"Deeply, from the Heart"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/30/17
I Peter 1:17-23
“Deeply, from the Heart”
April 30, 2017
            Garrison Keillor is retired now, but his legacy lives on, not just in reruns of A Prairie Home Companion but also in his writing, some of which circulates endlessly on the internet.  Among those writings are his description of Methodists.  Mind you, he was raised as part of the Plymouth Brethren – a small, fundamentalist group dating back to the late-nineteenth century – and spent a lot of time on the radio pretending to be Lutheran although he is actually an Episcopalian, with affinity to a group he calls, “The Church of the Sunday Brunch”.  Anyway, this is what he says about Methodists:
“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese.
But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore,’ they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they'd smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!
Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage.
It's natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. [Notice that here he slips, and goes from third person into first.]  We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you're singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it's an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.
I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you can call up when you're in deep distress.
If you're dying, they will comfort you.
If you are lonely, they'll talk to you.
And if you are hungry, they'll give you tuna salad.
Methodists believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.
Methodists like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.
Methodists believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don't notify them that they are there.
Methodists usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their away of suffering for their sins.
Methodists believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.
Methodists think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.
Methodists drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.
Methodists feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.
Methodists are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at the church.
Methodists still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna casserole adds too much color.
Methodists believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.”[1]
            Out of all of that, I’d most like to think that the concern for the dying, the lonely, and the hungry is the part that is most true – and the most true of any group of Christians, by whatever secondary name they are known.  It was said of all who follow Jesus,
“Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” [I Peter 1:21]
And so,
“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  [I Peter 1:22]
            That is why it grieves me, and so many, many others that we have been caught up in the same kind of nastiness and wrangling that has become part of life in the entire modern world.  (I almost said, “In these United States,” but it’s a worldwide problem that’s playing out in other lands as well, and in all aspects of public and private life.)  Among us, it has taken hold around issues of sexuality and become entangled with questions of how to do things when folks in California and Uganda engage their local cultures under one system that allows some autonomy but considers us all to be answerable to one another as well as to God.
            Christian love is not just something abstract, and it doesn’t live in a vacuum.  It gets put to the test, and sometimes it passes and sometimes it fails.  Right now, among United Methodists, it is under some strain.  This past week the Judicial Council, essentially the Supreme Court of the denomination, heard arguments from people in the South Central United States asking what to do when people in the Western United States have elected a bishop that they consider to be in violation of the Book of Discipline that gives us our operating procedures.  Beyond that lie deeper disagreements about how to interpret the scriptures, disagreements that have produced a situation where we say that all people are “of sacred worth” but that some people (and here’s where the trouble begins) should be left out of some (but not all) leadership roles because of their orientation which some say is inborn and others say is not and some say can be set aside and others say is totally a part of their being.  We’ve been going round and round and round on this for decades. 
           It’s clear we are not going to reach agreement, which is how it ends up going to the Judicial Council.  No matter how that body rules, someone will be deeply upset, and there will be further consequences, but don’t ask me what they will be, because I have no idea.  No one knows, including the people who were officially assigned last year to find “A Way Forward”.
            You’re going to hear about this stuff in the news sometime, and it will be characterized as a big fight.  Let me point out, however, that we have in fact been going round and round and round about this for decades without giving up on one another as hopeless infidels consigned to outer darkness, but as Christians with a deep commitment to
“love one another deeply from the heart.”  [I Peter 1:22]
One of the most moving things I saw in the news articles last week and that I guarantee you will not be published in the secular press that loves a fight was a picture of the bishop whose election has brought things to a head and a laywoman from Arkansas whose name is one of those on the request for a ruling (essentially the papers asking why she hasn’t already been brought up on charges), and the two are hugging one another, even smiling.
            Tell me, do you think that would happen in Washington?  Do you see it happening in Kiev or Damascus? 
            We are not about ourselves.  We are about Jesus and his love.  Christian sisters and brothers can and will disagree about some very basic matters and not see one another as enemies.  Even if they do, they are still under the authority of Jesus, who said,
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”  [Matthew 5:44-47]
Far from being wishy-washy or conflict-avoidant, which is what Keillor is joking about when he says,
“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese,”
we have actually had the guts to live with conflict rather than kick one another out of the family or turn our backs and leave, even when we think the “other side” (whichever it is) is missing something important.  We realize that they may have something important to say that we need to hear.
            Unity isn’t something that comes about by concentrating on ourselves, but by keeping as our central reality the one experience we all hold in common, which is the reality of God acting through Christ, not only in our lives but also in the lives of all who will come to him, all of us sinners in need of grace, and all of us sinners receiving it freely.
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.”  [I Peter 1:18-21]

[1] The full commentary can be found at http://www.stevegedon.com/2008/04/09/methodists-by-garrison-keillor/
"Imperishable, Undefiled, and Unfading"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/23/2017


I Peter 1:3-9

April 23, 2017

“Imperishable, Undefiled, and Unfading”


            This past week, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had to throw out just under 23,000 convictions because a lab worker who had reported on evidence connected with those cases was found to have falsified her results.  You have to feel sorry for the defendants who were wrongly convicted, because out of that many people, the odds alone guarantee that there were some totally innocent people in that number.  But I also find myself feeling sorry for the prosecutors, people who must have put a lot of time and effort into these cases that now looks like it was wasted, because those same odds guarantee that some of the defendants who will now get a walk were guilty.  Because of this one person’s actions – leaving aside any guess about her motives – there are a lot of other people whose lives and reputations have been thrown off in ways that you cannot just fix with an “Oops.  Sorry about that.”

            I hope that they hear the message that I Peter shares with us today.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  [I Peter 1:1-4]

That word, “undefiled”, would especially apply for them, but the promise of

an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” [I Peter 1:4]

is one that should speak to anybody who runs into disappointment and loss, and especially who thinks that their life’s work has meant nothing.

            That clearly was a danger for the disciples in the dark days between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection.  On the Second Sunday of Easter every year we hear the story of Thomas and how he was not going to let himself get burned again with hopes about Jesus.  The others were all excited, saying,

“’We have seen the Lord.’  But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”  [John 20:25]

Can you blame him?  Three years of optimism and naïve confidence, and then came the cross.  How could he put himself through that again?

            It’s a problem, too, for someone who puts their heart and soul into any worthwhile project that goes awry.  Back in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl was spreading across the Midwest, a farmer’s wife in Oklahoma wrote to a friend:

“A fairly promising piece of barley has been destroyed for us by the … drift from the same field whose sands have practically buried the little mulberry hedge which has long sheltered our buildings from the north west winds. Large spaces in our pastures are entirely bare in spite of the rains. Most of the green color, where there is any grazing, is due to the pestilent Russian thistles rather than to grass. Our little locust grove which we cherished for so many years has become a small pile of fence posts. With trees and vines and flowers all around you, you can't imagine how I miss that little green shaded spot in the midst of the desert glare.

Naturally you will wonder why we stay where conditions are so extremely disheartening. Why not pick up and leave as so many others have done? It is a fair question, but a hard one to answer.

Recently I talked with a young university graduate of very superior attainments. He took the ground that in such a case sentiment could and should be disregarded. He may be right. Yet I cannot act or feel or think as if the experiences of our twenty-seven years of life together had never been. And they are all bound up with the little corner to which we have given our continued and united efforts. To leave voluntarily to break all these closely knit ties for the sake of a possibly greater comfort elsewhere —seems like defaulting on our task. We may have to leave. We can't hold out indefinitely without some return from the land, some source of income, however small. But I think I can never go willingly or without pain that as yet seems unendurable.”[1]

I have no idea how life turned out for her in the long run, but it clearly was not what she and her husband had foreseen or worked for.

            Our hope, however, cannot be tied to what we experience here.  There are always going to be disappointments and failures.  Situations entirely out of your own control may leave you blaming yourself for not foreseeing them, even if you don’t see them as your own fault.

            God does not see things as we do, and understands the whole stretch of history where we see only a brief moment.  What to us may seem the end is to God just the merest blip.  What we focus on may be unnoticeable or trivial in the wider scope.  Think of it this way: if you are the gymnast doing the routine on the balance beam, you are going to notice that your backflip dismount only had a single twist.  If you are watching, you are going to notice that she not only stayed on the beam the whole time, but she did a backflip at the end – and with a twist! 

            God sees the whole sum of things from beginning to end.  The good is not forgotten, the effort is not wasted, even if (we think) it comes to nothing, because

“By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  [I Peter 1:1-4]

Remember Jesus?  The teacher whose words about God’s love made some people hate him?  Remember Jesus?  The prophet whose calls for justice and compassion led to his arrest, torture, and execution?  Remember Jesus?  The leader whose followers betrayed and abandoned him when he most needed them?  Remember Jesus?  That wandering miracle-worker who couldn’t prevent his own death, who saved others but did not save himself?  What a total failure!  Until God raised him up again, and set him at his own right hand, and shared with him his own glory. 

            Yeah, him.

            He’s the one who has your back,

“you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”  [I Peter 1:5-7] 


[1] Letter by Caroline Henderson, August 11, 1935.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1936/05/letters-from-the-dust-bowl/308897/

"While It Was Still Dark"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/16/2017 (Easter)


John 20:1-18
“While It Was Still Dark”
Easter Day
April 16, 2017


            Last Saturday I was sitting down to my Cheerios and I opened my newsfeed and read, “Jewish Graves Vandalized at Delco Cemetery”.  The article began,

“The vandalism was discovered Friday by a woman visiting Mt. Sharon Cemetery on Springfield Road to pay respects at her father’s grave.”

My stomach flipped.


            When I was in high school, there was a bunch of us who sort of traveled everywhere as a pack, and one of the guys in the group had a mother who was a real character.  She had a habit of checking on him all the time, and it was a standing joke that whenever we were at somebody else’s house and the phone rang we would all say, “Eric!  It’s your mother!”  About 75% of the time we were right.  She was a trip.  She eased up in some ways after we all graduated, but she never pulled her punches.  I remember when Eric’s younger sister became engaged to – hold on, here! – a Methodist.  She called me up unexpectedly and said, “Hello.  It’s your Jewish mother.  Heidi is engaged and I need you to talk to her because he’s one of yours, and Sidney is not happy.”  Sidney was her husband, a wonderful man who loved to show people around his lab at Penn.  Of course, the way he would get there every day was to drive down Chestnut St. in a huge boat of a car, driving just at the thirty miles per hour that kept him from slowing down, since the traffic lights were timed.  Potholes and food trucks and bicyclists and any car smaller than his were no obstacles.


           My friend’s mother chain-smoked, so you know she died of cancer and was buried at Mt. Sharon.  A few years later, after a brief retirement to Florida, her husband’s body was brought back to be buried there, too.  My friend Eric now lives in Massachusetts, and last month when there was vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia I promised that if there was ever a problem at Mt. Sharon, I would go right there and check on his parents’ graves for him.  I texted him right away, and he replied with a list of other relatives’ last names that would be on stones near theirs, and I headed out the door.  A few minutes later, at a red light, I read another message: “I don’t think you will get into Mt. Sharon today.  Closed for Sabbath.”


           (Good news followed later that day, which was that the damage was determined to have come from normal shifts in the ground due to all the rain that we have had.  The police declared there was no vandalism involved.  Furthermore, the stones were all in a different section.)  Sadly, though, it has been going on, and even a false alarm has meant that I come to this first sentence of John’s account of Easter morning with a small awareness of the sick feeling that Mary Magdalene, who had had to wait out the Sabbath before going to Jesus’ tomb to complete his burial, must have had when she saw the stone moved away.  Who would desecrate a grave, and why?

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary   Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” [John 20:1]

But while I wonder, “What kind of slimeball would do such a thing?” she didn’t need to wonder.  She must have known, right away, who could have done it.


            Most likely, it was the people who had had him killed.  If so, there would not likely be much left, if anything, for her to take care of.  His body would not have been the last to have been considered hazardous.  When the English captured Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years’ War, they put her on trial for witchcraft and for wearing men’s clothing, although the real reason was military and political.  She was found guilty and burned at the stake, and then her ashes were tossed into a river so that not the least relic of her would be left.  You don’t have to go that far back, though.  When Navy Seals killed Osama bin Ladin, his body was flown to an aircraft carrier and buried at sea, so that there would be no grave where his followers could gather.  Extinguishing the memory is easier when there is no memorial.


            While it was still dark, for Mary it grew darker.  The people who could violate the Sabbath to open a tomb, then probably desecrate Jesus’ dead body – what might they do to one of his female followers if they caught her?  It doesn’t take much imagination.


            Innocence offers no protection in this world.  That is a hard truth to accept because we think that it should, and cannot let go of that thought.  Babies and children, completely unaware of anyone beyond their families, are caught in the crossfire of a war.  Someone’s grandmother is ripped off by a scammer claiming to be from the IRS.  Somehow, the crime is greater because the victim is so vulnerable. 


           But what if there is no human perpetrator?  Whom do you blame for tuberculosis?  Whose fault is it when a shark takes out a swimmer?  A parent watches a child burning up with a fever and thinks, “My child does not deserve this.”


            You know what?  That parent is right, and that hurts.  We want a reason, a specific reason that this happened to that person, at this time, and in that way.  Otherwise we are left to try to make sense of the senseless.  It is one of the most difficult things to say that some people are just born with heart defects and sometimes the brakes fail as a car goes around a curve.  It seems brutal to say, but true to experience, that there will be earthquakes and tornadoes, and someone will die, and it has nothing at all to do with whether or not they deserve it.  It just happens.  That is part of the darkness that we live with.


            It’s also why what happened to Mary next is of such importance.  It’s why we’re here today and every Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from death.  Jesus’ rising is more than just a person being brought back to life, like when a patient dies on the operating table, but then is revived.  It’s more than one more miracle.  Mary, who followed Jesus, surely knew about some of those: how Jesus had raised the son of a widow when they ran into his funeral procession outside the town of Nain [Luke 7:11-17], how he had taken the hand of a little girl whose parents were mourning, and with the words,

“Little girl, get up!” [Mark 5:41]

gave her back to them.  She may even have been in the crowd a few days earlier when Jesus had cried for his own dead friend, Lazarus, and then with the words,

“Lazarus!  Come out!” [John 11:43]

called him out of the tomb where he had been sealed for four days.  No, people, had been reanimated before and, as scary as the thought is, there was precedent.


            This was different, though. 


Probably for safety, Mary didn’t go into the tomb, but ran for backup and returned with Peter and John.  They looked around and saw that the tomb was empty, and went home.  Again, you have to feel for her because of the way she stayed there, crying, with nobody to comfort her.  The sun may have been up at this point, but there was still a deep darkness upon her heart, a grief and a fear and the deepest disappointment.  Not even when she looked in and saw two angels did she take a hint that maybe it wasn’t so dark as she thought, although maybe she clung to some small hope that this was not an act of vandalism or horrible barbarity when she heard a human voice asking what the problem was and,

“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” [John 20:15]

This was different, because there was a third possibility that had not occurred to her, and that possibility spoke her name.  Through the tears, then, she knew him.  She knew that no one had moved him or disposed of him in any way.  She knew that, without any kind of human intervention, even prayer, Jesus had been raised up.  It was God’s doing, pure and simple. 


            There is no protection in this life, as there had been none even for Jesus.  But he was alive – is alive – because the final say is God’s.  That, and that alone, is enough to give substance to our wildest hopes.  All the questions and all the verifiable injustices and all the senseless tragedies that darken this world may continue to puzzle us, make us angry, or flood us with sadness.  When they do that, though, there is the awareness that beyond our comprehension or control, God is setting things right in his own time and his own way, starting with Jesus, but not ending with him.


            That was the faith that Mary showed when she ran back again to the other disciples and told them,

“I have seen the Lord!”  [John 20:18]

That’s the faith that they came to share and to pass along, a faith that keeps going in the darkness because it knows, it just knows, that God will send the dawn.  Faith is the assurance that even in the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.  Faith tells us that beyond that valley, there is a time and place where God will prepare a feast for us, even in the face of the world’s ugliness and villainy, and our cups will be filled to overflowing.  Faith rooted in the resurrection of Jesus says to us, deep in our hearts, that the world’s evils may be stalking us out there in the darkness for now, but goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and – even more – we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


            Because, while it was still dark, when Mary got to the tomb, it was empty. 


"Remember and Proclaim"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/13/2017
I Corinthians 11:23-26
“Remember and Proclaim”
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017
            While I am in no way a fan of people chatting during worship, I would say that one of the most important parts of the service never makes it onto the bulletin or into books on liturgy.  It isn’t discussed in any classic treatise on theology.  It doesn’t have a formal name at all, though sometimes it is called “gathering”.  That is when the church that has been scattered all over the place during the week – at gas stations and drugstores, in hospitals and courthouses, goat farms and diners, lounge chairs and soccer fields, airports and offices, classrooms and traffic jams – all run into one another and, if there’s time and trust, somebody asks, “How’s it going?” and someone else answers with perfect honesty, “A little better,” or, “I am so tired!” or, “My girlfriend has the flu,” or, “I really like my new job.”
            Will Willimon wrote that
“the sacrilege against which we must be eternally vigilant is the tendency to divorce Sunday worship from daily life.  It is the danger that all our hymns, our anthems, our soft organ voluntaries, out poetic preachers, our beautiful churches might somehow conspire to turn worship into an event which has nothing to do with everyday life.  Unless there is some link between our worship of God and junior’s spilt cereal at breakfast, the boring routine at the office, the monthly collection of bills, the cancer that will not heal, then our worship is not only irrelevant to human need but also unfaithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[1]
It makes me think about a Quaker who was once asked whether, sitting in silence every week and listening for God, what God said.  She said that sometimes it was a profound message, in which case she would share it, but mostly God went over her to-do list for the coming week.
            Jesus, who knows us better than we know ourselves, understood how to bring together for us the most everyday and the most eternal matters. 
“Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” [I Corinthians 11:23-25]
Over the millennia, we have done exactly that.  We have taken a loaf and a cup and shared it around, with the full faith that wherever two or three people gather in his name, Jesus is there.  There is nothing more normal than people sharing food.  Most of the time, we don’t even think about it, it’s so normal.  The amazing thing is that such a natural procedure can carry with it such great meaning.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” [I Corinthians 11:26]
            To make sure that we get the point, and declare it clearly to anyone who is paying attention, we have come to surround the sharing of the bread and cup with a whole variety of prayers and practices.  Sometimes those have come to overshadow the sharing itself and sometimes we have had to cut back or rearrange things.  Just one example: in ancient times, when cities smelled awful and when temples were slaughterhouses for sacrificial animals, rulers and deities were honored by burning incense that disguised the general stench.  So, to honor the aspects of Jesus as both God and Lamb of God, someone got the idea to burn incense as part of worship.  When things changed and the meaning was lost, some of us stopped using it.  For others, the smell itself made them think of his presence, so they kept it up.
            We could go on and on about such matters: what the Eastern Orthodox do, what the Catholics do, what the Lutherans do, what the Presbyterians do, what those of us who really understand Jesus do…
            And yet, the commonality at the center of it is this: we take the basic elements of our lives – our daily bread – we ask Jesus to bless it.  He blesses both the bread and the life that it sustains, even at the cost of his body being broken and his blood being poured out.  Then, with thanks that he has shared the brokenness of our lives, has shared even our death, we receive through him – raised by God from the dead – the grace we so desperately need to go on. 
           He gives us that grace in whatever form we most need, which (again) he knows better than we ever do.  Sometimes that grace comes to us as forgiveness.  Maybe it gives strength to take up some cross of our own and to follow him.  Perhaps it brings consolation and joy.  At times it reminds us that we are part of a long train of disciples who have gone before us and will come after us – “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”.  Or maybe, sometimes, it feels just like a habitual practice.  Then again, most important things are habitual.  Breathing?  Getting up in the morning?  Eating and drinking?
           Always and everywhere, though, we remember what Jesus did and that he is not done.
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”



[1] Will Willimon, With Glad and Generous Hearts (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1986), 129.

"Passion, not Passivity"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/9/2017

Zechariah 9:9-14

“Passion, not Passivity”

April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday)


            If I walk down the street wearing a red baseball cap these days (and this is a cap without a Phillies logo on it), you might think I were making a statement.  If I walk down the same street the same day wearing a pink, knitted cap, you might think I were making a completely different statement.  You wouldn’t be alone, either.  Signals are sent out through dress and through gestures of all types all the time.  Have you been paying attention to the way the men in Congress dress these days?  They wear red or blue ties that are like gang colors.  Twenty years ago, when the Bloods and the Crips did that, there were places in Los Angeles where it would have been grounds for arrest. 

            When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was sending a signal.  He was echoing the vision of the prophet Zechariah that one day there would be a king of Israel again, one who would be able to ride a donkey instead of a warhorse, because all of his enemies and all of the enemies of God’s people would have been overcome.  Zechariah pictured the scene this way:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
  [Zechariah 9:9-10]

Think of Eisenhower, if you will.  In 1945, he would be seen riding a Jeep.  In 1952, he would ride in a normal car – well, a normal limousine – at least a car that you’d never take into battle. 

            How much of this the Romans would have caught, I don’t know.  The Jewish leaders, some of whose position depended on the Romans, would have understood, though.  Herod, who was half-Jewish and 100% cynical political opportunist, would have understood.  The Zealots, who were waiting for a leader to start a war against the Romans, would have understood. 

The signal Jesus was sending was dangerous and threatening to the established powers, but a little confusing.  “I am the King!” it said, but also, “I come in peace!”

            Here’s where it all began to go off the track.  If you follow on in Zechariah, the suggestion is that the King establishes peace through conquest.  Two generations after Jesus’ crucifixion, around the time that the Romans were destroying Jerusalem and devastating Judaea, the Roman historian Tacitus expressed the viewpoint of the conquered. 

“To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.”[1]

Zechariah seemed to promise military victory, and to make it the path for God’s reign to be established once and for all.

“I will arouse your sons, O Zion,
   against your sons, O Greece,
   and wield you like a warrior’s sword. 

Then the Lord will appear over them,
   and his arrow go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the trumpet
   and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south.”
[Zechariah 9: 13b-14]

            But Jesus?  What about him?  The way he rode into town suggested he would be trying to fulfill Zechariah’s words.  Then, when he let his anger out later that week, he aimed it at his own countrymen.  He aimed it at the folks in the Temple who were providing the sacrificial animals that the Law said were needed.  He aimed it at the people who exchanged Roman coins for special ones that could be used in the Temple because they were free of any idolatrous pictures of the pagan gods or graven images of the Roman Emperor.  When he let his temper go, he overturned their tables and chased them out and made a disturbance about the place being one of prayer “for all people”. 


           His confusing behavior that Palm Sunday fit a wider pattern in his life.  He had spent three years wandering up and down the length of the occupied land, telling people that God, not Caesar, was in control, but also to love their enemies and pray for those who oppressed them.  He had a lot to say about forgiveness and nothing to say about preparations for war.  He healed the servant of a Roman centurion, and numbered among his inner circle both a Zealot (translate that “freedom fighter”) named Simon and a tax collector (read that “a collaborator”) named Levi.  It was as if he were trying to model for others how to put together some sort of group dedicated either to imploding on itself or to overcoming differences and to understanding the people they hate.  It’s as if he were forcing people to face one another, instead of leaving them alone to cultivate their resentments.

           Okay, so he didn’t take sides the way we expect a leader to take sides.  The least he could have done, though, would have been to stand up for himself.  On Thursday night, four days after his arrival in Jerusalem, he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when members of the Temple Guard arrived to arrest him.  Peter was prepared to protect him.  When I say, “prepared,” I mean that he was carrying a sword because, as we all know, concealed weapons keep people safe.  Peter pulled out the blade and sliced off the ear of a man who turned out to be a servant of the High Priest.  What did Jesus do?

“Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.”  [Luke 22:51]

How did he hope to bring the kingdom to reality without weapons, even without self-defense, and healing his enemies?

            Jesus’ way is to stand up to the whole world, with all its corruption and all its violence, with all the things that we take for granted as just the way things are. 

“No more of this!”

is what he says to the whole system, knowing full well that to do that is to invite it to do its worst, because it cannot allow that kind of challenge to pass.  Jesus lets it all take place.  He lets the world do its worst to him without fighting back, not because he is passive and unfeeling.  Far from it.  He felt it all, every last thorn in his scalp and every last whip on his back.  He felt the nails in his hands and the thirst that comes with the loss of blood.  He even felt the despair of wondering why God was not stepping in.

            He never lost the greater passion for doing God’s will, for saying,

“No more of this!”

meaning, “No more of this hatred!  No more of this sin!  No more torture and killing out of fear!  No more of the strong abusing the weak!  No more ‘might makes right’!  No more bringing desolation and calling it peace!”  And he hung there on the cross where we, with our ways, put him, and did not hate, did not sin, did not call on the army of the angels to destroy the human soldiers who mocked him and the worldly powers that worked together for his execution.  In that passionate rejection of all that is wrong, one great act of both judgment and pardon, God called a halt to the power of sin and broke its grip on human nature.  In Jesus’ loss would be a victory far greater than any other.  From the cross he cried,

“‘It is finished.’  Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” [John 19:30]



[1] Tacitus, Agricola, xxx. (Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.”).

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