greater miracle for those first Christians? That they coughed up all their possessions to insure no one went without? or that they were of one heart and soul?  Psalm 133 is a fitting Easter text: How lovely when brothers dwell together in unity. Or we might today say, How rare. Or How miraculous. How resurrection-like.  There is an inextricable link between "No one said any of the things he possessed was his own but they had everything in common" and "And with great power they gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" and "There was not a needy person among them."  We can talk evangelistic tools or church growth strategies all we'd like; but the early Christians expanded exponentially because their witness was what they did with their possessions.  We are so enmeshed, we prefer to keep our own stuff and blame others who don't have enough, or we feel noble if we toss some loose change or some leftover canned goods into a basket.

     Speaking of testimony: in my circles, we do not attend sufficiently to the remarkable epistle text for Easter 2, 1 John 1:1-2:2.  The writer speaks urgently about what they had seen "with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands... We saw it!" Richard Bauckham wrote a fantastic, definitive-feeling book (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) about how the Gospels came to be, and it's all about the piling up of eyewitness accounts.  The earliest Christian preachers could say We saw him, we touched him, if anybody could debunk the resurrection or his lordship, it would be us

     I continue to speculate over the role of testimony in preaching. I suspect that while I engage in it, I don't go far enough.  I think people want to hear that Yes, I believe this - as opposed to I've gotten up a sermon for you today
And notice in 1 John the purpose of them sharing what they saw and touched: so we can have fellowship with each other and with God, and so that "our joy may be complete."  Love it: not You better be joyful, but We are joyful.  Joy isn't happiness jacked up a notch or two.  It's so very different - and I would commend to you Christian Wiman's lovely collection of poetry about joy, with his startlingly wise commentary. And, as I've said in this blog repeatedly, the point of Easter is forgiveness, not I get eternal life now.  How much clearer could it be?  1 John goes from fellowship with God via the resurrection to being forgiven and forgiving.

     Same for the Gospel lesson, John 20:19-31.  The preacher can set a mood people can understand easily: doors are locked, fear dominates.  And they can't seem to recognize Jesus (Mary Magdalene or the twelve!).  "I think they are blinded by their unfulfilled expectations and their feelings of loss and despair" (Jean Vanier).  To such people Jesus utters a word, with the power of the one who commanded stars, sky and earth to come into being, and it's the one who stilled the storm: "Peace."  As Jesus clarified earlier in John, this peace isn't the one the world gives! (John 14:27).  Jesus doesn't give you some peace of mind or serenity you think you want.  Jesus' Peace is his personal presence.

     In Jesus' presence there is no fear.  Or maybe the way Jesus banishes fear might get us a bit agitated and in rapid motion.  Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out:  a big assignment is on the way.”  Jesus comforts with one hand and then shoves them out into hard labor and danger with the other.

     His hands matter here.  Jesus still has wounds in his hands and side (his feet are unmentioned).  We’ll say more about the nature of this “resurrected body” in a moment. 
I love Vanier's remark: “These wounds are there for all ages and all time, to reveal the humble and forgiving love of Jesus who accepted to go to the utter end of love. The risen Jesus does not appear as the powerful one, but as the wounded and forgiving one. These wounds become his glory.”  And what do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns"?  Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. I've sung that a thousand time, and have never given it the briefest thought.  How profound...
For now, the scars are worth pondering.  I’m reminded of a lovely scene in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.  A woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall.  The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”  Thankfully, Jesus scars remain; they tell us all we need to know about his character.  And what are the implications for us and our life in heaven?  What wounds will we continue to bear – joyfully, but still.

     One of my favorite details in all the resurrection narratives is in verse 22: “He breathed on them.”  I’ll acknowledge there is powerful symbolism here – like God breathing the breath of life into people, the winds of Pentecost to come.  But what if he actually breathed on them?  What was that like?  You have to be very close, physically, to someone before they can successfully breathe on you.  Proximity to Jesus allows the sensation of his breath. 

     And lest we forget:  the note of forgiveness, once again, is sounded in a resurrection story.  Jesus is risen, therefore you get eternal life?  No: in the Scriptures, Jesus is risen, therefore you are forgiven – and you’d best get out there now and forgive others.

     We’ve all heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.”  Doubt is hardly praised in this story.  If anything Jesus dings him, contrasting him with those who haven’t seen and yet believe.  He is loved and treated with immense compassion; Jesus invites him to touch the wounds.  The Greek is graphic, with Jesus saying “thrust” or “press” or “cast” your finger into (like down in there) my side.  Caravaggio captured this in a stunning way…

     This whole business of Jesus appearing suddenly behind closed doors, then vanishing just as suddenly, and yet you can poke a finger into his side and not just see but feel him raises questions about the resurrection.  Long books have probed this – but my shorthand answer is that Jesus is the first of what we shall be, and that is: we will be raised with (or in, or as) what Paul called “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor. 15).  No simplistic resuscitation here.  Your old body doesn’t revive and live on.  You are transformed, metamorphosized maybe.  Jesus was not recognizable, but then he was recognized; the mortal and spiritual bodies are kin, similar, but hardly identical.  It’s still a body though, not a ghost or a floating spirit.  It can cook and eat, but it might vanish too.  Paul uttered the understatement of the Bible: “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (1 Cor. 15:51).

What can we say come April 15? Easter 3

     I always moan a little when I see the book of Acts under “Old Testament Reading.”  66 books, so much rich material never touched in the lectionary – and they go to Acts?  Psalm 4 is a typically eloquent prayer… but I’ll focus this week on 1 John 3:1-17 (admitting that I find the tail end of Luke 24 the least charming, unique or profound of all the resurrection periscopes, although the prospect of baking a little fish for Jesus, and, according to a few old manuscripts, him eating some honeycomb, is alluring!).

   When I was young, I liked 1 John a bit – but when you’re young, you’re looking for information, applicables, something ready and quick.  As I get older, I treasure, savor, and linger over 1 John more and more – and I suspect preaching should way more often adopt as its goal making space for our people to treasure, savor and linger over a text more eloquent than any sermon could be.  With 1 John, it’s the love, the wisdom, the perspective, the tenderness, the immense sense of belonging.  You feel you’re in a small group in a small home, huddled around candlelight, pondering again the reality of Jesus, an overflow of love filling and warming the place.  No wonder scholars guess the author was one long steeped in the experience of Jesus and living it in a treacherous, rapidly changing world.

   Our 7 verses open up a window into, not just the whole letter but the whole world of this beloved community (and the preacher would do well to read the whole thing as personal preparation, and not in a rush!).  It’s a marvel. Don’t overexplain.  Trust the text.  Let your people see/hear you marveling over it.
    In his classic Anchor Bible commentary, Raymond Brown suggests that the author, mid-argument, inserts 3:1-3 as "a type of exclamatory interruption... an emotional aside." Quite personally, he is amazed over what God has already given, more moved by what is to come.  There's a psychological point here: if we can look back in gratitude, we will look forward with hope, whereas if we look back with regret, or guilt, or if we just never look back, then we look forward with anxiety or hollowness. 
   But Brown's odd notion piques my interest: I wonder if a sermon can capture this interruption and the preacher might offer some personal emotion.  OK, I was working on this sermon - and then I just felt entirely moved, downright flummoxed, by how unspeakably amazing God's love, all God has done for us, for me, really is.  And I just couldn't write for a few minutes.  Shake your head, nod - and then move back into the sermon.  Too manipulative??
   The opening verb, “See,” is strong, more like “Look!” or “Behold!” (ίδετε).  Also, visibility must matter:  the Father’s love must be tangible, viewable – in Christ, and in the life of the Body.  I suspect preachers need to underline this visibility often.  Spirituality does not = invisible!  Spiritual things aren't unreal things; spiritual things are utterly real, visible things driven by God's spirit.
     Reading slowly (always recommended), the second word, “what,” is ποταπήν, which, according again to Raymond Brown, expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.”  Volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of): God’s love makes us God’s children.  Jesus spoke of becoming like children – and I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”
    A child.  Brown, once again, offers a keen, preachable insight: "John has rephrased the covenant saying, ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’ into ‘I will be your God, and you shall be my children.’"  The Bible insists that this regression, this spiritual reversal of the arrow of time, becoming children, is the way to life.
   “When he appears, we shall be like him.”  Wow.  Jesus doesn’t save me so I can keep being like me; our portrayals of heaven (playing golf, lavish meals, sunshine) are so vapid.  We will be like him (and we can’t be sure, but most likely the writer means God, not just Jesus).   St. Athanasius and a holy host of theologians unblushingly spoke of deification: we will become glorious – 
or as C.S. Lewis put it in his astonishing sermon “The Weight of Glory,” “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
The Church fathers did not hesitate to speak of our deification!  “We will be like him.”  Maybe American churchgoers won’t fancy even deification, for they are rather attached to their own, independent selves. Surely God will help me be… me.  I gotta be me…  I did it my way… But no, we will be like him. 

     This likeness is not a moral imperative. Our text doesn’t envision “the imitation of Christ” or “What would Jesus do?” as an ethic. It is more transformational, ontological, and eschatological. Be patient now, even if you’re trying hard to be like Jesus.  You get it right once in a blue moon, but you have light years to go.  But it will come.  We will be like him.

     For now, ours isn’t to behave better, but to see clearly.  Brown again: “Our seeing God as He is is the basis for our being like Him.” The preacher might rehearse the ways we recreate God in our own image; we see the deity we have a hankering for. The secret of the spiritual life is coming to see God as God truly is, which must require a lifetime of study, contemplation, direction, worship, discipline, unlearning so much, relearning what you thought you knew, looking long and carefully once more.

     Our text does bear an unavoidable complication – as if you walk into a lovely foyer, which is well-decorated and full of those welcoming people. But then they lead you into a noisy, smelly back room where a gang of sweaty guys are making sausage.  To his beautiful verbiage, 1 John adds that “sinners are lawless,” and that crushingly discouraging thought that “No one who abides in him sins, no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Mind you, we’ve all known ultra-pious people who smugly nod and peer in judgment at others when they read such words.  You may preach to a few of them… but the Word this Sunday is first for the others, and then you hope to vainly self-justifying might overhear and be saved.

    I am unsure what to do, except to ask: What if verses 4-7 were all we had?  Most Christians, with the exception of the doggedly naïve and most hardened pharisaical, would give up the ghost and quite church as absurdly impossible and maybe irrelevant. In short, 4-7 is a counsel of despair. But then, what if verses 1-3 were all we had? All peace, love and light – but after a while, an unchanged life wouldn’t be worth living either.

    The order is divinely inspired.  You don’t end your sinning and then get the love.  God’s love overwhelms, and then the sanctification begins and continues. Remember sanctification? Not gritting your teeth and doing better, but what the powerful mercy of God does in you. I suspect this isn’t preached much…  Thinking of 1 John's remark about purity, C. Clifton Black (New Interpreter’s Bible) calls this purity one of the “family traits” of God’s children.  Purity isn't an alien behavior we can't get the hang of, or something only special people DNA enables.  It's a family trait - and in our family, God's family.
   And it isn’t just that after the abundance of mercy we then fix the sin.  In a way, we aren’t really sinners, or we at least don’t get it, until we get the mercy.  Weird, God’s way.  The world has no comprehension of sin.  President Trump, during his campaign, said he’d never asked God for forgiveness.  That’s how it is in an unredeemed world.  You don’t know sin until you’ve seen the grace.  When we see God as God is, only then is our wobbly, flawed, even wretched state realized – and what perfect timing! 
The gut reaction might be Oh no, gee, I’ve made a mess of things, I’d best start doing better.  But then Jesus gently coaxes us into what for me what a transfixing moment during seminary when my theology professor, Dean Robert Cushman, brilliant to excess, explained that we often strive to make Jesus our exemplar – and then, when that project fails so miserably, it dawns on us that he is our savior.